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Freakonomics (Levitt, Dubner)

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner, 2005
Harper Collins
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060731335


Summary  
Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much heralded scholar who studies the stuff and riddles of everyday life — from cheating and crime to sports and child rearing — and whose conclusions regularly turn the conventional wisdom on its head. He usually begins with a mountain of data and a simple, unasked question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics.

Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives — how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they set out to explore the hidden side of ... well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Ku Klux Klan.

What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and — if the right questions are asked — is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Steven Levitt, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, shows how to see through all the clutter.

Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world. (From the publisher.)



Author Bios 
Steven Levitt is a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and an editor of the Journal of Political Economy. In January 2004 he was awarded the John Bates Clark medal—for the economist under 40 who has made the greatest contribution to the discipline—by the American Economic Association.

Stephen J. Dubner is the author of Confessions of a Hero Worshiper and Turbulent Souls and is a former writer and editor at the New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York City with his family. (Author bios from the publisher.)



Book Reviews 
Economists can seem a little arrogant at times. They have a set of techniques and habits of thought that they regard as more ''rigorous'' than those of other social scientists. When they are successful — one thinks of Amartya Sen's important work on the causes of famines, or Gary Becker's theory of marriage and rational behavior — the result gets called economics. It might appear presumptuous of Steven Levitt to see himself as an all-purpose intellectual detective, fit to take on whatever puzzle of human behavior grabs his fancy. But on the evidence of Freakonomics, the presumption is earned.
Jim Holt - New York Times


Levitt (economics, U. of Chicago) and writing collaborator Dubner (a writer for the New York Times and The New Yorker) dub the material in this work "freakonomics" because Levitt uses analytical tools from economics to address a range of questions that, at first glance, might seem to be far removed from the discipline of the "dismal science." They consider questions such as how to determine if teachers are aiding in students' cheating on standardized tests, the impact of information asymmetry on the operation of the Ku Klux Klan, how the organizational structure of crack gangs resemble other businesses, and the influence of parents on child development.
Book News


(Starred review.) Forget your image of an economist as a crusty professor worried about fluctuating interest rates: Levitt focuses his attention on more intimate real-world issues, like whether reading to your baby will make her a better student. Recognition by fellow economists as one of the best young minds in his field led to a profile in the New York Times, written by Dubner, and that original article serves as a broad outline for an expanded look at Levitt's search for the hidden incentives behind all sorts of behavior. There isn't really a grand theory of everything here, except perhaps the suggestion that self-styled experts have a vested interest in promoting conventional wisdom even when it's wrong. Instead, Dubner and Levitt deconstruct everything from the organizational structure of drug-dealing gangs to baby-naming patterns. While some chapters might seem frivolous, others touch on more serious issues, including a detailed look at Levitt's controversial linkage between the legalization of abortion and a reduced crime rate two decades later. Underlying all these research subjects is a belief that complex phenomena can be understood if we find the right perspective. Levitt has a knack for making that principle relevant to our daily lives, which could make this book a hit. Malcolm Gladwell blurbs that Levitt "has the most interesting mind in America," an invitation Gladwell's own substantial fan base will find hard to resist.
Publishers Weekly


Economist Levitt and Dubner (Turbulent Souls) team up in this intriguing, quirky look at life and how to understand better the world in a new way. In 2003, the New York Times Magazine sent Dubner to do a profile of Levitt, and the idea for this book was born. Levitt looks at a variety of data, including KKK membership rolls, online dating services, and names for children, and finds in the math underlying answers to difficult questions that have a freakish quality. The quirky chapters include the commonality between schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers, why drug dealers still live with their mothers, and what makes a perfect parent. The crisp, bright narration by Dubner enlivens this title, which will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point as well as to economists. Recommended for university libraries supporting a business and economics curriculum and larger public libraries. —Dale Farris, Groves, TX.
Library Journal


Why do drug dealers live at home? Levitt (Economics/Univ. of Chicago) and Dubner (Confessions of a Hero Worshiper, 2003, etc.), who profiled Levitt for the New York Times, team up to demolish conventional wisdom. To call Levitt a "rogue economist" may be a tad hyperbolic. Certainly this epitome of antistyle ("his appearance is High Nerd: a plaid button-down shirt, nondescript khakis and a braided belt, brown sensible shoes") views the workaday world with different eyes; the young economist teases out meaning from juxtapositions that simply would not occur to other researchers. Consider this, for instance: in the mid-1990s, just when the Clinton administration projected it was about to skyrocket, crime in the U.S. fell markedly. And why? Because, Levitt hazarded a few years ago, of the emergent effects of the Roe v. Wade decision: legalized abortion prevented the births of millions of poor people who, beset by social adversity, were "much more likely than average to become criminals." The suggestion, Dubner writes, "managed to offend just about everyone," conservative and liberal alike, but it had high explanatory value. Levitt hasn't shied away from controversy in other realms, either, preferring to let the numbers speak for themselves: a young man named Jake will earn more job interviews than one with the same credentials named DeShawn; the TV game show The Weakest Link, like society as a whole, discriminates against the elderly and Hispanics; it is human nature to cheat, and the higher up in the organization a person rises, the more likely it is that he or she will cheat. Oh, yes, and street-level drug dealers live at home with their moms because they have to; most earn well belowminimum wage but accept the bad pay and dangerous conditions to get a shot at the big time, playing in what in effect is a tournament. "A crack gang works pretty much like the standard capitalist enterprise," Levitt and Dubner write, "you have to be near the top of the pyramid to make a big wage." An eye-opening, and most interesting, approach to the world.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Most people think of economics as a dry subject matter concerning monetary and fiscal matters. How does Freakonomics change this definition?

2. Freakonomics argues that morality represent the way we'd like the world to work, whereas economics can show how the world really does work. Do you agree?

3. Freakonomics lists three varieties of incentives: social, moral, and financial. Can you think of others?

4. Freakonomics shows how the conventional wisdom is often shoddily formed. What are some instances of conventional wisdom that you've always doubted?

5. Does it seem as though "experts" truly hold too much power in the modern world, or are we lucky to have them?

6 .What are some issues in your daily life toward which you can apply some Freakonomics-style thinking?

7. What were some of the most convincing arguments put forth in Freakonomics? What were some of the least convincing?

8. How does the argument linking Roe v. Wade to a drop in crime change your thinking about abortion?

9. How does the view of parenting in Freakonomics jibe with your own view?

10. After reading Freakonomics, do you think that cheating is more prevalent or less prevalent than you thought it was before you read the book?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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