Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

September 30, 2005

What a terrific book this is! Steven Levitt is an economist, but the focus of his attention isn't the usual subjects we expect from the dismal science. Levitt instead collects data from seemingly random topics and then publishes interesting results. It is hard to imagine that statistical analysis could lead to such insight, but this book is a real page turner. Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the book, is the writer who's prose is so successful at explaining Levitt's ideas.

The first section is titled What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in Common? The answer is that they cheat. Levitt takes a large body of results from standardized tests and from sumo wrestling results, and is able to show how to spot the cheaters. There are other topics covered briefly - such as unexpected results at daycare centers that fine parents for arriving late to pick up their children. The whole first section is about incentives, and about some unintended consequences.

The second section is even more interesting - it is titled: How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of Real Estate Agents? This section talks about insider knowledge, and about how the internet evens the score a bit for anyone outside the area of expertise - real estate agent commissions are not going to stay high for much longer. There is also a discussion here about online dating services and what information yields the best responses

The third section may be the best. It is titled: Why do drug dealers live with their moms? This is just a great story - it is about a Chicago graduate student who wanders into the tough Chicago neighborhood to ask survey questions of poverty stricken inhibitants. He is kidnapped by a gang, but they don't know quite what to make of him - he obviously not from a rival gang, and not a cop. Eventually, this researcher ends up befriending a lot of the gang, and he spends a lot of time with them, learning about their life style. Eventually, he gets a hold of the "account books" of the gang leader, which details all of his expenses and profits. The cost/benefits of gang life become available for an economist like Levitt to analysis. Interesting reading indeed.

The fourth section is certainly the most controversial. It is titled: Where have all the criminals gone? The answer isn't going to please anyone: Levitt deduces that since legalized abortion is removing unwanted children from society, and since unwanted children are raised in the worst circumstances and thus most likely to turn into criminals, that abortion has reduced our crime rate. Neither conservatives nor liberals like this answer, but that statistics are hard to argue with. It is another example of unexpected consequences that economists like to study.

Section five is titled What Makes a Perfect Parent? This has a lot of nature vs nurture discussion. There is a pretty cool study about school choice. Levitt analyses 8 factors that make a child do better in school, and 8 things that don't. Always entertaining and informative reading.

Unfortunately, chapter six is simply padding. It is about names parents give their children, and it is mostly pages with lists of names, without any of the amazing insight or clever analysis. This is my only gripe with Freakonomics. Chapter 6 begins on page 179, and it is clear that is all the material worth reading in the book. 179 pages is a pretty thin book, however interesting, and even those 179 are padded with excerpts from a New York Times review that praises Levitt - we have already bought the book and are reading it, what is the point of these long excerpts except to length the thin material. This would have been a five star book classic if only there had been more to it. Still, it is one of the best nonfiction books I have read. Check it out from the library, or buy it second hand - you will rip through it