Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything - Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

I'd seen this book around but never really looked to see what it was about, and actually knew very little about it. It was picked for a book club but we didn't manage to get it from the library until later (book clubs that I don't attend seem to be one of my biggest source of book titles). So, in case you haven't heard: Levitt is a young economist who likes to shake things up and look at the world differently. What he does isn't what you're likely to think of when you hear "economics." Dubner is a writer for the New Yorker and New York Times, and after he did an article about Levitt for the New York Times Magazine in 2003, they wrote this book together (presumably with Levitt supplying most of the theories and ideas, and Dubner supplying the prose).

The combination works well; Dubner's writing reminds me a little of Malcolm Gladwell's, which takes complex ideas and explains them in easy-to-understand language. Freakonomics, however, does not have an underlying theme, and so you don't get the effect that Gladwell does by tying everything to One Big Theory. This book also does gloss over things that would make the book inaccessible to the average non-economics reader, such as regression analysis, but unless you're an economics expert you probably wouldn't really care to know more anyway.

The book hops from topic to topic, and the only connection I see is that in each case Levitt is generally tearing down conventional wisdom and replacing it with a different theory: swimming pools are more likely to kill your kid than a gun; campaign money has less of an effect on an election than you think; the drop in crime rates in the 1990s was mostly due to Roe v. Wade; real estate agents aren't really trying to get you the best price for your house. Some of his observations are easier to swallow than others, but all of it (assuming he's not simply lying about the data) is convincing.

Levitt doesn't generally make any suggestions about what to do with his results; he states more than once that "morality ... represents the way that people would like the world to work—whereas economics represents how it actually does work." So he presents his observations in a sort of moral vacuum: he's more concerned about whether or not something is true than whether or not it's good, and then leaves it up to you to consider the consequences.

It's a thought-provoking book that hopefully encourages people to make observations about the world around them and test conventional wisdom instead of just accepting it as fact. If you think economics is boring and dry, check out this book. But don't be surprised if you still find other economists boring and dry. We should all have a Stephen Dubner writing for us.

Fed to jonathan's brain | May 17, 2006 | Comments (0)


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