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on January 17, 2017
I’ve heard of this book for years, but never bothered to read it because I was already an economist and didn’t think I needed to read a popular summary of Steven Levitt’s work.[1] My impression was that the book summarized his work in a popular (non-academic) style that helped people understand what economists do. I though that the book was useful in this respect in helping people understand what I do. Indeed, the most common reaction I get from people when telling them that I am an economist is that they have read Freakonomics, which implies that they have at least seen some work similar to what I do at aguanomics.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

For example,
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.[6] 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?[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

(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.
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on May 3, 2014
University of Chicago professor and Economist Steve Levitt and Journalist Stephen J. Dubner are the authors of "Freakonomics" an insightful, informative, ingenious, and witty non-fiction book that seeks to discover "The Hidden Side of Everything." Probably the most profound topic to which Levitt is the lead researcher is legalized abortion; this chapter is called "Where Have All the Criminals Gone?" Since 1973, the Roe V Wade law was passed, legalizing abortion nationally. However, what Levitt has discovered since then was that crime rates in the 1990's had a precipitous dropped from an all-time high in the 80s. Going through all of the possible theories that may have contributed to the drop in crime, such as harsher prison sentences, more police, and better economy, to Levitt, one plausible cause was left out--Legal abortion. With convincing evidence, Levitt believes that those likely to have an abortion before and certainly after Roe V Wade were single, poor, young and uneducated women. He went on to describe some states like New York and California, which had legal abortions before 1973, saw crime drops before the law was passed nationally. These children, described as unwanted, Levitt explains the link between crime and an unwanted child. An unwanted child would have had likely been raised in a single-parent home, exposed to abuse, neglected, and unloved by the caregiver. The child would then grow up adapting criminal attitudes and behaviors like petty crimes and displaying defiance. Suddenly, the child comes of age as an adult and is already a career criminal. The solution by Levitt suggests that since Roe V Wade in 1973, crimes in the 90's simply dropped because the babies that likely would have committed the crimes weren't born to commit them.
To readers, at first glance, this may come as immoral and disturbing and some would even berate Levitt for such explanations. For Levitt, it is a solid explanation that best explains what led to the largest crime drop during the last decade of the 20th century. Levitt does provide some good reasonable arguments to the crime drop of the 90's. However, this may be viewed by some readers and crime pundits as irrational.

I choose to write my whole review based on the Roe v Wade and correlation to crime drop because I thought it was the most significant finding in the book. There are other very good segments, for instance, "What do School teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?", "Why do Drug dealers live with their Mothers", and "What Makes a Perfect Parent" very good information on those findings. Overall, "Freakonomics" is a magnificent book that combines human behavior and economics; it explains how economics influence human behavior. It also challenges conventional wisdom; what people tend to believe is​ the explanation of certain things. In "Freakonomics," The authors attempt to counter this by displaying that actual raw data tells a different story.
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on February 9, 2017
While I am much older than the authors and disagree with many of their conclusions, I still found it interesting. As with any analysis of sets of data, where the truth is can become a subjective if not skewed "revelation" that no one seemingly has discovered before. I found that with their analysis of abortion lowering crime while denigrating Mayor Giuliani's success with "stop and frisk". The shooting rate is rising with its cessation yet that was not revealed. An interesting read, just be careful how much you swallow.
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on June 14, 2012
The book is interesting and handle the most common "conventional wisdom", like; circumstances and attribute results based on superficial analysis; analyse the system as a whole and based on unreliable data inputs; moving the people by incentives, positive or negative; names given to lead to sucess; management of gangs as a business. Beyond of that, shows that the color of skin is not a factor that differenciate the mankind intellectual, but the racism. The parenting can contribute partially to the children growing intelectual. In general the book deals with a wide range of topics which is supposed to be economically associated, according to the author, it tells histories of some personal, and in phase with data argues and debates the themes. I consider this book very rational and it brings the need of data analysis in order to take decisions. The "conventional wisdom" is a good basis but it must be comproved or dismissed by reliable data and accurate analysis.
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on September 19, 2013
I bought this book after seeing years of hype and publicity. It was a national best seller and would twist the way we think of modern day economics, they said. Well, at least the authors themselves say that the book has no conjoining theme...and that's exactly what I got out of this book. Pretty hard to follow, and I often found myself asking the "so what" of each chapter. While this book is good even for those who don't have a math or money mind, I really could've cared less about many of the topics covered.

The only part I did find interesting was the chapter on names between the white and black communities. Information that much of society already acknowledges. There was certainly plenty of research shown throughout this chapter.

An average book that I probably won't re-read.
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on September 16, 2012
I originally encountered Freakonomics in the New York Times, where the authors currently write an op-ed column to supplement their many sequels. I think I had also heard about the book in the context of its unorthodox approach to statistics, ie. that one of the causes of the decreasing crime rate the United States is the legalization of abortion. I not sure whether that supports a pro-life or a pro-choice argument, but this is not the place for that particular can of sandworms.

Freakonomics is a very entertaining book. The tone is light, but also authoritative and convincing. Arguments are fully explained with detailed evidence, statistics, and respectable concessions. The topics range from the crime rate and abortion, to the economics of drug deals and living in the projects, to parenting and whether cheating occurs on a massive scale in the Chicago school system (spoiler alert: it does). But there are surprises too. For example, the cheaters in Chicago are not just students, but teachers too, and drug dealers really do still live with their moms.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a brief overview to some principles of economics. That, or to anyone who just wants to read and interesting and funny book. If you want a deep, detailed, and technical viewpoint of some of the subjects examined in this book, you should look elsewhere to think tank studies and economics books marketed less to the general public.

Another place to find this interesting viewpoint on the world, informed by economics and a bit of creativity, is in the Freakonomics blog sometimes seen in the New York Times. The Op-Ed section of the New York Times, can be a great place to see similar perspectives, or the occasional article by the authors of this book. I enjoy these just as much as the book, and find little difference in the tone or content.

Freakonomics also lead me to another Kindle book, which I will have to review here shortly. Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh.
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on November 19, 2013
I always thought economics was boring (sorry, economist friends -- I still love you!). This book proved me wrong.

Yes, reading this book will provide you with abundant cocktail-party fodder, although by this point, most of its highly controversial conclusions (such as the theory that the legalization of abortion was a cause of the decrease in violent crime in the U.S. in the 1990s) have been discussed to death. But it's very entertaining and easy to wrap your head around, even if you don't think of yourself as a "quantitative" person who can deal with statistics. Everything is explained clearly and logically, and the book's most important point -- that blindly buying into the "conventional wisdom" about important issues -- is a salient one in an era of sound-bite politics. We can't afford conventional wisdom any longer. We need a better system for solving problems. Levitt and Dubner offer one, and they make a good case for it.
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on September 22, 2017
There were many interesting things about this book. However, I didn't enjoy it as much as I expecting. The ideas were interesting and definitely unique, but I couldn't get into it that much. The whole chapter on baby names really dragged on and was difficult to keep reading. The thought process these ideas generate and need to make you think differently, but didn't capture me as much as I would have hoped.
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on March 14, 2012
I enjoyed reading this book, and will soon be reading the 2nd book by these authors. This book contains a different approach, which uses statistics and data to analyze common situations. I like the authors' approach to the questions they attacked. I also enjoyed learning about some historical things which I had not known.

My only complaint about the book is that it is too wordy for the amount of examples that are reviewed. I think there are about 6 different case studies or questions reviewed (I found all of them to be interesting and worth reading), but the length of each one was probably twice as long as it needed to be to get the point across to me. Otherwise, the book is well written and enjoyable to read.

This Revised Edition corrects some content that was apparently incorrect in the original version, and also includes a substantial amount of additional extras in the form of the authors' blog entries and articles that were published between 2005 and 2006. (If reading on the Kindle edition, like I did, keep in mind that the final 45% of the book is the extra materials - so you aren't caught off guard when the main part of the book ends unexpectedly at 55%).
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on May 7, 2017
I enjoyed the many hidden causal connections that no one without the proper research could ever have put together. Like many other story-oriented sociological studies (think Malcolm Gladwell), some of the correlations are not entirely provable, but they are plausible and useful ways to look at how things can be connected in unexpected ways.
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