FREAKONOMICS, A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. 207 pages, notes, index. Hardcover; $25.95. ISBN 0-06-073132-X.
This book is politically incorrect, in the best sense of that term. Steven Levitt, who teaches economics at the University of Chicago, recently received recognition as "the best American economist under the age of forty." Stephen Dubner is a writer for the New York Times. The book teases out many surprising (and counterintuitive) relationships. Economics, the authors argue, is simply the study of incentives, often hidden incentives, and if one is willing to view the world in a rational way, several "truths" are revealed, some that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. This is not a "scholarly" book; there are no discussions of methodologies; for these one must turn to Levitt's professional papers. It is written in understandable language, including a good "baby" description of regression analysis, causality, and correlation, for the non-scientific reader.
There are six chapters, plus an epilogue. In chapter 1, "What do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?," the topic of cheating, is explored. How did seven million American children disappear on April 15, 1957? Why are most people, most of the time, honest, when they could get away with cheating?
In Chapter 2, How Is the Klu Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?," the authors discuss the power of information, and how it can be abused. They describe, briefly, the Klan's history, including the story of Stetson Kennedy, who infiltrated the Klan after World War II and, with the help of the producers of the radio program SUPERMAN, effectively destroyed them (revealed their private information) in just four short weeks. Fascinating reading. Selling your house? The book offers five terms correlated to a high price and five terms to avoid. For instance, never use "great neighborhood" in the ads!
Chapter 3, "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?," is based on extensive studies among Chicago's gangs by Sudhir Venkatesh. It seems that a gang organization chart resembles closely that of a MacDonald's franchise. The people at the top make a lot of money; the "foot soldiers" live with their moms because they can't afford a place of their own. A case study is shown, including actual financials.
Chapter 4, "Where Have All the Criminals Gone?" is provocative. While there are several factors in the reduction of the crime rate over the past twenty years, the chief one, say the authors, is the Roe vs. Wade decision! I don't "like" that answer, but as one whose profession was market research and statistics, I have to admit the case the authors make is very persuasive.
Chapters 5 and 6, on parenting, asks the question, "Do parents really matter?" The answer is "yes," but perhaps not the way one usually thinks. In exploring this question, the authors point out that a backyard swimming pool is more dangerous than a handgun, a "good school" isn't as good as one might think, having highly educated parents matters and having an intact family doesn't. Other factors that don't seem to matter: The mother working between the child's birth and kindergarten, the child being taken to museums, and the child regularly watching television. Factors that DO matter: Having your first child after age 30, having many books in the home, and being involved in the school PTA. The topic of naming one's offspring is also analyzed; the strange case of two boys, Winner Lane and Loser Lane is described. Contrary to "what everyone knows," the name you give your child seems to have no effect on that child's future economic future.
The epilogue, three pages, sums up the book's thesis: be skeptical of conventional wisdom. Ask a lot of questions. And when you have done all (as a parent), recognize that parenting methods (mostly) don't matter much and that random factors are perhaps the most important in your child's life.
This book is a keeper.
Reviewed by John W. Burgeson Rico Community Church, Rico, Colorado 81332 03-01-2006