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March 22, 2005


Of all the rogues described in Henry Miller's Paris, my favorite was "Monsieur L'Econome" the man who made Henry pay the rent. He was a pain in Miller's side, always there to remind him of economic reality. Steven Levitt is Mr. Freakonome and his book 'Freakonomics' will not so much remind us, as astound us with heretofore untold economic realities.

A 'freakonomy' might be described as a highly indexed and tabulated view of something of curiosity to the average American, but probably an unlikely subject in the staid academy. For example, what are the statistical probabilities that a girl named 'Molly' will be white? Levitt is not mollified by just one name, he goes multivariate. Among whites in California who makes more money, the parents of Sarah or the parents of Ashley? Levitt has a habit of asking the kind of questions you and I would ask, and he employs state of the art tools and methods to cull out fascinating facts. He's rather like Cecil Adams with a slide rule. But these are not idle questions merely for the curiosity. They go deeper still. What are the chances that DeShawn Williams will get a job when his resume is identical to Jack Williams? Why does Shanice name her daughter Deja? Is that correlated to their chances of success in America?

Levitt offers us a fresh look at a number of subjects which are bound to turn the conventional wisdom on its head. He covers race, parenting, crime, cheating, abortion, drug dealing and gun control with the forthright honesty that we are fortunate enough to expect from his generation (Mr. Levitt is under 40), and the academic discipline of an award winning economist of the Chicago School. His first book, Freakonomics is a tour through the mindset of a man bent on discovery - unafraid to ask any question of our society.

It's difficult for me to distance myself from the excitement attending the opportunity to review this book before publication. It's significant for me personally as a blogger and it also indicates that folks at William Morrow take the blogosphere seriously. Both are great news. But even if I'd found this book in the dusty stacks of some second-hand bookstore, I'd marvel at its approach and conclusions. And yet I'm hungry for more. Freakonomics serves to remind us how uncritically we have looked at race and how rarely statistical facts bear up the most common arguments we are accustomed to hearing. The discipline of distinguishing correlation from causality serves Levitt and his researchers well, and so does having mountains of data. But the most important thing is that the questions are being asked in creative ways and the whole nine yards of research are covered. As a black parent in a predominantly white suburb, there are a wide variety of topics that I have found relevant to my life in Levitt's book that have to do with what is assumed about parents, children, school, race and class. This alone could be a momentous study.

If Freakonomics is flawed, it is because it is a compendium without a theme. One wonders if there is anything compelling enough to gain Levitt's undivided attention. Then again, we'd have to wait years and years for another book, and Freakonomics just screams for a series of sequels. There is simply no theory thick enough to hold predict the trajectories of the bullets he's shot through conventional wisdom. Or perhaps Mr. Levitt has been kind enough to withhold the names of the fellow economists he's shamed. It seems more likely that Levitt's peers are all packed in the same posse and they are headed off into a new direction. I just wonder if any of this freaky wisdom is going to stick in the interim. In that, Levitt rather blows a hole in the field of economics and sets us all to wondering what the hell economists have been doing all this time.

One thing is clear, however. Levitt & Dubner make approachable some of the inner workings of economics. They make it look a lot easier than the work probably was, and a geek like me would have appreciated if they jumped meta every once in a while. I mean, how does one come upon a database of 16 million birth certificates from the state of California and what does it take to get access? Beacuse if Levitt can do that, what could be done with all of the huge marketing databases we have in America? See? The door has been thrown open on the fact that a lot of conventional wisdom, including the belief that experts like real-estate agents are working in our best interests, is wrong. All it takes is a little creative thinking, a good database and some economic grinding. Who knows how difficult and time consuming that grinding may be, but as they say in the X Files, the answers are out there. Levitt's approach begs to be hacked and replicated because we tech folks know, there are galaxies of data out there.

I highly recommend this book. Although I wish it were a bit more geeky and unapproachable, there's no denying the juicy insides. The writing is light but thoughtful and it's a solid introduction to a new way of second guessing the experts. Key to this is Levitt's keen sense of being able to identify how and to what extent people are incented to do the things they do. If you're looking for a Michael Pollan or a John McPhee, you're going to be disappointed, but Levitt and Dubner do well. This is a mass market book which is going to make a big spash, and you will no doubt be hearing more about Steven D. Levitt (and his economic posse) in the future.

Posted by mbowen at March 22, 2005 10:26 AM

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So if you got an advanced copy of the book, when can I get my hands on it? You've got me intrigued.

Posted by: matt at March 22, 2005 11:05 AM