Review of the Book Freakonomics by Debner and Levitt

If the thought of the local riff raff dressing up at Halloween and demanding treats with menaces does not fill you with dread then maybe the thought of reading a book based on the application of Economic statistical analysis just might, however in reality your fears would be misplaced because just as the youth is just someone’s offspring so this book is an entertaining and thought provoking read which merely takes the tools of Economic theory and applies them to a whole range of issues and questions.

Now the last time I read an Economics book was over 19 years ago for my degree but I had read a couple of reviews of this book and thought it sounded like a fun read. There are two authors of the book; Steven Levitt has been claimed as the most brilliant young American economist whilst Stephen Dubner is a writer for the New York Times. It is pretty obvious that whilst Levitt has the theories and the ability to pose some quite unusual questions, Dubner contribution to the book is to take these and produce a commercially acceptable vehicle which will entertain the general public.

This is achieved by the ability to pose some quite random and strange questions alongside some serious topical ones and to use the evidence gathered by Levitt to either prove some popular assumptions wrong or to produce a whole new explanation for what is going on. This results in a book that poses some quite fascinating questions that cannot help to attract the readers’ curiosity.

Once you get past the introduction which details how the two came to work together and summarises the later content of the book the first chapter is imaginatively entitled “What do school teachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common?” The remaining chapters have similarly interesting titles which whilst they hint at the content can often take the reader in a slightly different direction. “Why do drug dealers still live with their Moms?” is another such example. There are also some sections that are a little more straight forward with titles such as “What makes a perfect parent?” and “Where have all of the criminals gone?”

Now I do not want to go into any real detail of the content of each chapter as in part this will give too much of the “plot” away as the enjoyment of this book is discovering the opinions expressed and making up your own mind on whether they are valid or not, however I will give a flavour of the latter chapter “Where have all of the criminals gone?” as it not only serves to show how Levitt mind works but also some of the concerns that might be expressed about his theories and the danger of them being adopted by those of a certain political bias.

In the chapter Levitt looks at the changes in crime figures that took place across the USA and opens with the predictions in the early 1990’s that crime rates were expected to rise dramatically with the growth of crack fuelled crime and a year on year rise in the 80’s. When in fact the crime rate actually fell many theories were put forward to explain this including the most popular theories about the increase in police numbers, the zero tolerance policies of Mayor Giuliani in New York, rises in gun ownership and conversely tougher gun controls to name but a few. In this chapter Levitt goes on to explore each of these and using statistical evidence goes on to state his views on which of these actually stand up to interrogation. In some cases he finds evidence to support them, for example there is a direct causal correlation between an increase in the number of serving police officers and drops in crime numbers however his assertion is that such claims often over state the effect. At the end of it all Levitt provides his own unique theory to the fall in crime and links it back to a court case that took place 20 years before in the mid seventies which established the right of women to have an abortion. Now clearly linking abortion to crime reduction is not likely to be the most ethical of views and Levitt is at pains to state that he does not view this as a policy proposal however what he does show is a direct statistical relationship between the two with an effective evaluation of how this occurs that on the face of it is hard to challenge. In fact policies that impact on population growth have throughout history been used to attempt to achieve economic or political goals, take for example China attempt to restrict population growth with laws restricting families to having only one child and Hitler attempt to wipe out a number of races during the 1940’s.

What is interesting in this theory is that currently in the US there is legislation that will likely go all the way to the Supreme Court that will challenge the Wade v Roe ruling of 1973 and if successful it will be interesting to review the crime figures for the USA in twenty years time to see if the trend has been reversed.

There is a certain amount of what I would call “dumming down” in the content of the book. There is reference to the statistical analysis that Levitt makes use of however he does not go into great detail making it hard to challenge some of his theories after all there are “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” (to probably miss-quote some saying but the gist is right) however it must be recognised that this is a book aimed at the mass market and as such it certainly achieves its aim as it does provide an entertaining thought provoking read which will make most readers question their own parenting methods, confirm their mistrust of estate agents and make smarter bets on sumo fights.

The book is well written in my opinion with a good use of humour and despite an attempt to talk up the profile of Levitt with a number of quotes and reproduced reviews in the book it does serve to get the reader thinking and to recognise that some things we assume to be true or accept at face value may in fact have no real foundation in reality.

Do remember to assume is to make an ass of you and me.

Published by Penguin books the rrp of the paperback is 8.99 which is a little pricey as it runs to only 207 pages of meaningful text however those nice people at Amazon will provide it to you for a more reasonable 5.39 new or for an even more reasonable 1.98 in the new and used section. The ISBN is 0-141-01901-8.

Thanks for reading and rating my review.