I rather liked Freakonomics (I bought it because of the cover), except for two key reasons.
One, each chapter has relentless, almost odious self-aggrandizing and promotion.
Two, this book isn't about economics at all!
I'm surprised none of the newspaper articles I've read about this book have stipulated this. Before every chapter, there's a little excerpt hailing Levitt: "Levitt turns the world of economics upside down!" or "so talented" or "the most brilliant young economist in America" or "acknowledged as a master"...you get the idea
Second, I was wondering where the economics comes in. Freakonomics is all about statistical analysis and thinking. Levitt looks at numbers and comes up with conclusions that are different from most other people's - conclusions that are presented as correct (while others are woefully wrong and misled) and ingenious...
The thing is - the various conclusions Levitt `conjure' aren't really that surprising. They seem pretty logical - although one might say it's due to the Holmes-Watson effect.
But I'm not bashing Freakonomics - it's a great, smooth, easy read that explores several very interesting (although not necessarily novel) cultural phenomena. But this book qualifies for only 3 stars, for the two reasons stated above.
This is an excellent, very readable book by a couple of guys who like to go against the grain.
Steven D. Levitt is the economist who teaches at the prestigious University of Chicago school of economics, and Stephen J. Dubner is the talented wordsmith. They come off a little on the self-satisfied side here, but who can blame them? They have a surprise best seller in a new edition.
What really powered this book to national attention was their argument that the sharp nation-wide drop in crime starting in about 1990 was not due so much to having more cops on the beat, or smarter, better policing, or to having so many criminals in prison--as most of us thought--but instead the reason the crime rate dropped is that Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973!
Arguments about this unintended (to say the least) consequence of making abortion legal raged as soon as this book hit the stores (or maybe before) and are raging still. Personally, put me down among those who find the argument persuasive. But I don't want to rehash all that now. Instead let me point to some other topics in the book.
Most interesting is the chapter entitled "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" The authors tell the story of Sudhir Venkatesh who was working on a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago. He was sent to do some sociology in Chicago's poorest black neighborhoods and ended up spending several years learning about the crack business at the street level complete with--oh, how the economists loved this!--spiral notebooks with four years worth of the crack gang's financial transactions. Venkatesh discovered that the gang worked a lot like "most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald's." (p.Read more ›
This book, described as melding pop culture with economics, is a collection of economic articles written by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, translated into prose meant for a wide audience by New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt had already gained a reputation in academia for applying economic theory to diverse subjects not usually covered by "traditional" economists.
"Freakonomics" peaked at number two among nonfiction on the New York Times bestseller list and was named the 2006 Book Sense Book of the Year in the Adult Nonfiction category.
It became so popular that the other authors began to scrutinize "Freakonomics" in their new books. Currently, more than 18 books cite Freakonomics. For example, "Freedomnomics", a book is a book by John R. Lott, Jr. (author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns) takes an economic look at the effects of the free market, and presents some arguments against those found in "Freakonomics". Another example is presented by Ben Fine, author of "Marx's Capital" (2003), "The New Development Economics" (2005), "Social Capital Versus Social Theory" (2007), will release a new book in December 2008, entitled "From Political Economy to Freakonomics".
In "Freakonomics", the authors demonstrate the power of data mining. Many of their results emerge from Levitt's analysis of various databases, and his creativity in asking the right questions. But the book is somewhat oversimplified, because it is targeted to wide audience.
If you like the creativity in asking the right questions, the power to analyze the data, to think differently to popular beliefs, and if you don't like wide audience books, I would recommend "The Only Three Questions That Count" by Kenneth L. Fisher. Both books are essentially about the same, but "The Only Three Questions That Count" is deeper than "Freakonomics".
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This is not a book on economics but on the application of economic mathematical techniques to problems outside the normal field of economic analysis. The techniques are used to attempt to identify some cause and effect relationships in our culture.
The big one that has generated is his analysis that relates the passage of Roe v. Wade (the abortion case) to the big reduction in crime that's been seen in recent years. His analysis offends a lot of people, but for the most part the author just puts out the data as he sees it.
Other points that directly affect what our culture is doing involve the public education system:
One analysis of his says if you install standardized tests in school with a program to reward the teachers who do best, then you encourage teachers to cheat -- in some cases by directly altering the test sheets, as was the cause of a scandal in Chicago.
Another looks at what things (such as reading to them) help a kid in school. As with his other studies, the results are surprising.
This is a popular book, written somewhat to amuse and illustrate. It does not have the heavy mathematical analysis that you would expect in an economics book.
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