Freakonomics

By Deane Barker on March 22, 2008

I’ll admit that I thought economists really dealt with just, well, the economy. But they don’t. To be an economist really means you kind of just figure stuff out.

Steven Levitt is such a guy. He teaches at the University of Chicago, and when writer Stephen Dubner wrote a profile on Levitt in 2005, the two of them decided to write a book together.

Levitt admits that he doesn’t understand much about the economy. But he does know statistics, and he has a lot of questions that he wants to answer. Questions like:

  • Do teachers help their students cheat on standardized exams?
  • If drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers?
  • Are real estate agents always acting in your best interests?

To solve these questions, he analyzes massive amounts of statistics, and writes papers about them. Freakonomics is a roll-up and commentary of many of those papers, and the results are fascinating.

I listened to the book during a drive to and from Des Moines, and I was utterly captivated by it. I spent 40 minutes listening in rapt attention to how Levitt dissected the results of thousands of matches to prove, seemingly beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Japanese sumo wrestlers collude to throw matches.

He went on to explain how the drop in crime in the 1990s could have been caused, in large part, by the legalization of abortion 20 years prior. This is one of his more controversial findings, and as uncomfortable as the idea made me, it was hard to argue with how he arrived at the conclusion.

Then he dug into excrutiating detail on the question of how giving your baby a “black” name like “Deshawn” would affect his life over a “white” name like “Conner.” The statistics show that new baby names are pioneered by rich folk, and they filter down to the non-rich folk over a decade.

Freakonomics is a celebration of patience, logic, disappassionate thinking, and a guy who just won’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. I loved it, and when it was done, I was ready to listen to another 10 books just like it, had they existed.

I put this book up there with “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea,” and that’s saying something.

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Comments

  1. “Do teachers help their students cheat on standardized exams?”

    I have some friends with children in the FL school system and while “cheating” may not be used there is definitely a period of weeks where teachers are simply training students to take the standardized state test. So instead of actually learning they are in effect “gaming” the system to get their students to pass.

  2. Ship of Golf in the Deep Blue Sea — A ship filled with golf-balls made of solid gold, en route to a mini-golf warehouse, capsizes in deep water…

  3. Deane — Sorry for the erratasnipe… actually I did read the book — on your recommendation! — and it too is one of my favorite books now.

  4. actually I did read the book — on your recommendation! — and it too is one of my favorite books now

    You are forgiven.

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