Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Freakonomics

Freakonomics: Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Revised and Expanded Edition)
© 2005 Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
320 pages

I gave little thought to choosing to read this book this particular week. I'd heard of the book before, and decided to give it a go. I am generally not so casual with my reading -- I'm actually very picky. Going in, I wasn't sure what to expect. Economics is not a favorite subject of mine beyond how it shapes society and influences history. I can remember various terms from my economics courses in my freshman year -- "elasticity", "oligopoly", and "opportunity cost" among them -- but mostly what I remember is that my professor had a knack for explaining various economic situations through his passion for pints of BlueBell ice cream.

It pleased me, then, to see that this is not a book about economics: it is more a book of applying economic principles, namely seeing situations in terms of incentives, to various questions. Beyond that, there is no unifying theme to the book. The authors acknowledge this and almost seem proud of it, stating in the "expanded" parts of the book that there's no reason books should have to have a unifying theme. They see the book as a collection of essays applying the same means to answer varying questions, and since other collections (like short story collections) can only own a very general theme, the authors are not particularly worried. Steven Levitt is the "rogue economist", while Dubner is the writer.

Some of the essays have whimsical titles, like "What Do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?", while some are slightly more serious -- "What Makes a Perfect Parent?" The essays -- constituting the original book -- take up about two-thirds of the book's overall volume. The first chapter introduces the idea of incentives, and uses it to examine the behavior of schoolteachers regarding classroom performance on standardized tests and the ranking systems of sumo wrestlers. What schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common is a willingness to cheat, provided that they are accidentally given incentives to do so. In "How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents," Levitt argues that "nothing is more powerful than information, especially when its power is abused". Chapters three and four address the economics of drug trafficking and the decline of crime, while the last two chapters deal with parenting issues -- from the naming of children to value of "good schools".

While it is difficult to make generalizations on the contents' book*, I can say that reading it was fun. I would not expect to be entertained by economic principles, but I was. The information was also thought-provoking and sometimes disturbing. For instance, in "Where Have All the Criminals Gone?", Levitt critiques various explanations put forth for the decline of crime in the United States during the mid-late 1990s -- a growing economic, capital punishment, gun-control laws -- and puts forth a few ideas of his own, namely fluctuations in drug trafficking and the Roe v. Wade case. That last one may give you pause, as it did me. The idea is that abortions, happening disproportionally among low-income families in situations that promote contempt for the legal system and greater opportunities in criminal activities -- lower crime in a passive way. Although I find the idea repulsive and sinister, the chain of events seems to work. Levitt acknowledges the same revulsion. If this is true, it only supports my idea that good can come from evil and evil from good: not that I view early-term abortion as evil, but I do view the need for it as a social problem. The last third of the book consists of various newspaper articles written by and about Levitt, as well as print forms of his blog entries. These, too, have no general theme outside of Levitt looking for economic principles at work behind social questions.

Although I chose the book rather randomly and its suggested topic does not appeal to me, I found the book to be an enjoyable read. If you can find it, I think it would be a solid and quick read.



* I noticed this mistake in proofreading, but it amused me so I kept it.

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