three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
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A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

A-FreakonomicsIt is a shame that the most prominent public face of economics is Alan Greenspan. His parched speech and owly glasses confirm the cliché—economists may be smart, but man are they dull. Here, in the nick of time, comes Steven D. Levitt, posing all kinds of interesting questions: What is the relationship between your real estate agent and the Ku Klux Klan? Would a crack dealer be better off slinging fast food? Did the legalization of abortion lead to a reduction in crime in the 1990s? How much do parents really matter? Levitt and his writing partner Stephen Dubner support their answers with reams of data that validate Levitt’s counterintuitive theories and suggest that economics is really the study of incentives—how to get what you want and, just as importantly, get what others want. Down with interest rates; all hail Freakonomics!
Morrow. 242 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 006073132X

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"If Indiana Jones were an economist, he’d be Steven Levitt … a maverick treasure hunter who relies for success on his wit, pluck, and disregard for conventional wisdom. ... His genius is to take a seemingly meaningless set of numbers, ferret out the telltale pattern and recognize what it means."
Steven E. Landsburg

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"He cuts to the heart of a question and picks topics that are fascinating. All social scientists should ask themselves if the problems they are working on are as interesting or important as those in this superb work." Michael Shermer

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Yet a little self-indulgence can be tolerated in a book as instructive and entertaining as this one. … The trivia alone is worth the cover price." Jim Holt

Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"Freakonomics can be reductive and irritating, and some will be offended. But almost everyone will be startled to learn that an American child is 100 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than die from a gunshot wound. … The two Steves are out to provoke and entertain, and their accessible, flippant book does just that." Karen R. Long

Newsday 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The familiar Gladwell [author of Blink] manner—a kind of breezy drifting from one entertaining anecdote to the next, floating effortlessly past references to contemporary social-science research—gets recycled here into what can only be called a style of evasive lucidity. … But as each idiosyncratic inquiry gives way to the next, no logical pattern takes shape." Scott McLemee

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"... Freakonomics leaves the reader with the sense of encountering an assortment of clever ideas that have been crowbarred together into something that doesn’t really work as a book."
Gregg Easterbrook

Critical Summary

"Rogue" economist might be an overstatement. As a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the recipient of the John Bates Clark medal (presented by the American Economics Association to the nation’s most outstanding economist under 40) Steven Levitt is hardly an outsider. Yet when journalist Stephen Dubner published a profile of Levitt in The New York Times Magazine, the economist’s theories struck many as, well, freaky. Levitt’s field of behavior economics tries to combine classical economics with the emotional rules of human behavior. Some critics complain that Freakonomics reads too much like an extended collection of articles without a theme; wasn’t this the same complaint we heard most often about Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2005)? Sometimes we don’t mind learning about a variety of things, you know. Levitt and Dubner’s continued partnership uncovers entertaining tales of the many quirks of human behavior.