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Thus Spake Dustin

I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.


Review of Freakonomics

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

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York: William Morrow, 2005). Pp. 242. Hardcover $25.95.


Last week I participated in Dubuque's 'Circles Initiative,' which is part of their 'Bridges Out of Poverty' program. During the program we watched Robert Reich's Inequality for All. I found this documentary very fascinating and it led me to my local library to do more research. I ended up reading Robert Reich's Beyond Outrage, and Bill Clinton's Back to Work. As I was discussing these books with a friend, he suggested - and ultimately loaned - Freakonomics to me.


The premise of the book is that Steven Levitt is an economist who is uninterested in doing traditional economics, especially the kind that involves mathematics. (I don't blame him.) He is, however, good at asking nontraditional, yet very interesting, questions that economics can help answer. In this respect, he has found his niche and had done very well for himself.

Apparently, Levitt was approached to write this book, but, being a nontraditional economist, he was uninterested in writing. Why write when you can continue to ask and research fascinating questions? Nonetheless, Levitt remembered being interviewed by a journalist named Stephen Dubner, and he liked the resulting article that Dubner had written. So, a partnership was born, and this book was written.


From the very beginning they both insist that this book really doesn't have a unifying theme (e.g., pg. 14, pg. 205). Instead, they argue, it is simply a book of questions that Levitt has asked - or has had asked of him - in which economics had the answers. (Is this the Seinfeld of books - something about 'nothing'?) I'm not sure I'm convinced.


In the introduction they mention that there are a few fundamental ideas with economics: 1) Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life; 2) The conventional wisdom is often wrong; 3) Dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes; 4) 'Experts' - from criminologists to real-estate agents - use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda; and 5) Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so. I would argue that the book is essentially a large proof for these assumptions.


These proofs, as I found out, come in the form of simple questions; but the explanations of the answers will simply amaze you. For example, who knew that drug dealers live with their mothers because their world is structured as other big businesses (such as Wal-Mart), and the average 'worker,' albeit illegal, makes less than minimum wage? Who knew that real-estate agents are more interested in selling your house quickly, rather than letting it set on the market for a few weeks more to get a higher price (the extra amount of money is only a few hundred dollars in their pocket, and it isn't worth the extra effort on their part)? Who knew that the Superman radio show made the KKK look ridiculous, thus affecting their membership? Who knew that beginning of abortion in America would lead to less crime because it shrank the population of those who lived in poverty - those who would have been committing the crimes? And so on.

In short, this is a recommended read. It won't be a waste of time.