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Introducing the SuperFreakonomics Virtual Book Club: Meet Emily Oster

Welcome to the first installment of the SuperFreakonomics Book Club. We know you’re all busy, and scattered around the globe too. So it wouldn’t be convenient for all of us to regularly gather in someone’s living room and talk about the book while sharing bean dip. So let’s harness this Internet thingy and try something different.
The idea is simple. We’ll start at the beginning of the book and work our way to the end, each week giving you a chance to ask questions or leave comments for some of the researchers and other people we write about in SuperFreakonomics. As with our regular reader-generated Q&A’s, we’ll gather questions for a couple of days and then post the answers in short order.
Over the coming months, we hope to feature some or all of the following: Sudhir Venkatesh, discussing his research on street prostitution in Chicago; Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz, on the persistent wage gap between men and women; Allie, the high-end call girl you’ve heard from once before; Craig Feied, the physician and technologist who has some radical ideas about fixing hospitals; Ian Horsley, a fraud hunter with a British bank who put his skills to use trying to find prospective terrorists; Joe DeMay, an amateur historian who offers a very different take on the legendary Kitty Genovese murder; John List, the master of experimental economics, both inside and outside of the lab; Nathan Myhrvold and his merry band of scientists, who are cooking up solutions to stop hurricanes, create cleaner energy, and thwart global warming; and Keith Chen, who helped teach monkeys to use money, with some surprising results. (If you have ideas for other people/topics, please send them along here.)
Let’s start today with the book’s introduction. Here is the Table of Contents for that section:

Introduction: Putting the Freak in Economics

In which the global financial meltdown is entirely ignored in favor of more engaging topics.
The perils of walking drunk … The unlikely savior of Indian women … Drowning in horse manure … What is “freakonomics,” anyway? … Toothless sharks and bloodthirsty elephants … Things you always thought you knew but didn’t.


Our first guest is Emily Oster, an economist at the University of Chicago whose research, co-authored with Robert Jensen, forms the basis of the “unlikely savior of Indian women” section of the book. (Here’s a PDF of the paper and here’s a writeup; their work has appeared on this blog before, Oster’s here and Jensen’s here.) Some highlights from our text:

A baby Indian girl who does grow into adulthood [i.e., who doesn’t fall prey to selective abortion or infanticide] faces inequality at nearly every turn. She will earn less money than a man, receive worse health care and less education, and perhaps be subjected to daily atrocities. In a national health survey, 51 percent of Indian men said that wife-beating is justified under certain circumstances; more surprisingly, 54 percent of women agreed — if, for instance, a wife burns dinner or leaves the house without permission.


Unfortunately, most [government and non-government aid] projects have proven complicated, costly, and, at best, nominally successful. A different sort of intervention, meanwhile, does seem to have helped. … It was called television.


Rural Indian families who got cable TV began to have a lower birthrate than families without TV. (In a country like India, a lower birthrate generally means more autonomy for women and fewer health risks.) Families with TV were also more likely to keep their daughters in school, which suggests that girls were seen as more valuable, or at least deserving of equal treatment. (The enrollment rate for boys, notably, didn’t change.) … It appears that cable TV really did empower the women of rural India, even to the point of no longer tolerating domestic abuse. Or maybe their husbands were just too busy watching cricket.

Please leave your questions for Emily Oster in the comments section and we’ll publish her replies shortly. Thanks especially to Emily and Rob, and to all of your for participating.