The 1970s were not just a decade of sex, drugs, flares, bad hair and crap music. They were also the decade when a spate of Hollywood disaster movies dominated the box office. It was kicked off by Airport in 1970, with the US box office gross coming second after the pap that was Love Story. So Hollywood decided to make more of the same, as it does. Irwen Allen's 1972 movie The Poseidon Adventure was also a big success, with grosses second only to The Godfather. In 1974, Allen's The Towering Inferno topped the box office, as did Spielberg's Jaws the following year.
But the expensive and much-heralded King Kong in 1976 was less succesful. Then in 1977 along came Spielberg's second big hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By then the disaster genre had lost its mojo. Allen's 1978 The Swarm was a flop. There were also plenty of sequels. Jaws spawned three, but they failed to match the success of the original - as did the 1979 movie Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.
I was musing about Airport and its progeny recently while waiting for my flight in an Eastern European airport. I had spied yet another translation of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything in the airport kiosk. It is now as ubiquitous as the Harry Potter series.
Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor - and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! is likewise being given the hard sell by publishers, and is as frequently to be found as Levitt and Dubner, at least in Europe. According to Tim's website, it is "now available in paperback and in 21 languages worldwide."
So, like Hollywood in the seventies, can we expect a spate of 'pop economics' books? I fear so. As Fast Company revealed in November 2005, there will be a sequel:
Conventional wisdom says there's more to come. Dubner says, "We're working on another book: 'Superfreakonomics.' "
And let's not forget Robert Frank's The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas, nor Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting and Motivate Your Dentist.
Indeed, one wonders how many other academic economists are toiling away right now on their own populist tome? While most must surely realise they cannot hope to replicate Levitt and Dubner's unexpected success, fame and greed are strong motivators. To quote the Fast Company piece again:
Suzanne Gluck, Levitt and Dubner's agent, says Freakonomics hasn't just inspired other numbers books. "People are pitching everything from 'The Medical Freakonomics' to 'The Freakonomics of Parenting,' " she says. "They're using freakonomics as a code word for unconventional wisdom."
I can't wait.
But let's heed the lessons I take from Hollywood in the 1970s:
1. The first few big hits are probably going to be the best.
2. Sequals usually disappoint, both artistically and at the box office (did anyone actually watch Jaws 4?).
3. Nothing lasts forever. The novelty wears off and something else takes off.
Though I doubt that Superfreakonomics will top its predecessor, this fad is not over just yet. Until then, we can look forward to quite a few more pop economics works with
crass bright, eye-catching covers and very long silly titles.
Lest I sound curmudgeonly, I confess that I have by and large enjoyed reading these books. And who ever thought economics would ever be this hip? In the past when I told people at a party I was an economist either their eyes glazed over or they accused me of being uncaring, kick-the-poor, tax cutting ideologue (or worse). These days they are more likely to ask me what I think of Freakonomics. Now that's progress...
* The 'jump the shark' moment willl probably be when a quite senior and serious orthodox economist manages to write something so execrably that it takes many years to restore their reputation. Someone from the Chicago School, perhaps?