- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

FREAKONOMICS: A ROGUE ECONOMIST EXPLORES THE HIDDEN SIDE OF EVERYTHING

By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Morrow, $25.95 242 Pages

In recent memory, there has not been an economics text that has gripped the popular consciousness like this intriguing and strikingly original collaborative offering from wunderkind economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times Magazine contributor Stephen J. Dubner. But then again, there have not been many books in the genre that have explored “the hidden side” of so many disparate undertakings.

The book deals with economics on its most primal and street level, fielding questions that seem to have eluded John Kenneth Galbraith, John Maynard Keynes and other titans of the social science. A few of those pressing questions that Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner consider include the following: Why and how would schoolteachers rig the administration of standardized tests? Why do sumo wrestlers fix their matches? What do a crack dealer, a high-school quarterback and an editorial assistant have in common?

And why didn’t Jerry Seinfeld’s iconic 1990s sitcom resonate with black audiences? One of the singular accomplishments of this book is its ability to bring together analyses of seemingly unrelated situations, and explain all of them through imparting a simple truth; namely, that people respond, more or less rationally, to economic incentives. Desire drives people to take actions that may seem irrational from the outside, and it is this insight that leads to some of the strongest prose in this book.

In a chapter titled “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?” the authors argue that life essentially is a tournament, and that street-level drug dealers are willing to incur unfathomable risks for the distant possibility of being a drug kingpin. Taken on its own, this insight is not terribly original. But where Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner shine is in the art of comparison. When the authors compare a thug on a corner selling nickel bags to a high-school quarterback training for a professional career to establish the idea that people are willing to take unfathomable measures for the right payoff, however remote the chance for that payoff is, it is hard to argue with them.

This book is largely based on papers and theories Mr. Levitt has been developing for some time, and so it is inevitable that the text here revisits long-simmering controversies. Perhaps the most controversial assertion in this book is Mr. Levitt’s theory that legalized abortion had more to do with the lowering of the rate of what President Bush the Elder called “the rough crime of the streets” than did zealous efforts toward gun control, the booming economy of the 1990s or increased latitude in police activities.

Many critics have maintained that Mr. Levitt’s position — that legalized abortion stemmed the crime wave because it effectively cut down the size of the underclass — amounts to little more than an endorsement of eugenics. But that would be an unfair representation of the data and analysis put forth here. Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner here avoid servicing any current political agenda. Pro-choicers of the left cannot use his “endorsement” of Roe v. Wade without sounding ghoulish. And those on the right likewise cannot cling to “Freakonomics” as if it’s the Talmud.

This is to the credit of the authors: Rather than getting wrapped up in an external agenda, they attempt to do the impossible, and keep their book above the tendentious maw of retail politics. And so it is that there is something nervy, even essential in their assertions. When the authors warn against how “informational advantage” is used to fool people, it’s hard to argue with them given what the 21st century has looked like so far.

If the book has one central flaw, it is the unstinting promotion of Mr. Levitt throughout the text. In part, this is because the genesis of the book itself was an article Mr. Dubner wrote about Mr. Levitt for the New York Times Magazine in August 2003. The article celebrated Mr. Levitt’s quirks — his “boyish lisp,” his outmoded sense of style that went too far to even be “geek chic” — in an attempt to establish the character of the award-winning University of Chicago economist.

The book leans heavily on that article and one suspects that these attempts to sex up “Freakonomics” through characterizing the economist will not age well on bookshelves. Yet, despite this quibble, the book on the balance is a must-read. Even those ill-disposed to agree with Mr. Levitt’s contentions will come away enriched for being exposed to them.

A.G. Gancarski is a freelance journalist currently working on a book about the 2004 election in Florida.

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