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Excerpt: 'SuperFreakonomics'

From the Introduction: "Putting the freak in economics"

When the world was lurching into the modern era, it grew magnificently more populous, and in a hurry. Most of this expansion took place in urban centers like London, Paris, New York, and Chicago. In the U.S. alone, cities grew by 30 million residents during the 19th century, with half of that gain in just the final 20 years.

But as this swarm of humanity moved itself, and its goods, from place to place, a problem emerged. The main mode of transportation produced a slew of the byproducts that economists call negative externalities, including gridlock, high insurance costs, and far too many traffic fatalities. Crops that would have landed on a family's dinner table were sometimes converted into fuel, driving up food prices and causing shortages. Then there were the air pollutants and toxic emissions, endangering the environment as well as individuals' health.

We are talking about the automobile — aren't we?

No, we're not. We are talking about the horse.

The horse, a versatile and powerful helpmate since the days of antiquity, was put to work in many ways as modern cities expanded: pulling streetcars and private coaches, hauling construction materials, unloading freight from ships and trains, even powering the machines that churned out furniture, rope, beer, and clothing. If your young daughter took gravely ill, the doctor rushed to your home on horseback. When a fire broke out, a team of horses charged through the streets with a pumping truck. At the turn of the 20th century, some 200,000 horses lived and worked in New York City, or 1 for every 17 people.

But oh, the troubles they caused!

Horse-drawn wagons clogged the streets terribly, and when a horse broke down, it was often put to death on the spot. This caused further delays. Many stable owners held life-insurance policies which, to guard against fraud, stipulated that the animal be euthanized by a third party. This meant waiting for the police, a veterinarian, or the A.S.P.C.A. to arrive. Even death didn't end the gridlock. "Dead horses were extremely unwieldy," writes the transportation scholar Eric Morris. "As a result, street cleaners often waited for the corpses to putrefy so they could more easily be sawed into pieces and carted off."

The noise from iron wagon wheels and horseshoes was so disturbing, it purportedly caused widespread nervous disorders.

From SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Published by William Morrow. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner