Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Book recommendation: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Book recommendation: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I think this book is worthwhile reading but was a bit disappointed with it.

The book starts strong, with a few "fundamental ideas:"
"1. Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life
2. The conventional wisdom is often wrong
3. Dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes
4. 'Experts' -- from criminologists to real-estate agents -- use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda
5. Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so"
(pp. 13 - 14)

The book then flows into a series of interesting chapters, each centered around provocative questions such as "How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?" and "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?"

Stephen D. Levitt, the economist co-author, commented (in the US News interview referenced below) that he thinks "... the first thing readers should do is to enjoy it. It's meant to be interesting and stimulating and to provide a deep well of cocktail-party fodder." The book succeeds in that mission but it could have been much more effective, in my opinion, if the authors had, for example, taken the time to close the book with an essay revisiting and reinforcing the "fundamental ideas" from the first chapter.

I had a similar reaction to Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling Blink -- lots of interesting ideas and engaging anecdotes, but lacking a robustly-reinforced thesis (Gladwell is quoted on the Freakonomics cover: "Prepare to be dazzled"; perhaps Levitt will be quoted on the next printing run of Blink...).

In any case: read Freakonomics for insights and good discussion fodder and then pick up Heilbroner's classic The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers (and perhaps New Ideas from Dead Economists if you enjoy the genre) for more substantive background in economics.

Other resources:
Book web site
Review in The Economist
New York Times review
US News co-author interview
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