Sep 1, 2008

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

What this book is about is stripping a layer or two from the surface of modern life and seeing what is happening underneath. We will ask a lot of questions, some frivolous, some about life-and-death issues. The answers might often seem odd, but also, after the fact, rather obvious. We will seek out these answers in the data—whether those data come in the form of schoolchildren’s test scores or New York City’s crime statistics or a crack dealer’s financial records.
From the Introduction

How do I even begin to describe Freakonomics? According to the subtitle, it's a book in which "a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything". But what exactly does this mean? I never thought of myself as being particularly interested in economics, but, as Terry Pratchett so cleverly demonstrates in Making Money, economics is also about what people want, how they act, and why. And that is definitely something I’m interested in.

A lot of Freakonomics reminded me of my days of studying social psychology. This book approaches all sorts of interesting questions – do unusual names or distinctively black names carry a socioeconomic penalty? Is there a relationship between abortion and crime? Are crack dealers actually making a lot of money? And if not, why choose such a dangerous (not to mention illegal) occupation? Do teachers help their students cheat? How can we know for sure?

And this is only the beginning, really. Some of the answers the authors arrive were easy to guess. For example, parents who name their children Temptress and Shithead (I kid you not) are not likely to invest in their education or provide them with a good environment in which to grow up, and it’s this, not the names themselves, that makes it hard for them to do well. Others were initially surprising, but, like promised, make perfect sense once you think about them. For example, a study done in Israeli daycare centres showed that parents were more likely to be late picking up their children after a $3 fine for each late arrival was implemented. This was because the fine legitimized the late pick-ups. Because they were paying for it, the parents felt that they were entitled to arrive late.

I like the way Levitt and Dubner deconstruct many things that are widely accepted as being true. And I find their willingness to speculate and ask all sorts of questions refreshing. For a moment, they put aside the ethical, ideological and political implications of their conjectures, and they manage to do this without ever denying that these exist. They just don’t ever say “let’s not go there”. They ask the questions first, and then try to contextualize the answers.

I guess the book can be a tiny bit repetitive at times, especially when it comes to explaining things that you are taught in Research Methodology 101 over and over again ("correlation is not necessarily cause", for example). But this is really not something I ought to be complaining about, as it’s exactly this clarity and simplicity that makes the book so accessible for people of all sorts of different backgrounds.

I was happy to discover that my edition of the book contained over 80 pages of bonus material – an article by Dubner about Steven D. Levitt written for the New York Times Magazine in 2003 (which was the start of their collaboration), the Freakonomics columns published in the same magazine between August 2005 and April 2006, and excerpts from the Freakonomics blog (which contain reactions to the book, among other things).

Freakonomics was a much faster read than I expected, and it was much more entertaining than I thought a book with the word “economics” in its title could ever be. Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to read this book.

Other Blog Reviews:
Age 30 - A Year of Books
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  1. This sounds like a book for Alex, I will put it on my list for Christmas presents for him thanks!

  2. Cool, this sounds like something for me!

  3. That sounds really interesting! I've never read much economics stuff, but it sounds like this would be a good place to start. Thanks for the review. :)

  4. Yay Nymeth! I'm so glad you liked it.

  5. This book has been on my shelf for so long it's bordering on ridiculous. Who am I kidding? It is ridiculous. I really should get to it. Everyone always has such good things to say about it!

  6. I would never consider a book about economics to be interesting, but this one certainly sounds so. (And I did like The Tipping Point, which is kind of similar, it appears).

  7. My husband really liked this book--but he bookcrossed it before I got a chance to read it. (or maybe I told him to go ahead, 'cause he'd read so much of it out loud to me anyway...)

  8. Economics is fascinating but I don't pretend to understand it at all. My husband and I have conversations where I talk at him about books and all things literary and he talks at me about business, finance, and economics. We try to understand each other but it doesn't always work out that way. :) I've been curious about this book--as well as the book The World is Flat (not sure if they correlate at all other than the fact that they were both on the shelf at the same time), and I'm glad to hear that you found this book so readable! Maybe I could learn a thing or two from the book and actually have an intelligent conversation with hubby. :)

  9. A little confession: I was a little surprised to see "Freakonomics" being reviewed here. Probably because I expect its audience to be the type who reads "Tipping Point", "Black Swan" and stuff like that.

    But the moment you explain the Pratchett angle, I can understand why the book would intrigue, because at the end of it all, we read because we're interested in how people think, how they behave and why they do the things they do.

    But oh yeah - parents who would name their children "Shithead" really don't care. :)

  10. This post sums up what I feel about the entire book altogether so I won't have to reread it and then review it :) Kidding. Well said Nymeth!

    I was never a person inclined to numbers so I was hesitant to pick this up way back but a dear friend pushed me to read it and I was glad I did. The questions posed by the economists were interesting, the studies done moreso. Heck, they made economics interesting for me!

    On another note, I found it baffling that an economist friend of mine didn't like the book. Then again, both Levitt and Dubner were "rogue" economists so maybe that's that :)

  11. I LOVED this book. I'm still not sure I believe everything they said, but it's so interesting to think about.

  12. Rhinoa: I hope he enjoys it! I'm not sure if you remember, but Nick Hornby mentions that he enjoyed this one in the Spree, which is always a plus.

    Joanna, I hope you enjoy it too :)

    Court: It's really not about economics in a traditional sense. Give it a try!

    Tricia: Thanks again for helping dispell my preconcived notions about this one :)

    J.S. Peyton: Pick it up! It's a much faster read than I expected.

    Jeane: I haven't read The Tipping Point, but I've heard comparisons before.

    Jena: I hope you get another chance to read it someday. And I kept reading bits aloud to my boyfriend as well.

    Trish: The great thing about this book is that it's completely acessible to people who know nothing about economics, such as myself. I learned all sorts of neat things from it and I bet you would too!

    Dark Orpheus: Even I was surprised :P A few months ago I would never have thought I'd read this book someday. In fact, I said I never would, and Tricia changed my mind exactly by pointing out that it was about people, really.

    Lightheaded: Yep, maybe your friend disliked it exactly because he understands economics :P

    Jessica: I'm not sure if I do either, but nevertheless considering their ideas was so interesting!

  13. Great review, Nymeth! I keep seeing this book at the bookstores and because I rarely read non-fictions, I didn't give it any thought. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

  14. Ooh I love social psychology, this one does sound interesting. I love learning about why people do the things they do!

  15. Thanks for linking me up. I'm glad that you enjoyed this one - I found it fascinating.

  16. I've had this on my wish list ever since Tricia over at book blogs recommended it. I keep hoping that it will come out in paperback one of these days. And it always seems to be checked out of the library. You've got me re-excited about getting my hands on it now...guess I should put it on hold.

  17. Yet another time one of your reviews has sent me to pull a volume from the bottom of my tbr pile...Sh*thead and Temptress, really?

  18. Melody: I started reading a lot more non-fiction than I used to this year, and so far it's been great. I discovered some gems :)

    Kim: I think you'd really enjoy this one!

    Heather, you're welcome :) I did too.

    Debi: I hope you manage to get it from the library! I think you'd find it as interesting and enjoyable as I did.

    Ken: lol, really. Those poor kids. I bet they changed their names as soon as they turned 18.

  19. I'm going to have to dig this out of my TBR pile, Nymeth. Great review. I've read Blink and I like it. I think it's going to be the same for this one as well, from the look of your review. :D

  20. I really enjoyed Freakonomics -- it was both thought-provoking and a lot of fun. And a bit daring at times, but not in a way that was offensive. I'm all for rogue economists! I'll be checking out their blog for certain.

    Someone else mentioned Blink, which I also enjoyed a lot. That book keeps popping up in mind, along the lines of "I/my husband/that person over there just had a Blink moment." We've been listening to "The World is Flat" in bits & pieces, which is interesting but not in the same kind of fun way. It's a very different book, I think.

    Excellent review.

  21. I'm really not much of a non-fiction reader but this book is one I'd like to read. I didn't realize they had a blog - I'm off to check that out. Thanks Nymeth!

  22. Hi Alice! I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did. I hadn't heard of Blink before, so I'll look for that!

    Pardon my french: Yes, I thought so too. Daring but not outrageous, and a lot of fun. And thanks for the recommendations, I'll look those up.

    Iliana: I hope you enjoy it :)

  23. *sigh* I've missed you. I've missed your amazing book reviews that can make economics books sound interesting and fun so that all of us non-fiction avoiders suddenly want to have a look at it!!! Welcome back from your wonderful long holiday! And I guess I'll be reserving this one at the library. I have to read about people who actually wanted to pay the late fee! In 4 years, my husband and I were never late once to pick our kids up at daycare - it was a $20 fee for the first 5 minutes late, and then $20 more each 15 min segment. Three times late and the child was not allowed back at the daycare. I wonder what Freakonomics would make of that??? so yes, you have me interested! great review, Nymeth!!!

  24. Aww Susan, you're too sweet. The situation you're describing actually fits the theory in Freakonomics. See, in the Israeli daycare centres, the fine was only $3 a day, regardless of how late you were. When they implemented it, they removed the social penalty associated with late pickups (the parents no longer felt they were doing something disrespectful, but rather that they exercising their right to arrive late) and didn't replace it with a heavy enough economic penalty to discourage parents. But $20 plus $20 plus not allowing children back is definitely severe enough to dissuade people.
    I think you'd enjoy this book. Do pick it up if you have a chance :)


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