26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2008
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".
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
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. 89) The drug dealers still lived at home with their moms because most of them were making less than minimum wage. Why do a dangerous job for such low pay? Answer: like basketball dreams, the upside potential and the glamour of it! The middle level manager, "J.T.," a university educated dude, was making tax-free about $100,000 a year while the gang board of directors each earned about half a mil per. After J.T. reached his level of incompetence as a member of the board of directors, the gang got busted and he went to jail.
Also fascinating is the information on the socioeconomic and racial status of parents as revealed by their choices in first names for their children. Whitest girls names: Molly, Amy, Claire, Emily... Blackest girls names, Imani, Ebony, Shanice, Aaliyah, Precious... Most common names given to girls of high-education parents: Katherine, Emma, Alexandra, Julia... Boys: Benjamin, Samuel, Alexander, John, William... Low education boys names: Cody, Travis, Brandon, Justin...
But it'll change, as Messrs. Levitt and Dubner explain. Names go in and out of fashion and sometimes come back in. "Susan" was the most popular girls name in 1960. It didn't make the top ten in 2000. "Emily" led the list followed by Hannah, Madison, Sarah...
Interesting is the tale of Robert Lane who named one of his kids "Winner" and another "Loser." Winner Lane went on to become one of life's losers, and Loser Lane (called "Lou" by his friends) graduated from Lafayette College, Pa. and went on to become a police sergeant in New York City. So much for the effect of names--or maybe it's like "a boy named Sue": you overcome your name or you fail to live up to it.
There's a chapter on parenting that also raised some eyebrows, but again I think our clever authors got it right. Basically parenting skills are overrated. What really counts is who your parents are, not so much whether they read a lot to you or bought you Einstein tapes or even if they sent you to Head Start. In the "nature vs. nurture" debate, clearly nature is in the ascendancy.
This, the revised and expanded edition contains a New York Times Magazine article about Levitt written by Dubner before this collaboration, seven columns from the New York Time Magazine, and some entries from the Freakonomics blog on the Web.
Bottom line: an irresistible read and a book biz phenomenon.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2006
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.
54 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2007
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2007
This is a great work in social science. I am a political scientist, and I encourage my graduate students to read this book for my Research Methods course. The book nearly functions as a wonderful textbook on how do conduct studies in social science. For example, the review of Levitt's work on crime and abortion is both brilliant and methodically explained - beginning with a good, creative theory, followed a comparison of alternative explanations for the decline of the crime rate, a rational and clear-headed data-driven analysis, and a solid conclusion. I will say that they perhaps make too much of what amounts to finding one more statistically significant independent variable, but their ability to explain the social science method in a way that is clear and interesting to the larger public is, to say the least, enviable (at least for those of us who are academics). There are a few problems. First, one must notice that much of the "rogue" ideas they explore are really summaries of past research in other social sciences or minor additions in areas that are currently being researched by scores of social scientists . They owe a debt to other scholars that they often glance over. It is also worth noting that what they are engaged in is, and let's be clear on this, orthodox social science. Readers should be clear on this point; Dubner seems to reveal in pointing out that this is not traditional economics. He seems to be mesmerized by his talented coauthor to some extent because he is unfamiliar with what sociologists, political scientists and psychologists do day after day, study after study. It is true, few social scientists have Levitt's intelligence and ability to deftly perform interdisciplinary studies with such ease. However, consider Robert Putnam, for example. His question about why Americans are no longer joining bowling leagues does not strike one as the traditional study of politics or society that political scientists or sociologists typically perform. Yet, Putnam was recently the president of the American Political Science Assoication, and I certainly do not consider him to be a rogue political scientist (or, in the case of Bowling Alone, sociologist). Levitt has done excellent work on campaign finance, but most of it is well within the orthodoxy of what we as political scientists know about the effect of money on campaigns and elections. The public has a difficult time understanding exactly what social science is. In short, while Freakonomics is a wonderful book and does so much to expose the public to the best of social science, it would be even better if the authors would acknowledge the efforts of thousands of psychologists, criminologists, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists on whose shoulders they stand.
33 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2009
If you want to become really depressed about the state of intellectual life in America, then "Freakonomics" is the book for you. It was widely praised by sources ranging from the New York Times to the Weekly Standard, and anything that earns the support of both those publications should be highly suspect. In truth, "Freakonomics" is a mixture of two types of conclusions: the obvious and the obviously wrong. In that respect it mirrors other recent pop sociology efforts such as Predictably Irrational, but without even the touches of humor and warmth in that book.
One problem with "Freakonomics" is its habit of hailing the blatantly obvious as new and revolutionary. For instance, Levitt offers to prove that real estate agents try harder to sell their owns houses than to sell their clients' houses. The only response that any intelligent person could offer is, "Well of course they do. Why wouldn't they?" Teachers spent more effort teaching their children than others. Gardeners garden harder in their own gardens than in anyone else's. Professional investors devote the most attention to their own investments. Why wouldn't real estate agents do what everyone else does?
Another example comes in a chapter with the pointedly irritating title, 'What do Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in Common?' The dramatic answer is--drum roll please--they cheat. Substantially effort is spent establishing the fact that a sizable percentage of teachers cheat on standardized tests, but this is old news. The techniques for catching cheaters that Levitt uses were already known long before he wrote this book, so what's the big deal? If one could find a school system where nobody ever cheated, that might be worthy of a book with 'freak' in the title.
At the other end of the spectrum are a host of conclusions that are just plain wrong. For example, Levitt asserts that campaign spending has no effect on political races. His "proof" of this comes from comparing situations where the same candidates ran twice in a row. Supposedly the votes always turned out the same way, even if the candidates had more to spend the second time around. Whether this is true or not, I can't say, but such cases obviously account for only a small percentage of the total number of political contests. There's ample proof that money talks in politics. For instance, last summer, Democratic Senate candidates were trailing badly in the polls in North Carolina, Minnesota, Oregon, and Alaska. Then the DNC poured tens of millions of dollars into those races, and the Democrats all surged in the polls.
A more insidious case is the book's best-known assertion, which deals with crime and abortion. In studying the huge drop in crime rates during the 90's, Levitt ties it to the Roe vs. Wade case in 1972. According to his analysis, once women started having abortions, the number of unwanted babies plunged. As these unwanted babies are the most likely to grow up into criminal adults, this lead to a drop in crime rates about 20 years later. The problem with this theory is that it's the exact opposite of the truth. In fact, both halves of it don't compute. Roe vs. Wade had only a small effect on the number of abortions. By all measures, the number of unwanted children kept on increasing, despite the availability of legal abortions. On the crime side, crime rates committed by people born shortly after 1972 skyrocketed upward in the late 80's and early 90's, which is the exact opposite of what Levitt's theory says. (For those who want a source, Jon Hilsenrath wrote up the real facts in the Wall Street Journal in Nov. 28, 2005.) It actually gets worse for Levitt when we look at other countries. Analysis from England of Wales shows abortion leading to higher crime.
It is Levitt's main tactic to simply ignore any data that doesn't fit his hypothesis. That makes for good reading but bad thinking; sound analysis has to include all the data. Of course Levitt is not the first person to make his living pushing junk statistics, and he probably won't be the last. What's worrying is the way that the nation's intellectual elite bow down before him. It seems that he need only wave his fancy degree in the air, claim to have statistics on his side, and he automatically becomes right about everything, with no criticism or double-checking necessary. The way that our major publications rush to get suckered by this junk makes one fear for the future of independent thought. For those who think that economists should help people rather than cook up phony excuses for moral degeneracy, try Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A number of years back I had the privilege of serving as a graduate intern in the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. Two things I took away from that experience working directly for Andy Marshall were: 1) devote most of your energy to discovering the right questions to ask; and 2) once you zero in on a handful of key questions, devote the rest of your energy to discovering the right metrics to apply to those questions.
The lessons imparted by Marshall are at the core of "Freakonomics," which is nothing more than a serialized collection of the work of the brilliant and unorthodox University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt put into an easily accessible style by veteran New York Times reporter Stephen Dubner.
Levitt concedes that there is "no unifying theme" to Freaknomics, although there are a few leitmotifs. The most dominant theme is what Andy Marshall told me as a young graduate student - "knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so." Several other points and observations run throughout "Freakonomics." First, the conventional wisdom is often wrong. Second, the conventional wisdom is often wrong because it is propagated by so-called experts who are serving their own agenda. Third, everyone (especially experts) are driven by some form of incentives and understanding the incentive structures of any organization or actor will go a long way to identifying the right metrics and thus better understanding behavior.
There is much in this book that could offend the average reader. For instance, Levitt argues forcibly that the dramatic and unanticipated drop in juvenile violent crime in the 1990s was a direct result of Roe v. Wade, and had little or nothing to do with the booming economy, tougher gun control or innovative policing strategies. That is, an entire generation of would-be criminals - mostly from young, unmarried, uneducated, poor minority women - simply were aborted rather than born in the mid-1970s onward. Levitt's thesis has been attacked from both the political left and right, and not too surprisingly his arguments have been called racist or in favor of eugenics.
The actual case studies in each chapter really are not all that important, in my opinion. Each one is fascinating and compulsively readable (I read the book in two sittings). The best take-away from Freakonomics is not - or should not be - that abortion is good for society because it prevent children with a high propensity for crime to be born or that African-American children with distinctly "black names" do less well in life (socio-economic standing, etc.) more because what that name says about their parents and upbringing than how they are treated by society, but rather that Levitt encourages one to ask different questions and ruthlessly pursue metrics that may have gone overlooked.
There is no better primer on how and why to challenge the conventional wisdom in any facet of life.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2007
Freakonomics covered a wide range of topics and contained many subjects people may not associate with economics, but they end up working perfectly. The author, Steven Levitt, is a young economist who works at the University of Chicago. By asking the right questions and using mounds of data, Levitt shows how connected things really are.
One major theme, incentives, is explained in the beginning of the book. Levitt uses Sumo Wrestling and standadized tests to show how prevalent cheating in the world really is. This proves that anything with incentives can be predicted. Another chapter uses the KKK and real estate sales to show how information asymmetry is one of the most powerful economic tools. The most entertaining chapter had Levitt digging into drug dealers financial records and discovering that it is not such a well paying job. He compares it to working at McDonalds except with a 1 out of 4 chance in death. Levitt uses this somewhat random subjects to show that anything can be related to economics.
I really enjoyed reading Freakonomics and would recommend it to anyone. It doesn't use elaborate situations and gives examples that everyone can understand. It is also fun to read because it is not cut and dry economic situations. I wouldn't have guessed that Sumo wrestling and the KKK were in the book before I read it. Levitt explains a lot of how he thinks and shows that even one person can affect an entire system.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2007
I picked up this book for one reason and finished it for a very different one. I expected to find a book discussing how economics impacts our society and every day life. What I found was a light, entertaining read by an unorthodox and clearly intelligent economist.
It became quickly evident that this book was not a substantive read on economics when the authors presented several correlations between societal factors and couched them in terms of causal explanations and theories. As an economics or statistical book, this book would be misleading. Much of the "statistical analysis" reminded me of George Burn's classic joke, which goes something like, "If I live to be 100, I'll have it made. After all, you don't hear of many people over the age of 100 dying."
Yet this book survives as an entertaining and interesting read. The topics change quickly and they cover a lot of ground (including abortion, drug dealers' income, cheating teachers and Sumo wrestlers, political funding, the dangers of guns vs. swimming pools, adoption, naming children . . . just reading the hodgepodge of topics can make you dizzy). Buy this book if you are interested in a quick, quirky read on a broad array of theories (that may or may not be right) that might make you look at the world in a different way.
Mollie Marti, Ph.D.
Author, Selling: Powerful New Strategies for Sales Success
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This is the sort of book that can drive your friends and family nuts because you'll keep insisting on reading passages aloud to them. Levitt is something of a maverick among economists, possibly because he so often strays into sociology and politics in his investigations. It comes as no surprise to learn that the economic structure of a successful ghetto crack gang is very similar to that of a successful corporation, because a capitalist is a capitalist and a free market is a free market. But Levitt also describes how to tell whether schoolteachers cheat as a result of No Child Left Behind (yes, lots of them), and the later-in-life effects of distinctively "black" childrens' names, and why your real estate agent isn't really (or at least not entirely) on your side. The most fascinating study is the one that's gotten so much publicity: The clearly demonstrated effect of legalized abortion on the sudden decline in the national crime rate during the 1990s. His arguments and interpretations are very persuasive. Levitt also explains clearly the difference between "cause" and "correlation" and what can happen when politicians and even other scholars confuse the two. An engaging and fascinating book.