Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Review of Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

freakonomicsFreakonomics is written by an economist and a journalist, and reads like a work of sociology. The reason for this is that the economist in question – Steven Levitt – has little interest in the stereotypical domain of the economist – stock and shares, fiscal and monetary policy (whatever they are exactly). Instead, Levitt’s interest is in applying the analytical tools of economics to more down to earth topics. So, this book asks a number of seemingly random or nonsensical questions and then tries to find the answers in the available data. The questions in question include (but are not limited to), ‘How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?’ (because they both control information in their own interests) and ‘Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?’ (because, apart from the kingpins, drug dealing is a really shitty, low-paid, high-risk job).

The result is a fascinating, very readable series of essays on a number of important topics – how experts serve their own interests, how one’s name affects one’ life chances, and, most controversially, how the legalisation of abortion in America led to a drop in crime a generation later. The essays usually begin with a fairly random introduction, which then sets the scene for the main topic. All conclusions the authors make are based on what the statistics show or don’t show.

A lot of these conclusions seem blindingly obvious, but aren’t widely recognised because they go against conventional wisdom. The introduction admits that, as a narrative, it doesn’t work because of its disjointed nature, but I would say that slaying the dragon of conventional wisdom is the main theme of this book. For instance, conventional wisdom might suggest that policing initiatives in the 1990s helped curbed soaring crime in the US; comparing crime figures, state against state and period against period, shows that such initiatives had little impact. Instead, the authors assert that the legalisation of abortion meant that a lot of low-income, low-education single mothers simply didn’t have children who were statistically the most likely to take up a life of crime.

As already noted, the book is rather disjointed – and I think the chapters could have been ordered differently. The last chapter, which is about what given names say about people’s prospects in life, is relatively trivial, and therefore a weak finale, compared the earlier chapters. Nevertheless, even with all the extra material in the edition I read – newspaper columns, blog posts and the original article by Dubner that led to the book – I found it a pretty captivating read and I wanted to see the authors cover further topics.

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