Freakonomics, a Book Review

If the thought of a book on economics is about as exciting as watching your toenails grow, or you are under-whelmed with statistics and number crunching theory, then the bestselling book Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything just might be the book to make you wake up without that extra cup of Starbucks’ best. Actually, Freakonomics is an engaging read because it seems to be more about sociology and psychology than boring numerical analysis. With its well-paced and easy reading style, this book shows how the resulting correlation and causality of data impacts our lives and definitely makes us think differently about facts and figures. The authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, contend, "What this book is about is stripping a layer or two from modern life and seeing what is happening underneath," exposing why conventional wisdom is so often wrong. In effect, there are real tangible benefits in thinking laterally. To be sure, their seemingly off-the-wall comparisons are definitely attention grabbers. Who would have ever thought to make the unlikely comparison of teachers and sumo wrestlers to show that economics is, in essence, the study of incentives. But for those of you who desire a smooth flowing book, with multiple concepts building to an ultimate conclusion, you might be disappointed. Actually, the book presents six wholly different topics, with no unifying theme. And while Freakonomics does jump seemingly randomly from question to question, there are some lessons to be learned. For example, the book demonstrates that the most obvious reason why something happens is not always the real reason. To be sure, sometimes the real reason doesn’t even make the list of possibilities. Or, as is often true in the case studies given in Freakonomics, the cause turns out not to be the cause at all, but the effect.

Perhaps the most hard-hitting and controversial riddle tackled by Freakonomics explores the cause of the dramatic drop in the U.S. crime rate in the chapter "Where Have All the Criminals Gone?" The book explains that by the 1990s violent crime had grown to epic proportions in the United States. Experts everywhere, from law enforcement to government agencies could only predict that it would get worse. The American way had somehow produced and coined the term "superpredator." "Death by gunfire", intentional and otherwise, had become commonplace. And then, instead of going up, the crime rate suddenly started to drop profoundly- by over 40 percent in just a few years. By studying crime statistics from all over the country in comparison with abortion statistics in the era after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Freakonomics arrives at a startling conclusion. The book submits that the highly publicized drop in America’s violent crime rate since 1990 is due almost entirely to legalized abortion, rather than better police work, new gun laws, or any of a number of other factors put forward by agencies of all stripes eager to take credit for it. Although the authors concede they have "managed to offend just about everyone," from conservatives, (because "abortion could be construed as a crime-fighting tool") to liberals, (because "the poor and black women were singled out"), they stick strictly to the evidence, admitting that this view "should not be misinterpreted as either an endorsement of abortion or a call for intervention by the state in the fertility decisions of women." The book verifies its conclusion by consistently dismantling argument after argument for the other touted factors and keeps returning to the cause and effect of evidence at hand. After all, the "truth" as the authors see it, is not always convenient.

The other topics explored in Freakonomics, while not as controversial, are equally interesting. In fact, some could be considered amusing. If you are looking to spruce up you intellect for the next cocktail party, or widen your eyes to the world around you, then this book is a necessary read. However, what might be considered a turnoff by some is the annoying insertion of quotations from external sources about how innovative or creative the authors are as a precursor to every chapter. That being said, it is refreshing to have an odd economist, or at least an economist who ask odd questions to tease out the most fascinating facts concerning the mysteries of the world around us.

One word of advice: don’t buy this book in paperback. At the list price of $25.00, it rings up at only 95 cents cheaper than the hardback book, which is a much more attractive and sturdy volume. Plus, because the hardback has been available for much longer, you can actually find the hardback for significantly cheaper (more than $7) if you search a few bookstores.

After almost a year in publication, Freakonomics continues to make the bestseller lists, currently holding (at the time of writing this review) the much vaunted Amazon #1 seller position. If nothing else, that is an important statistic to keep in mind.

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