Book Review – Freakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

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Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, William Morrow $25.95

Freakonomics, immensely popular and critically acclaimed, promises to help us see through the eyes of the most interesting economist today: Steven Levittt. Despite being marketed as a surprisingly interesting book about the normally dull field of economics (as its title suggests), this book offers much more than a new perspective on an old field. Indeed, as Levitt himself admits early on he knows very little (and has very little interest) in economics as currently conceived.

What Levitt and his co-author Stephen Dubner do offer is an integrated and fascinating way of looking at the social sciences. Whether examining crime in cities or baby-naming habits of wealthy and poor parents, Levitt looks at the available data, and draws novel conclusions. The topics he considers are of great interest to all social scientists. Psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists have considered the causes of crime, effects of parenting, and the consequences of drug trafficking, but few have arrived at the incisive and unique conclusions in this book. Levitt’s creative and unique perspective leads the reader to wonder how he became an economist. In an alternate life, Levitt may have been a standup comedian, humorously comparing dealing drugs to working at a fast food joint. In this one, however, Levitt the economist analyzes the financial ledger of a drug dealing gang, and finds amazing similarity with McDonald’s corporate structure.

Following in the footsteps of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and Blink, Freakonomics explains complicated problems with compelling data described in simple and elegant prose. While the conclusions may not always be completely satisfactory (indeed, some are quite controversial) it is impossible not to be fascinated by the approach.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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