Monday, April 25, 2005

Review of Leavitt and Dubner's Freakonomics

Freakonomics is the work of Steven Leavitt and the writing of Stephen Dubner. Leavitt, as many of you may recall demonstrated a bunch of months ago that the main cause of lowered crime in the mid-90s in the US was that it was the time when all the babies who were aborted because of Roe v. Wade were not mugging people as teenagers.

Naturally this makes him an ingenuous thinker and so I got the book. Who would have thought of that? The book is actually pretty good. It starts off with a brief explanation of incentives and just runs from there. The book shows how you can catch school teachers when they are cheating in order to inflate their students' grades. It shows how the venerable institution of Sumo wrestling in Japan is rife with fixed matches. The economics of drug dealing are discussed, as are some of the factors that goes in to making for successful child-rearing. There is a nice discussion of the economics of real estate (hint: the agent is not your friend). And a favorite topic of mine is discussed: names. Apparently poor people eventually take the names of rich people.

The contents of the book are good. What I really did not like about the book is that it was really quick. There was way too little packed in to the book to make it worth it. This is one of those books where you go in expecting it to take you a few weeks to read and have it so jam-packed with stuff that you are wishing you could remember it all, but know you cant. What you get instead is a few well-written bits. The bits are nice and valuable, but one hopes for more, and you can finish the book in a day if you have patience.

Leavitt is really bright, and an intriguing thinker. Let's hope he has a long career.

Added 5/2/05:In addition to being the object of reviews in every newspaper I have read, Leavitt is excerpted in this month's Wired, and also in The Week, Interviewed in New York Magazine, and the subject of a particularly moronic editorial in Time Out New York.

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