Book Review: Freakonomics (rabble.ca, May 30, 2006)

BOOK REVIEW

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

(HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005; $34.95)

by Gillian Burnett

If you’ve been living under a marketing-free rock for the last year, you might have missed the juggernaut of hype that attended the publication of Freakonomics, a collaboration between rock-star economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times writer Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt teaches at the University of Chicago and was recently awarded the John Bates Clark medal, which is given every couple of years to the best American economist under the age of 40. Notably, about half of those who’ve received it have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

If that tidbit makes you want to yawn, resist the urge. Freakonomics is as compelling as The Da Vinci Code, only it’s based on fact. Its backbone is a series of disparate economic case studies, each of which reveals a surprising truth — for example, that swimming pools are 100 times more dangerous than guns for the average U.S. child — or challenges received wisdom, such as the assumption that drug-dealing is more lucrative than a McJob.

Levitt is the sworn enemy of conventional, lazy thinking, pointing out that just because two pieces of information are correlated does not mean they have a causal relationship.

There is no unifying theme here, a problem not entirely solved by the co-authors’ open acknowledgment of that absence. And even though Levitt’s conclusions are sometimes explosive — he asserts, for instance, that legalized abortion is the single factor most responsible for the recent dramatic drop in U.S. crime rates — he ducks controversy with his just-the-facts-ma’am approach. The book’s title was clearly chosen more for its marketability than its aptness: there’s nothing freaky about any of this stuff. But it captures the spirit of his inquiries, which are full of brilliant deduction and a disarming curiosity about what drives people to do things.

On the topic of economics, I’m not sure that 200 pages of well-spaced, large type for $34.95 qualifies as a good investment, especially in a book that boldly claims to deal with Everything. Freakonomics reads like what it is — a beefed-up version of a piece Dubner wrote in 2003 for The New York Times Magazine. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the article, which lends the book a strange self-referential quality and a faux structure that tries to mitigate the book’s formlessness.

But if you can beg or borrow a copy, it’s arguably the most fun you’ll ever have reading about microeconomics, which is, at root, the stuff of life.

Of course, Levitt and Dubner are not the first to try to make their subject accessible to the masses. A quick search reveals such (less catchily titled efforts) as The Armchair Economist: Economics of Everyday Experience (Steven E. Landsburg), The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life (Gary S. Becker), and Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (David D. Friedman).

I wonder what Levitt would have to say about the correlation between economists, middle initials, and lengthy subtitles.

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