Freakonomics is one of those books that haphazard and has so little unified theme in it, that you wonder why the author hasn’t published each chapter as a separate title. But it’s probably one of the most interesting books you’ve ever read about economics. I can’t say I’ve read the book since I bought a CD and listened to it in my car during the daily commute, but the breadth of chapter always provided an interesting story to listen to, a story usually totally different than the previous one.
Freakonomics is written by an economist. This can’t be good, you say. GDP growth percentages and laws of supply and demand are interesting up to a point. Stephen D. Levitt, however, is not your typical economist. In his research he looks at some questions that intrigue him, and even conventional wisdom is there to provide the answer, he would always try to find out how the things really work.
The book, then, is a collection of questions asked followed by an answer, sometimes surprising, sometimes interesting, but never the conventional one, all backed up with statistics and economical data. The questions are all in chapter titles, the answers and some subsequent questions are discussed further in the chapters.
The chapters usually discuss the system of incentives, the usual conventional response to the question, and then the way the things really work. Why don’t we have so many criminals in the streets now and are not hit by a crime wave, predicted by pundits in the beginning of 90s? Does the existing education system provide incentives for teachers to cheat on the state exams and “beautify” the students’ answer sheets, since funding is tied to performance? Are sumo wrestling matches rigged? Can you make good money if you become a drug dealer? After all, the realities portrayed by 50 Cent videos have many more material things than you could ever hope to earn with white-collar employment? Is your real estate agent genuinely interested in selling your house for the maximum amount possible, as his/her commission depends on the final sale price? Do parents, who have many books in the house, have children, who score better than average in school? How about spanking – does that have any effect on child’s future? Is the name of the kid important for his future career?
Some points of the book are bound to cause controversy, since to many of the issues people have an emotional attachment, such as parents, believing that reading to the kid daily will eventually improve the school test scores, the chances of going to a better school, and subsequently, the chances of earning better money. Or authors’ conclusion relating the level of abortion with the level of crime (hint: most of the time it’s not an affluent 2-person household wanting to get an abortion) is bound to cause a heated debate, if you mention the results of Levitt’s findings to a pro-life activist.
The author is interesting to read (listen to in my case), he keeps the reader interested, and it’s hard to let the book go, since he keeps coming up with another set of questions to ask himself. After all, how many books give you an insight into operation and management of a crack dealer gang, and compare it to the corporate infrastructure of McDonalds?
Another good thing for those considering getting the audio version of the book is that the CD set of 6 disks came DRM-free, which allowed me to transfer one disk into MP3 and put it on my player while I was working out at the gym.
Originally I figured I’d put the book on my wish list after reading this article in Wired magazine. Wall Street Journal also ran a surprisingly positive review on the book, saying that it’s hard to criticize. Freakonomics is well-written, it’s filled with facts, not opinions, and has introductory stories of how many surveys (such as infiltrating a crack gang) were done. The authors also keep a blog on the book’s Web site. There’s also an article on baby names in Slate magazine.