Freakonomics is an entertaining reminder that correlation does not indicate causation, proof that not all economists are interested in the economy, and a valuable deflator of a few harmful common sense truisms. It is obsessed with subtly pointing out that the word “data” is plural. It’s commentary on apples that are really oranges is purely metaphorical.
It is easy to compare this book with the similar bestseller Blink, by dust-jacket endorser Malcolm Gladwell. Indeed, the subtitle, “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” seems to jive with Gladwell’s way of carefully evaluating the world through communications-theory tinged lenses.
The subtitle is somewhat of a misnomer. Levitt is considered “rogue” because he delights in applying microeconomics to thorny subjects that are not adequately explained by statistical analysis. He has no overarching theory of anything – just an endless series of slightly counterintuitive but highly logical facts about everything.
Levitt and Dubner’s “hidden side of everything” epiphanies are highly entertaining, and educational. You will certainly be the hit of the watercooler for weeks after reading this book. However, the epiphanies are not especially portable. Knowing that a swimming pool is more dangerous to children than a handgun does nothing for comparing the dangers of a trampoline against a hunting knife collection. All the authors have to say about that is that you’ll need lots of data.
Maybe the lack of long-term impact to your way of thinking wouldn’t seem like such a shortcoming if this book was anything more than a compilation of six over-long magazine articles – the main text barely tops 200 pages. Furthermore, though the book has an extensive works cited, it features no footnotes – meaning you have to turn to the back of the book every time you read something interesting to see if it came from another source.
If any of Levitt’s assertions are valuable beyond passing amusement, clearly that assertion is the link between available, legalized abortion and lower crime rates. This bombshell is dropped in the book’s introduction, and later discussed for almost a full chapter. Though the authors repeatedly disclaim that the data are not meant to support a pro-choice position, it is hard to come away with any other conclusion. Focusing on this aspect of the book might seem like an unfair attempt to politicize a exercise in economics applied to socio-politics, but you could say the same thing about books by Marx or Durkheim. Clearly, Levitt is on to something important, and the fact that he carefully disguises it behind a cleverly non-sequitur title and cover image rather than making it the focus of his first book is insulting, and maybe tragic.
The authors are clearly trying to build a sort of narrative (from drug dealers to abortion vs crime-rate, to parenting, to children’s names), but they clearly run out of steam in the sixth and final chapter, which drones on with lists of names for poor kids, middle class kids, black kids, and white kids. For every list, the findings get less revolutionary, until Levitt is pointing out facts that would barely rate as footnotes, if he had any.
Freakonomics is a quick, lightweight read chunked into six chapters that should each probably be read in only one or two sittings in order to gain their full impact. With a hefty $26 purchase price for it’s brief length it is a book that should be borrowed from the local library, unless one of it’s common-sense-deflators is extremely valuable to one of your social or political causes, or if its cover would look especially appealing on your bookshelf.