by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
by Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Economics is an odd little pursuit. Although it has the patina of a science, it's actually an art. Often invoked by people who want to make taking your money seem like a good idea, it's perhaps best known as the major favored by those passing their undergraduate years in anticipation of law school. So it's surprising that one of the year's best-selling books is based on economics.
But University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt isn't your garden-variety economist; he's the rock star of the field, having taken on some topics way outside the norm. After being profiled in a New York Times Magazine article by Stephen Dubner back in 2003, the pair hatched an experiment: They wanted to find out if their incomes would increase if they expanded their previous collaboration and bound the results in a hardcover format. It worked! Freakonomics is currently Amazon.com's third best-seller, behind 1776 and something about a Half-Blood Prince.
It's compelling work. Levitt sees the world through a lens that reduces everything down to how humans respond to incentives. And rather than figuring out why pork belly futures are up in summer, he tackles much more interesting topics, like how parents choose names for their children, why some sumo wrestlers cheat, why swimming pools are more dangerous to children than guns, why the Ku Klux Klan failed to thrive after World War II and why the crime rate plummeted in the 1990s. The book promises that the answers are counterintuitive, but they aren't always -- parents, they find, name their children to reflect how successful they want them to be. No surprise there. But on the crime question, Levitt proves that the crime rate drop, in large part, can be traced to the legalization of abortion. Now there's a hot potato.
This is a fun, breezy read, even if Dubner has a habit of padding out his chapters. And at the beginning of each chapter, he also quotes from the New York Times Magazine story he wrote about Levitt. It's an odd choice.
The world is awash in statistics, and if nothing else, Freakonomics proves that any raw number you hear on the evening news is -- to someone like Levitt -- the tip of the iceberg.