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Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

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Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt
These days, insomniacs have a wide array of sleep aids at their disposal: melanin supplements, acupuncture, and good old-fashioned narcotics. But as a college student, nothing could render me unconscious faster than a standard business or economics class. Man, that was some of the best sleep I ever had.

Not that I wanted to sleep, mind you. Au contraire. I'd actually plunk myself down in front, with excellent intentions of remaining conscious for the entire hour. But try as I might, economic aggregates, cross-price elasticity, and opportunity costs would soon have me drooling narcoleptically all over the university-issue wooden table.

Even today, stumbling into the proximity of a conversation on fiscal policy, global economy, and GDP has the same effect on me. And normally, I would quickly decline the opportunity to read anything remotely associated with economics.

That was before Steven D. Levitt's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything showed up on my doorstep.

A University of Chicago economics professor, Levitt showcases his divergent approach to the discipline by applying economic theory to obscure yet intriguing social questions:
What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents?

Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?

Levitt opens Freakonomics by laying down a couple of cornerstone ideas, the first of which is the definition of economics as "a study of incentives - how people get what they want or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing." Levitt flys in the face of economic and social convention, ruffling a few feathers along the way. Take for example his hypothesis that the dramatic fall in violent crime during the 1990s was a direct result of legalized abortion in the 1970s. This is bound to incite more than a little fervor in the pro-life community, but that doesn't stop Levitt from proposing and subsequently proving his theory by statistical means.

He also methodically outlines and substantiates cheating trends among teachers in the Chicago school system by analyzing test score data between 1993 and 2000. He doesn't stop there, but goes on to compare the finagling of test scores with the match-fixing done by elite Japanese sumo-wrestlers, in a compelling study of incentives.
Lest you think the book a bespectacled economist's hodge-podge of dryly delivered data, I should mention that Freakonomics is co-authored by Stephen J. Dubner, who had earlier been sent by The New York Times Magazine to write a profile of Steven Levitt. Their partnership makes Freakonomics a statistically accurate but wonderfully readable cultural expedition.

In an interesting chapter that underscores the power of information, Levitt details how in the mid-1940s, one man by the name of Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, a group whose power lay in the secretion of information, and by creatively disseminating Klan info, single-handedly prevented a postwar revival of the racist organization.
Levitt also debunks some of today's more relevant conventional wisdom: the notion of driving being a far more dangerous form of transportation than flying. While it's true that many more people die annually in car accidents than in plane crashes, it's often overlooked that the dramatic difference in number of deaths is largely due to the amount of time the average person spends in an automobile in comparison to the relatively small number of hours spent in flight. Levitt goes on to show the per hour death rate of driving to be about equal to that of flying. Have a nice trip.

Levitt is no fourth rate economist, by the way. Despite his cowboy sensibilities, he was honored in 2003 with the John Bates Clark medal, one of the field's highest honors (Levitt also sports a Harvard undergrad and a PhD from MIT).

While it may not be the book you want to read on your next transcontinental flight, Freakonomics is a tribute to the creative application of a traditionally dry discipline. Levitt promises "no unifying theme" to his book, and he is true to his word. Freakonomics is a wide-ranging miscellany of number-crunched social commentary that just might cause you to see the world through slightly different glasses.

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