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.
(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.
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.
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.
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