The writings of economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner read more like a take on sociology than an academic treatise on economics. Due to their unconventional approach, the authors chose the title "Freakonomics" for their book, indicating that it draws from the field of economics but often strays from that discipline or tackles questions that other economists do not. Levitt is an economist at the prestigious University of Chicago. Dubner is a journalist who met Levitt when he wrote an article about him for the New York Times Magazine. Presumably, the ideas in "Freakonomics" are Levitt's, while Dubner is responsible for the wordsmithing. Regardless, it is an entertaining and informative read.
The book seeks to challenge conventional wisdom on a range of topics. It begins by asking seemingly nonsensical questions, such as "What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?" and "Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?"
They answer these questions with numbers.
Schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers each have an incentive to cheat under certain circumstances. By studying data, the authors were able to identify those who most likely cheated, resulting in the firing of some Chicago teachers and the cancellation of at least one wrestling tournament. Beyond their analysis, they speculated why the cheating might occur. Economics is all about how people respond to incentives. Sometimes those incentives are monetary (schoolteachers may fudge students' standardized test results because they are graded on how well students perform on those tests, so higher test scores lead to better performance reviews); but some incentives are non-monetary. A sumo wrestler requires eight wins to remain at the sport's top level. A favored wrestler may throw a fight to a 7-win wrestler in the season's final match if he can expect his opponent to return the favor the following season.
Levitt and Dubner are quick to point out that their findings do not take morality into account. For example, when violent crime fell during the 1990s, many economists cited factors like increased police protection or the threat of the death penalty, or harsher prison sentences as primary causes of the decline. But the authors point out that the data do not support these correlations. Instead, they suggest that legalizing abortions following the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court Case was the most significant factor in reducing violent crime. They reasoned that low-income single teenage mothers were the most likely to take advantage of legalized abortions. Before 1973, children born to these mothers suffered numerous disadvantages, from growing up in high-crime areas to having a mother who did not want a child. A disproportionate number of these children eventually turned to a life of crime. Legal abortions prevented the births of many of these potential criminals in the 1970s, which led to lower crime rates in the 1990s. In contrast, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu banned abortions in his country and encouraged women to have many babies to boost the country's population and influence. Years later, the revolution that toppled Ceaușescu's regime and executed him was largely led by the rebellious children born due to his policies.
Of course, this completely ignores the moral argument about abortions, one of America's most polarizing topics today. Still, this book does not take a stand on the ethical debate. It simply presents the numbers, recognizes correlations, and postulates reasons why these correlations exist.
Other conclusions that may surprise people are a swimming pool in a home is more dangerous than a gun in a home, and the risk of death is higher for a Chicago crack dealer than for an inmate on death row in Texas - far higher!
Other economists and journalists have picked apart many of the findings in Levitt's studies and pointed out flaws in his interpretations. But the book's goal is not to solve the world's problems. It is to help us approach those problems from a new angle.
"Freakonomics" does not provide a lot of answers. But it raised some interesting questions and inspired me to look at the world differently.