Thursday, April 18, 2013

Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

So, I know that this week's book is kind of out of our regular purview here at the Arsenal, but I found this book very informative and an excellent educational read. In addition I saw the documentary of the book which deals with many of the issues on Netflix and so I'm going to do a little compare and contrast between the two. And as a final sort of take-that, the field of economics is one of many sources of information that historians use to piece together the story of the past and chart change and development over time. I especially found the question of why crime dropped dramatically in the 1990's particularly interesting just for the historical context.

Freakonomics, as the authors state, doesn't have any real central theme other than, perhaps, their desire to overturn conventional wisdom through analysis of data. Levitt and Dubner ask varied questions like: "Is your real estate agent really getting you the best deal for your house?" "Would teachers cheat on standardized tests?" and "How much does a child's name affect their future?" The answers are surprising, but supported by a truly extensive sampling of data and numerous peer-reviewed papers and, as Levitt says, while people may lie, numbers don't.

Aside from asking some interesting questions and providing equally interesting answers, Levitt and Dubner have managed to make the world of economics accessible to the masses through very easy reading and concrete anecdotes and examples, rather than dealing with the usual vague, mathematical absolutes. By translating concepts such as incentives and information asymmetry into concrete examples such as higher pay for teachers or the, supposedly, esoteric information available to real estate agents. Freakonomics will definitely change how you approach numerous situations and hopefully challenge some of your long-held assumptions about how the world works. Although Levitt's economic research may be trivial, it has long-reaching affects and has even changed how the Chicago Public School system approaches standardized testing.

In regards to the Freakonomics documentary, it addresses many of the questions tackled in the book, such as the sudden drop in crime that occurred in the 1990's, the prevalence of cheating among sumo wrestlers, and how much a child's name affects their future. I felt that the documentary was capable of being more focused because there seemed to be a temptation within the book to bring in outside information that, while relevant to the question Levitt and Dubner were trying to answer, in my opinion disrupted the overall flow of the text. The documentary definitely benefited from a much tighter focus on the subject material, even if that made it more limited in scope. In addition, both the book and film have material which does not overlap but is still interesting, such as the questions "Why do drug dealers live with their moms?" and "Can you bribe a high school student to succeed?".

Overall I would definitely recommend that my readers go and read both the book Freakonomics and the similarly titled documentary. The questions are provocative and interesting, the writing is incredibly accessible, and the results are thought-provoking and informative. Levitt and Dubner have done a great deal to demystify economics and make it applicable to the man in the street, which I think is the truly great service done by this book. I shall hopefully be tackling the second installment from these authors, Super Freakonomics in the future and find it equally engaging.

- Kalpar

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