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Book Summary: Superfreakonomics Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

Authors: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Substory: How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa

It would be hard to overemphasize how undesirable it is to be a street prostitute—the degradation, the risk of disease, the nearly constant threat of violence.

Nowhere were the conditions as bad as in Washington Park, the third neighborhood in Venkatesh’s study, which lies about six miles north of Roseland and West Pullman. It is more economically depressed and less accessible to outsiders, especially whites. The prostitution is centered around four locations: two large apartment buildings, a five-block stretch of busy commercial street, and in the park itself, a 372-acre landmark designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The prostitutes in Washington Park work without pimps, and they earn the lowest wages of any prostitutes in Venkatesh’s study.

This might lead you to think that such women would rather be doing anything else but turning tricks. But one feature of a market economy is that prices tend to find a level whereby even the worst conceivable job is worth doing. As bad off as these women are, they would seem to be worse off without prostitution.

Sound absurd?

The strongest evidence for this argument comes from an unlikely source: the long-loved American tradition known as the family reunion. Every summer around the Fourth of July holiday, Washington Park is thronged with families and other large groups who get together for cookouts and parties. For some of these visitors, catching up with Aunt Ida over lemonade isn’t quite stimulating enough. It turns out that the demand for prostitutes in Washington Park skyrockets every year during this period.

And the prostitutes do what any good entrepreneur would do: they raise prices by about 30 percent and work as much overtime as they can handle.

Most interestingly, this surge in demand attracts a special kind of worker—a woman who steers clear of prostitution all year long but, during this busy season, drops her other work and starts turning tricks. Most of these part-time prostitutes have children and take care of their households; they aren’t drug addicts. But like prospectors at a gold rush or Realtors during a housing boom, they see the chance to cash in and jump at it.

As for the question posed in this chapter’s title—How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?—the answer should be obvious: they both take advantage of short-term job opportunities brought about by holiday spikes in demand.