February 29, 2016
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything Book Cover Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Freakonomics, #1
Stephen Levitt; Stephen Dubner
Non Fiction
William Morrow
November 15th, 2001

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 Klu 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.

(via Goodreads)

This book has appeared multiple times in my life, and I have never picked it up. Almost exclusively since I know this book contains numbers and data– things I’ve never been fond of or interested in. That said, one of my friends recommended the Freakonomics podcast to me for an 8-hour car trip home. I figured, “Sure. 20 minutes won’t hurt.”

I listened to 4 minutes of the podcast and I was hooked.

“Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent — all depending on who wields it and how.”

For a short podcast, it was really interesting! Then, my book club selected to read the book Freakonomics. Perfect. I really enjoyed listening to Stephen Dubner narrate the podcast, so I picked up the audiobook.

freakonomics radioAt first, I really enjoyed this book. As someone who isn’t particularly exposed to economic ideas, I found this a very educational book. I learned about incentives (on an economic scale), supply and demand, opportunity cost, and information asymmetry to name a few. The content was applicable and interesting to me. I found the concepts accessible, and I enjoyed understanding how statistics and data can be applied to societal issues. I began to understand the compulsion towards big data the world is driving into.

“The conventional wisdom is often wrong.”

The idea that Levitt, the Economist half of the authoring duo, is an economist is totally believable. However, I love hearing his work being applied in a social setting. It makes me think of him more as  mathematician who is working in social science. Applying the tools of macroeconomics to other fields makes economics more accessible, and shows the world the value in data and numbers through many veins. This is the sort of thing which I would have really grabbed onto as a child. Perhaps Freakonomics is helping high schoolers all over the world appreciate math more? One can only hope.

Despite the fantastic, though sometimes rambling, storytelling I found myself questioning, “Well, how can I do this in my own life?” I understand that this wasn’t the final goal of the novel (both Levitt and Dubner admit they don’t have any sort of unifying theme or goal). However, I walked away feeling a bit disappointed. I want to understand how to think this way, and what to do once I’ve gathered data. I was so inspired, yet I left unable to even know where to turn in my next step towards applying macroeconomic ideas to my life.

“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents how it actually does work.”

In listening to the audiobook, I did not get to see any of the data presented to support Levitt’s claims. While all these hypotheses are certainly believable, I am uncertain how true they are. After all, my only experience with statistics in literature comes from the book How to Lie with Statistics– therefore, I understand how easy it is to manipulate data to get the results you want. Heck, Levitt and Dubner even address that the experts have agendas and will constantly try to trick you. Perhaps they are manipulating statistics to get to their results, too. Perhaps the data is in the book? With a 320 page count, I doubt it’s all there. It’s not that I don’t believe them.

It’s not that I don’t believe them. It’s just that this is a lot of information and I’d love to better understand it and the data which drove them to these conclusions.

All in all, I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook and I will certainly continue to pursue Levitt and Dubner’s other Freakonomics-related literary works, if just to learn what more I can about economics.

3 stars

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