Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Published by William Morrow

256 pages, 2005



 

 

 

When Nothing Is What It Seems to Be

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

The cover illustration is so apt, it should be award-winning. It's beautiful, as well. We see a green apple -- probably a Granny Smith -- looking just as it should; just as we expect it would. It looks luscious. A piece has been sliced out and sits beside the apple. And you can see that all is not what it seems to be: the flesh of the apple is, in fact, the wetly delicious inside of an orange.

The book created by the collaboration between "rogue economist" Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner is succinct and stunning, a neat trick for any book, let alone one co-authored by an economist. But Freakonomics isn't just about economics, any more than Harry Potter is just about a kid whose parents have died. I mean, both things are true, but in both cases, there's a whole lot more, as well. And things, of course, are seldom what they seem.

"Prepare to be dazzled," Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, warns us in the cover blurb. While that sounds theatrical, we are dazzled. We're dazzled by Levitt's thoughts and Dubner's presentation as well as by a whole bunch of ideas smooshed together in ways we never thought possible. In ways we never thought of at all.

In Freakonomics' introduction, the pair explain this slightly:

What they were all responding to was the force of Levitt's underlying belief: that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and -- if the right questions are asked -- is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking.

Levitt and Dubner do more than look in a new way: sometimes their assertions and discoveries are downright controversial. Take, for instance, the high U.S. crime rates of the early 1990s. We've heard many reasons for the much lower crime rates enjoyed now: gun control, police strategies and other "specific and recent human initiatives." But Levitt has the answer to lower post-1990s crime rates -- he doesn't phrase it as a theory and his answer is as surprising as it is controversial: he puts the much lower present-day crime rates firmly at the feet of the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973.

It wasn't gun control or a strong economy or new police strategies that finally blunted the American crime wave. It was, among other factors, the reality that the pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk.

Now, as the crime-drop experts (the former crime doomsayers) spun their theories to the media, how many times did they cite legalized abortion as a cause?

Zero.

Clearly, in the current political climate, saying such a thing loudly and with confidence is not going to win you any brownie points with a large segment of the population. But read on, the authors of Freakonomics are not looking to win any popularity contests. They point out, for example, the similarities between a group of real estate agents and the Klu Klux Klan, those between a crack gang and an American corporation and, as sort of a related aside, the commonalties between crack cocaine and nylon stockings. As well, they ask some seemingly bizarre questions like, for instance, what is safer? A gun or a swimming pool? And, "Why do black parents give their children names that may hurt their career prospects?" And, if drug dealers make so much money, why do so many of them still live with their moms?

The first trick of asking questions is to determine if your question is a good one. Just because a question has never been asked does not make it good. Smart people have been asking questions for quite a few centuries now, so many of the questions that haven't been asked are bound to yield uninteresting answers.

But if you can question something that people really care about and find an answer that may surprise them -- that is, if you can overturn the conventional wisdom -- then you may have some luck.

If we take this as read, Levitt and Dubner have indeed found the knack of asking interesting questions. Freakonomics is a delight. Sharply written and interestingly organized, the authors manage to cram in an amazing amount of stuff you probably would never have had cause to think of on your own. Will any of it change your life? Probably not. But that isn't really the point. The authors hope you "might become more skeptical of conventional wisdom; you may begin looking for hints as to how things aren't quite what they seem; perhaps you will seek out some trove of data and sift through it, balancing your intelligence and your intuition to arrive at a glimmering new idea." | September 2005

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.