Freakonomics ***

by STEVEN D. LEVITT & STEPHEN J. DUBNER

A book to discuss with people who agree with you

This book is built upon compelling idea: applying economics to politically volatile and/or interesting real-life situations. Steven and Stephen (but mostly Steven it seems. Stephen mostly contributes writing style, as far as I can tell) detect the cheaters in both Chicago teachers and Japanese sumo wrestlers — as well as looking at abortion’s effect on crime and how a “black-sounding” name might affect a person’s ability to find a high-paying job.

It’s an intriguing concept — fascinating to read and in many cases the principles of the book have practical applications in everyday life. (It is, after all, a book about economics.) But if there’s one thing the book is, it’s polarizing. While Freakonomics makes no moral judgments on its own, a discussion about the book is sure to bring any republican and democrat — or even real estate agent and homeowner — to blows within five minutes.

Which is what makes the book worth reading.

I’m no economist, and so I’m not going to get into whether I feel that there are large holes in his argument, though Steven and Stephen do seem to condense their information into a frozen orange juice can just a little too often. But upon reading the NY Times article at the back of the book (written by Dubner about Levitt), it is clear that most of the arguments in the book stem from in-depth economic papers that Levitt has turned out over the past decade or two. If the economic community hasn’t been able to nay-say his papers, then I’m fairly sure I don’t need to test the soundness of his arguments.

I make no such promises about the concept of the book, though. Steven and Stephen do, in fact, cover outrageous subjects, and they tell you right from the introduction: “This book has no such unifying theme.” They do offer a vague one, though: “Explore the hidden side of … everything.” But can everything can be summarized within the confines of

  1. Sumo wrestlers & teachers (or more charitably, cheating)
  2. The Ku Klux Klan & real estate agents (the power of information)
  3. Drug dealers (money distribution)
  4. Crime drops (abortion)
  5. Parenting (the black/white education gap)
  6. Parenting again (race and naming your kid)?

I’m not sure that such a list is really “everything” — or even approaching large enough subjects to claim to be. And if this isn’t about everything, then I’m not sure I just want to read about … well, whatever they decide to throw around the page. Steven and Stephen are putting out a spectacular ad for an interesting-but-not-all-encompassing work. In short, they are short-selling us like a pair of real-estate agents.

Then again, they do have a blog with the NY Times and a new sequel that came out in October. Maybe they’ve covered the rest of everything in volume two, Super Freakonomics. But something tells me they still have a way to go.

I wouldn’t want this book to be undersold either. It is the first resoundingly popular (and legitimately interesting) book about economics that’s come along in a while. Their reluctant theme is an overly ambitious one, but as Steven & Stephen continue to expand upon it, I’ll be eager and willing to listen.

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