June 10, 2005

BOOKS: Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2005)

The authors tell us at the outset that there will be no "unifying theme" to this book, a series of explorations into how the methods of economics can be used to answer questions where they don't seem intuitively useful.

Levitt's an economist, and Dubner's a journalist; Dubner's 2003 New York Times profile of Levitt led them to collaborate on this book, which asks (among others) the following questions?

  • What are likely to be the most popular baby names in 2015?
  • If there's such a huge market for crack cocaine, why do crack dealers all still live with their mothers?
  • How do you catch teachers who cheat on their students' standardized tests?
  • Were contestants on The Weakest Link racist?

Most controversially, we get Levitt's explanation for the plunge in the crime rate in the early 1990s. The major cause, says Levitt, wasn't new policing strategies (that had virtually no effect) or the increased number of police officers (though that did contribute); it was the legalization of abortion 20 years earlier. An entire generation of children who might have been born to single mothers living in poverty -- precisely the children most likely to become criminals -- hadn't been born because those mothers were able to have legal abortions.

Freakonomics feels more like a series of magazine articles than it does like a book, but the subjects explored are so interesting, and Levitt & Dubner's style is so accessible and entertaining, that it's terrific reading.

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