Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt with Stephen J. Dubner
First things first: this reviewer is not an economist, and I usually find such books can often be boring. Must admit that Freakonomics kept me up far too late over one weekend reading it through to the end. It was hard to put down.
Another reader/reviewer emailed me, noting that Malcolm Gladwell had said that Steven Levitt "has the most interesting mind in America," and since I had found Gladwell’s Blink! hard to put down, I might find Freakonomics interesting. This was an understatement.
Then another friend loaned me a copy of the book, so I felt obligated to read it, so I had to get my own copy, for it’s worth a second read.
As noted above, the cover says it all. Freakonomics is not only humorous in places, it’s fascinating, an out of the ordinary way of looking at economics for those who normally don’t venture into what is often perceived as a boring subject. Like Gladwell’s writing, this reviewer found this book to be a springboard to other ideas.
The authors define economics as “the study of incentives” early in the first chapter, which is not exactly as I remember the conventional definition from college courses. But maybe analyzing how to motivate people to do or not do a particular things is a better way or looking at the reality of economics.
Freakonomics was co-written by the noted journalist Stephen Dubner (Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper, Choosing My Religion), and seems to have drawn as much criticism as it has received praise from reviewers and other commentators. The authors repeatedly state that there’s no consistent theme. Others have noted that it appears to be an assembly of magazine articles and columns, edited and put together in an appealing but not particularly interrelated manner.
But this reader found that it indeed does have a theme, and that theme is that established conventional wisdom is not always right. Things that we perceive to be related just might not be. Maybe there’s no connection at all, and maybe some are simply coincidence.
Liberals and conservatives in our society will find some of Levitt’s thoughts to be controversial. This reader found much of the book to fly in the face of “conventional wisdom,” and found that this is what made it so fascinating. For example, don’t miss Levitt’s discussion regarding abortion, for whether or not you agree with his viewpoint, it is thought provoking.
There are many other thought-provoking concepts that this reader found fascinating, such as the authors’ thoughts on how education and actual knowledge in our public school systems has been replaced by standardized testing preparation. This then leads to the encouragement of cheating just to get the statistics where those in charge of the systems need them to be. To comment further on this would be akin to plot spoiling. But don’t miss Levitt’s comments on the bizarre trends of naming babies, which this reviewer found to be hilarious in their absurdity.
“Morality describes the way that any of us would like the world to work. Economics describes the way the world actually does work. You can’t change the world you live in until you understand it.”
~ from Freakonomics
Some have disagreed with the authors. Others, including many academics, agreed with the authors' concepts. Orson Scott Card stated in WorldWatch (9/11/2005), "This book should be required reading before anybody is allowed to vote."
Some have commented that this book is more of a basic text on sociology more than economics, but this reader found that it’s all connected, and makes one want to look further. Levitt is a writer to watch, and he does let the numbers talk for him in an interesting if often offbeat fashion.
Criticisms? Initially had been happy to find this book to be comfortable 256 pages, but after finishing it, wished there had been more. It’s definitely not boring, and that can’t be said about many works related to economics. Might even be a good gift for someone, as almost anyone can read it and frequently have a good laugh.
I thoroughly enjoyed Freakonomics and heartily recommend it: a 5-star offering, without a doubt. Also recommended is the Freakonomics column that the authors have been writing for the The New York Times Magazine since June 2005, covering subjects from car seats to dog poop to tax cheating.
Update: This book has been out since April of 2005, so it's not new, and I had previously reviewed it on Amazon.com and other sites. So why review it again? It seems that Freakonomics has been adopted into many college and high-school curricula since it was published. It's now a recognized textbook for courses at Berkeley, Georgetown, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, American University, Purdue, NYU and others. And now there are free study guides available here.
Further, if you already have the book and missed out on any book signings, the authors are now offering a free signed bookplate. It's a nicely designed sticker that can be placed inside your book, like one of those classic "ex libris" stickers. So if you would like your signed bookplate, just click to fill out the form on their site, and they'll even pay the postage.
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