Saturday, October 14, 2006

Book Club: Freakonomics

Freakonomics A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner 2005
William Morrow / Harper Collins, New York, New York

This book is pretty famous, and has been sitting on several best-seller lists for a long time. I bought my copy at the same time as I bought My Tank is Fight! and Collapse, from, to get the super-saver free shipping.

The Globe and Mail Saturday Books section (today) lists the price of Freakonomics at $34.95 CAD. I don't think I would have paid that much - I think I actually paid about $20. Paying too much for a book about economics seems somehow ironically foolish.

This book is probably most famous for the chapter that links legalised abortion and crime rates - Levitt argues in a pair of scholarly papers in economics journals from a few years ago that the advent of federally-mandated legal abortion in the USA in 1973 caused strongly lowered crime rates in the mid-1990's. The basic path of that causality goes something like: abortion was rare when it was illegal, because the black market was very expensive. Most women who get abortions are poor and poorly educated. Children of poor and poorly educated women are much more likely to grow up into criminals than the children of other women - and unwanted children are more likely still. Therefore, the "missing" criminals from the 1990's were primarily teenagers who were not born in the mid-1970's.

This interesting point is far from the only insight presented in Freakonics. It's actually a pretty short book; I was expecting 350 pages or longer, but it's only 242 (counting end-notes and index). The book is divided into six chapters, plus an introduction that basically lays out the structure of the book and why particular questions were asked. Besides the abortion-crime chapter (chapter 4), which is really a pretty straightforward and non-controversial concept (unless you have a strong emotional investment in abortion politics, or to a lesser extent in alternate explanations for crime rate statistics), there are excellent explorations of cheating by experts, particularly real-estate agents and teachers, the structure of the Ku Klux Klan, the economics of street-gang crack cocaine sales, and various aspects of parenting.

The story of the KKK, and the damage inflicted upon it by a man named Stetson Kennedy in the late-1950's and 1960's is a fun read. The short version is: Kennedy infiltrated the Klan, learned their "secrets" (super-short version: asinine, juvenile passwords and conventions) and humiliated them by releasing these details to the producers of a Superman radio play, who promptly created a (very popular) storyline in which Superman defeats the evil KKK.

The crack-gang chapter is also hard to put down. Most of the data come from a sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh who stumbled into studying a Chicago gang because his housing data (used for setting up a survey) were badly out of date. I won't reveal any of the details - read it yourself, it's great fun.

The subtitle of this book - "A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything" - is a little misleading. Perhaps, some day, if there are several sequels collected into a single volume, this subtitle might apply, but this individual book is restricted to a very small subset of "everything". Having said that, the way these two people write together, asking interesting questions and discovering interesting answers, is lots of fun. Overall, I think this is a very good book, and well worth the price - well, at least the price that I paid for it.

On a different note, this is the second non-fiction book I own that has a slightly strange binding. I think, but don't actually know, that in most hard-cover books, the edge of the pages is trimmed after binding, resulting in a very straight, square edge that tends to become concave over time. Freakonomics, and The Crisis of Global Capitalism by George Soros, both have pages that look untrimmed, with some pages, presumably those in the middle of a folded stack, extending a little beyond others. This results in difficulty flipping through pages using the edges, and a rough, unfinished feel to the individual pages.


Carlo said...

Hey, I was actually planning on picking this book up if it ever came down in price. I was a bit worried that it was going to have a fiscally-conservative bent to it though... I guess my fears were unfounded (economists scare me). In terms of the binding, I've found that many big-name hardcover fantsy novels bind the untrimmed pages as well. I think this is supposed to give the book an 'ancient' or 'historical' feel... My old copy of Roots was like that too.

TheBrummell said...

As far as politics go, Freakonomics is a very neutral book - I found nothing in it that I construed as either an endorsement or a condemnation of any particular policy.