Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Levitt and Dubner are certainly not trying to make any friends here! They start by demonstrating how teachers commit fraud, then compare the Ku Klux Klan and real estate agents, illustrate how legalizing abortion has dramatically dropped nationwide crime rates, and finally wrap up with two chapters about how little active parenting actually affects children. Wow. Sure to offend both conservatives (capital punishment doesn’t deter crime) and liberals (a swimming pool is more dangerous than a gun), these guys aren’t running for public office anytime soon!

The entire time I was reading this I couldn’t shake the idea that I was overhearing a group of friends having a good-natured debate at a bar. A lot of thought-provoking questions are asked, but the answers—while seemingly well-reasoned—are lacking much backing data. For example, at one point the assertion is made that traveling in either a car or a plane carries roughly the same odds of dying when measured on a per-hour basis. Okay, I buy it; I certainly spend much more time driving than flying, so the odds of being in a car crash are much greater than a plane wreck. However, there are no data presented about what those numbers may be. It seems reasonable, meshes well with my gut feel, sounds as good sober as it does with a couple of beers. It is also unsubstantiated, something I find a bit surprising for a book on economics.

Another question discussed is, “Does a persons name affect how he is perceived? Is DeShawn Williams treated differently than Jake Williams” It has always seemed to me that the answer to this is yes, but only in absentia. If I hear of someone named Nosmo or Santa or Seven, I’m going to roll my eyes and snicker. Once I’m introduced to that person, though, the name becomes much less important and instead how he or she acts becomes paramount. This issue of how face-time changes perceptions isn’t really touched upon.

Another problem I have is that many of the points-of-view presented are too US-centric. For instance, while it is true that the uptick in abortions seems to correspond with the downtick in violent crime in America, my understanding is this isn’t true in other countries with similar changes in birth control laws. It would be interesting to delve into the data and perhaps see why, but again that isn’t presented here. This isn’t a great treatise on economics because of the lack of hard data. What it is, however, is a really good book for starting bar arguments. I enjoyed reading it, and will recommend it to others without hesitation.

First Sentence:
Imagine for a moment that you are the manager of a day-care center.

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