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Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 2, 2006
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“If Indiana Jones were an economist, he’d be Steven Levitt… Criticizing Freakonomics would be like criticizing a hot fudge sundae.” (Wall Street Journal)
“The guy is interesting!” (Washington Post Book World)
“The funkiest study of statistical mechanics ever by a world-renowned economist... Eye-opening and sometimes eye-popping” (Entertainment Weekly)
“Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America... Prepare to be dazzled.” (Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point)
“Principles of economics are used to examine daily life in this fun read.” (People: Great Reads)
“Levitt dissects complex real-world phenomena, e.g. baby-naming patterns and Sumo wrestling, with an economist’s laser.” (San Diego Union-Tribune)
“Levitt is a number cruncher extraordinaire.” (Philadelphia Daily News)
“Levitt is one of the most notorious economists of our age.” (Financial Times)
“Hard to resist.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
From the Back Cover
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? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of 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 riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing—and whose conclusions turn conventional wisdom on its head.
Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They usually begin with a mountain of data and a simple 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 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 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 great deal of complexity 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.
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.
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When I first started freakonomics, I could not put the book down, but once I reached approximately 60% you are finished with the book and all you are left with is articles from the author and references. So In fairness, had freakonomics not included all the articles and references, I would have rated it a 4.
Some chapters, depending on the information, was more interesting than others. I found the chapter on crime rates dropping due to abortion to be particularly intriguing. They present a valuable side of an argument that I had never pondered. The chapter on how names can affect your success was also very interesting and just learning how they generate that data and how and when the names overlap. Very interesting.
All in all, I would recommend this book to all my friends who appreciate random tidbits of information or who have a curiosity towards economics and how it plays a part in random parts of our world.
It turns out that I was mistaken in my initial beliefs.
I just read this 2004 book 2006 revision, and it's made me think a bit more about how we (economists) communicate with the general public, and I think that some ways are better than others. First, there are textbooks, which describe the tools that economists use to put their theories into practice. Many many people have told me “I didn’t learn anything in economics. All I remember was a lot of math and curves.” This depressing outcome results from lecturers who merely reproduce problems and equations on the blackboard, without helping students understand either why those theories are used or how they came to be so popular with economists. Second, there are books that explain how economists think or how their thinking has evolved as they have tried to understand and summarize the people’s behaviour. These books, in my opinion, are the most interesting — and challenging — because they push people to revisit their assumptions and perspectives. These are the books that I would recommend to people looking to “think like an economist” or, to be blunt, to think more accurately about how they and those around them actually behave. Third, there are books like mine [pdf] that try to explain how to improve failing policies using basic economic insights and incentives. Finally, there are books like Freakonomics that reproduce academic papers in a popular form. These books — like Economic Gangsters — give the public a limited vision of research without explaining the struggles of getting the right data or explaining the limitations of theories that are used (or not) in the final paper.
Freakonomics is therefore NOT the book that I would recommend to anyone interested in (a) learning economic theory, (b) learning about how economists think, or (c) understanding the world or thinking of ways to improve it.
This book with a memorable (but useless) name provides readers with just-so stories that are good for cocktail conversations but not for understanding economics.
Legalized abortion explains the drop in crime in the US. Not only do Steve and Steve back off from the main claims of the original paper (they add other factors), but this theory has been falsified by others (see this and this). What struck me is their ongoing attempts to hold onto at least some elements in the original claim in later blog posts in what I’d call a “my-ladydoth-protest-too-much” manner.
Real estate agents serve themselves better than they serve clients when selling their own homes. As a former real estate agent, I had to agree with their basic premise, but I thought their explanation too simplistic. The most obvious problem is that agents have an entirely different understanding of themselves as sellers as well as of the markets. Surely that different information (and the resulting “patience” that gets them a higher price as sellers) matters?
Looking over their other chapters (on cheating sumo wrestlers, drug dealers who live with their moms, the KKK as a multilevel marketing organization, etc.), I agree that the chapters are interesting and thought provoking, but they do not provide “lessons on the hidden side of everything.” Instead, they read like a series of magazine articles whose quirky “insights” might contribute to your next cocktail conversation.
The authors say that they want you to ask more questions and see the world differently, but what tools have they given to you in this book? I didn’t detect any reliable technique (except perhaps to collect a neat dataset and call Steve Levitt), and that’s where I was disappointed. Freakonomics does not really reveal the hidden side of everything. Indeed, it’s more likely to mislead you into thinking you’ve learned something, when you’ve only learned an interesting angle on a complex topic on which you may lack either the experience or methods needed to put it into a useful context.
Take their example of the “underpaid” drug dealer who they say faces a higher risk of death than someone on Death Row in Texas (and thus must be overestimating the gains from their job). Does this statistical analysis mean that those street dealers are irrational? I don’t think so. As all economics students learn, you need to look at their opportunity cost (i.e., the costs and benefits of their potential other choices). In this case, street dealers are (a) NOT condemned to death, (b) not able to find other work with their experience, and (c) not aware of their statistical mortality as much as their potential wealth. Those street runners are “taking their chances” in the same way as Americans are “living the dream,” i.e., in ignorance of reality.
Bottom Line: I give this book THREE STARS. Dubner and Levitt present interesting puzzles worthy of cocktail conversation, but they overstate their contributions and accuracy (“numbers don’t lie” but theory can be incomplete or just wrong). I suggest that anyone interested in understanding how economics works and applying those lessons to “the hidden side of everything” read Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. It’s free to download and provides a really useful perspective that anyone can apply to any topic they care about.
(1) I’ve met Steven Levitt. He's a fine person and excellent economist, but this book is too “pop” in its oversimplification of his work and hagiographic treatment of his insights. Yes, he brings interesting statistical tools to“freaky” questions, but he’s not a “rogue economist exploring the hidden side of everything.” He’s just a guy with a dataset and empirical theory who finds some strong correlations. As I explain later on, he does not deliver the last word on pretty much any topic in this book. (It's interesting to see the two authors pooh-poohing people's objections to their claims in this revised edition. I get the impression that their answer is "bestseller, bitch!" more than "hmmm..., maybe we claimed too much.") Also see note 8.
(2) I wrote on the human right to water and oil and water for their Freakonomics blog.
(3) I published an article [pdf] on how students don’t really understand the “downward sloping demand curve” because its form is based on advanced techniques they won’t see for a few more classes (meaning "never" for those who take one class or drop the major).
(4) Of those I have reviewed, I recommend Small is Beautiful, the Calculus of Consent, the Company of Strangers, Predictably Irrational, etc.
(5) "Freaky" anything sounds bad to me, and "freaky" economics -- unlike most economics -- isn't useful to most people. Even worse, there's nothing freaky to the stories in terms of the economics. I wish the authors had spent more time on the basic economics (making the book a useful learning experience) and less time defending empirical research that is interesting and provocative but not really wise.
(6) I corresponded with Levitt’s co-author on my objections to their working paper back in 2005. The main one was that their analysis missed the most important point: it’s better to have an agent than not to have an agent — an obvious insight that saved me about €10,000 when I bought a flat in Amsterdam. Going further, would an agent work harder for you if their commission was a flat rate rather than a percentage of the sales price? They harp about commissions as detrimental to the client’s interest due to the small share of the additional profits an agent gains from working harder on your behalf — e.g., 3% of another $10,000 is only $300, but why would an agent work any harder on a flat-rate commission? In my experience, agents love on referrals from old clients, which may explain why they work hard "despite the weak incentives."
(7) My definition of an expert is “someone who knows what’s missing.” As an example of this, I give a fourth reason why it’s NOT irrational to vote (they give three weak reasons in the blog post included in their revised edition), i.e., the benefits to an individual from study and engagement in a topic.
(8) My years of experience traveling in 100+ countries leads me to respect the diversity of beliefs and institutions that result in a variety of outcomes. Most academics need to exit the Ivory Tower and hit the road more often.
(9) On page 134, they write “The typical parenting expert, like experts in other fields, is prone to sound exceedingly sure of himself. An expert doesn’t so much argue the various sides of an issue as plant his flag firmly on one side. That’s because an expert whose argument reeks of restraint or nuance often doesn’t get much attention.” They need to apply the same critique to themselves. (They cite themselves in later chapters — p139 on abortion and crime — as if their earlier claims were facts.) As another example, take Dubner on page 199, who writes “that paper [on police officer counts and crime] was later disputed… a gradate student found an obvious mathematical mistake in it — but Levitt’s ingenuity was obvious.” I’m not sure I’d say the same about someone whose claims rested on logic with “obvious mathematical mistakes”!
(10) Hazlitt says "the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups," which he summarizes as "...and then what?" That's a good question, and it's how I can easily predict that cheap water prices will lead to failing infrastructure or water shortages, why climate change is arriving "too fast" (due to a lack of carbon taxes), and so on. I'd prefer people to ask "and then what?" more often and spend less time showing off their knowledge of cheating sumo wrestlers.
Their work comparing the legalization of abortion in Roe V. Wade with the decline of violent crime 20 years later is truly eye opening. Their argument is plausible and backed up with both research and logical thinking. The book contains equally fascinating studies on topics such as the real estate industry and the crack cocaine epidemic in Chicago. Their analysis of the real estate industry is not so much a criticism as an affirmation that everyone is human. When interviewing a drug dealer in Chicago, the authors make profound comparisons to many other types of business.
My only criticism is that I bought the revised edition which contains extra material from articles and blogs. This material, however, is of little value. I gave the book 4 stars simply because this extra material was a waste. The primary book itself, however, is every bit a 5 star read. All in all, this is a well written and fascinating book. Most readers will come away with a new appreciation of how incentives drive almost everything we do.
This reviewer does not recall what prompted purchasing the revised edition of Freakonomics and while much of the analysis had been available earlier, none-the-less purchasing and reading were quite valuable, perhaps more so today than in the past. Most of us formulate a model of what the world is or what we would like it to be and look for data that supports our previous world views, Levitt and Dubner, to an extreme, ignore popular or deeply held beliefs and search for data-driven answers often to small but at times quite interesting questions. They look at a wide variety of at time controversial topics and show what their data analysis uncovers. Some will find this enlightening and some will find it painful or impossible to comprehend. These items touch on sports betting, crime and gun violence and political figures including former mayors Dinkins and Giuliani. This book is a both a good thought provoking yet entertaining read.
Top international reviews
Many good chapters though amongst the not so good:) So I'm still glad I read it
If you don't bore easily with endless statistics and comparisons stating the same thing over and over, then this is the book for you. If not, then wait for the 20 page abridged version to come out
This book, and the second more "More Freakanomics" encourages you to think outside the box, to brainstorm and be open to considering other explanations for things. It's an easy read, very entertaining and educational. This is one of only a handful of books I often purchase to give to friends I think will enjoy it as much as I do. I loved it!
Kann es nur weiterempfehlen!
Dato il giusto (o per meglio dire sbagliato) mix di regole, incentivi, controlli, sanzioni, qualsiasi sistema può degenerare, e nessuna categoria o popolo fa eccezione.
L'autore dimostra come sapendo leggere e confrontare i numeri sia possibile dimostrare l'alterazione dei test di qualità delle scuole negli USA (i loro "invalsi") o le combine negli incontri di Sumo in Giappone.
Per noi italiani tristemente "abituati" a storie di corruzione e furbizie forse qualche elemento di riflessione in merito al fatto che senza buone regole e buoni controlli, sia impossibile costruire buone sistemi.
I've found the book easy to read and found the topics and hypotheses Levitt and Dubner presented very unusual and exciting, or as they would put it, "freak-ish". (As the bad reviews mention) I suggest not taking all their hypotheses at face value as full explanations but rather as unconventional suggestions with some explaining power. (See e.g. the controversial suggestion that abortion legalization caused a decline in crime -- prior to Levitt few had even considered it)