Summary and book reviews of Freakonomics by Steven Levitt

Freakonomics

A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

By Steven Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2005,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2006,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much heralded scholar who studies the stuff and riddles of everyday life -- from cheating and crime to sports and child rearing -- and whose conclusions regularly turn the conventional wisdom on its head. He usually begins with a mountain of data and a simple, unasked question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics.

Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and co-author Stephen J. Dubner show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives -- how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they set out to explore the hidden side of ... well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Ku Klux Klan.

What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and -- if the right questions are asked -- is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Steven Levitt, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, shows how to see through all the clutter.

Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.

Introduction:
The Hidden Side of Everything

Anyone living in the United States in the early 1990s and paying even a whisper of attention to the nightly news or a daily paper could be forgiven for having been scared out of his skin.

The culprit was crime. It had been rising relentlessly -- a graph plotting the crime rate in any American city over recent decades looked like a ski slope in profile -- and it seemed now to herald the end of the world as we knew it. Death by gunfire, intentional and otherwise, had become commonplace. So too had carjacking and crack dealing, robbery and rape. Violent crime was a gruesome, constant companion. And things were about to get even worse. Much worse. All the experts were saying so.

The cause was the so-called superpredator. For a time, he was everywhere. Glowering from the cover of newsweeklies. Swaggering his way through foot thick government reports. He was a scrawny, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Most people think of economics as a dry subject matter concerning monetary and fiscal matters. How does Freakonomics change this definition?

  2. Freakonomics argues that morality represent the way we'd like the world to work, whereas economics can show how the world really does work. Do you agree?

  3. Freakonomics lists three varieties of incentives: social, moral, and financial. Can you think of others?
     
  4. Freakonomics shows how the conventional wisdom is often shoddily formed. What are some instances of conventional wisdom that you've always doubted?

  5. Does it seem as though "experts" truly hold too much power in the ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Wall Street Journal

If Indiana Jones were an economist, he'd be Steven Levitt...Criticizing Freakonomics would be like criticizing a hot fudge sundae.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Forget your image of an economist as a crusty professor worried about fluctuating interest rates: Levitt focuses his attention on more intimate real-world issues...and...has a knack for making that principle relevant to our daily lives.

Kirkus Reviews

An eye-opening, and most interesting, approach to the world.

Author Blurb Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point
Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America... Prepare to be dazzled

Reader Reviews
mikeb

twisting statistics
This book is based on many comparisons between apparently similar conditions; however, when in reality, one of the contenders is usually statistically or otherwise grossly misrepresented. This provides a lot of Ah-ha and mmmm moments to someone ...   Read More

SJA

My Take On this Book
I am reading this book for part of my English 99 college class, and let me tell you, Levitt had me hooked on the first chapter! I am serious! I love the way he compares two totally opposite things but they have a common situation. I enjoy re-...   Read More

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