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

Taken from The New York Times & About.com

A Few years ago, a young economist named Steven D. Levitt became briefly notorious for collaborating on a research paper that contained a strikingly novel thesis: abortion curbs crime. What Levitt and his co-author claimed, specifically, was that the sharp drop in the United States crime rate during the 1990's -- commonly attributed to factors like better policing, stiffer gun laws and an aging population -- was in fact largely due to the Roe v. Wade decision two decades earlier. The logic was simple: unwanted children are more likely to grow up to become criminals; legalized abortion leads to less unwantedness; therefore, abortion leads to less crime. This conclusion managed to offend nearly everyone. Conservatives were outraged that abortion was seemingly being promoted as a solution to crime. Liberals detected a whiff of racist eugenics. Besides, what business did this callow economist have trespassing on the territory of the criminologist? Economics is supposed to be about price elasticities and interest rates and diminishing marginal utilities, not abortion and crime. That is what makes it so useful to undergraduates seeking relief from insomnia. 

Levitt has strayed far from the customary paddock of the dismal science in search of interesting problems. How do parents of different races and classes choose names for their children? What sort of contestants on the TV show ''The Weakest Link'' are most likely to be discriminated against by their fellow contestants? If crack dealers make so much money, why do they live with their moms? Such everyday riddles are fair game for the economist, Levitt contends, because their solution involves understanding how people react to incentives. His peers seem to agree. In 2003, Levitt was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, bestowed every two years on the most accomplished American economist under 40. 

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner is an easy, interesting book, even for people who do not usually like nonfiction or economics. Levitt addresses a number of questions in Freakonomics and uses straight-forward analysis to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Freakonomics will give you plenty to talk about, but is not an in depth analysis of the issues presented.


Pros

  • Freakonomics is easy to read and understand
  • Interesting subjects covered in accessible way
  • Plenty of cocktail party conversation starters

Cons

  • Very little methodology included in Freakonomics
  • Not much new content since New York Times Magazine article
Freakonomics started as a New York Times Magazine article in 2003. Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist for The New York Times, was assigned to write a profile of economist Steven D. Levitt. Levitt and Dubner hit it off, and thousands of New York Times readers also felt a connection. Readers responded to the content of the article, which talked about the unique questions Levitt was finding answers to by applying economic analysis to problems. The appeal of Freakonomics lies not in the answers it gives, but in the revelation that answers exist and can be discovered if only we know the right questions to ask. To update the discussion on related topics, you may visit the blog and follow the twitter account.

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