Superfreakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner: The last chapter is not even about an economist – it's devoted to the story of Nathan Myhrvold, who thinks that global warming can be solved by pumping sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to replicate the cooling effects of volcano eruptions. The interesting economic questions here, and the ones you'd expect to engage Levitt, are to do with the unintended side-effects of such a proposal and how it may skew incentives. But, instead, we just get a breathless account of what a ballsy, quirky, out-of-the-box sort of guy Myhrvold is.
If the Freakonomics brand has been reduced to telling stories about people like this, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Malcolm Gladwell does it better (for one thing, he might have been a bit more sceptical). Earlier on, Levitt and Dubner are reduced to telling a story that Gladwell already has told far better in his recent book, Outliers, about why people born early in the year are more likely to succeed at sports. In a footnote, they admit they had planned a whole chapter on this, until Gladwell and others got there first. But the fact they still include a few pages rather than cutting it altogether suggests they didn't really have enough fresh material for a second book after all.
Superfreakonomics is not a bad book, but it's not a patch on the first – it has very little of the charm or the originality. Yet in their rather smug preface, the authors say that they believe the second book "is easily better than the first". Can they really think this? Maybe not; after all, as economists they tell us they are fully attuned to the difference between declared preferences (what people say they think) and revealed preferences (what it turns out they really think).
But it's possible that the success of the first book has gone to their heads. That book was the product of creative tension; they admit they first encountered each other in a mood of mutual suspicion, each wondering what the other had to offer. This one seems to have been more of a love-in (in the acknowledgments, Levitt calls Dubner "a brilliant writer and creative genius" and Dubner calls Levitt "a great collaborator and wonderful economics teacher"). A bit more suspicion would not have gone amiss.
It says something that the real puzzle this book leaves you with is wondering about the skewed incentives that led two such talented people to write a book that does so little justice to those talents. Maybe that should be a subject for a third book, if there is one.