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Freakonomics

I finished reading Freakonomics by Stephen Levitt on my return flight from the Barkley Forum at Emory this past weekend, and it definitely revived some of the economics-envy that I often feel when I see those ec kids studying interesting stuff.

For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what to make of the book. The name didn’t inspire thoughts of a very serious endeavor (I mean, come on, you might as well have called it Bizarreciology or something like that), and the description “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” as well as the bizarre cover (of some sort of apple-orange hybrid thing) seemed like it was one of those pop-superficial-actually-empty-on-the-inside books. Much to my surprise, it was anything but.

To be fair, Stephen Levitt is only the economist who did much of this data collection. The actual author and probably a huge reason why this book was such a quick read (even to someone as slow as I am) is Stephen J. Dubner, who I believe is a New York Times writer of some sort. He’s funny and manages to carry across actual economic intuition without overly dumbing it down OR using excess academic verbiage.

Onto the meat of the matter, Levitt basically describes how the basic concepts of economic study (ie incentives, information, market arbitrage) apply to things that aren’t conventionally thought of as economic studies. Levitt himself covers parenting, the naming of children, cheating, and crime, but the field goes farther than that. I’ve seen papers talking about the “value” of having more sex (the increased happiness from increasing the amount of sex a couple has from once/month to once/week is apparently equivalent to more than $100,000), studies detailing the optimal strategy for whether to leave the toilet seat up or down, and some other random stuff like how to pick/when to dump significant others (apparently the best strategy is to stay in any relationship that’s still good but with the caveat that as soon as you find someone better, you drop them like a bad habit).

Levitt is particularly bold in the way that he approaches politically sensitive topics. He tackles the issue of the quality of schools in America and shows how from an incentives point of view, teachers have a huge reason to cheat to make themselves (and their students) look better and then shows with empirical data how this is true. He also tackles the idea of crime in America and its paradoxical decline in the 1990s when every expert had predicted a huge rise. Concluding that the cause could not have come from (or at least was not primarily due to) better economic policies, increased police numbers/quality, new criminal laws, or even the politically charged concept of gun control, but the landmark Supreme Court decision of Roe v Wade. Tracing the numbers and using the example of a poor Eastern European nation, Levitt concludes (although this is no moral endorsement of it) that the sudden legalization of abortion led to a decline in the number of children born to the families and the environments most likely to “produce” the children who would turn to crime!

I was somewhat stunned by that proclamation, and turning to my debate/science/atheist instincts, I was immediately skeptical — although somewhat fascinated by the prospect, and I think that is why this book was such a delight to read — Levitt does not dumb the explanation down nor does he bog it down with excessive academic ivory-tower-ness.

One of the best things — Levitt was Harvard-educated, is part of (or was in) the Harvard Society of Fellows which is basically a society where mad genius nerds get together and talk about mad genius nerd things, and seems to collaborate with Harvard people up the wazzoo (either that or they’re the only ones who study anything interesting). Another great thing, especially to anyone who wants to do economics but is worried about math or the lack of any real affinity for monetary issues, is the fact that Levitt says he hates math and knows next to nothing about how the economy works.

What’s not to like?

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