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ESSA

Book Review: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner


Joel Fernando

By

August 31st, 2020


There’s a lot to be learned about economics beyond lecture halls, journals and the news. Books can provide a holistic, sometimes radically different, perspective on the role of economics. What can we learn from these books? With our new weekly book review, ESSA intends to find out. Read on for our review of the first book: Freakonomics


⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents how it actually does work.”

‘Freakonomics’ is described as “a rogue economist who explores the hidden side of everything” which is the quite the claim. Levitt, an American economist and Dubner, an author and journalist, seek to show the reader what lies below the surface of various real-world phenomena. The pair try to answer questions such as “why do drug dealers still live with their mums?” and “what do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?” by using data and looking at underlying trends—with surprising results.

Covering topics such as information abuse, the economics of fear and the role of incentives, Freakonomics encourages the reader to perceive the world differently—to not be forthright in accepting surface-level explanations. For example, Levitt shows that the primary cause of the drop in 1990s US crime rates did not involve the police, stricter gun control nor the strength of the economy but rather the outcome of the judicial hearing of Roe vs. Wade (no spoilers!). The book is filled with a number of fascinating, counter-intuitive insights as Levitt and Dubner remark: “The conventional wisdom is often wrong.”

For a book of this type, I enjoyed the fact that it was not centred on one central theme and used a variety of scenarios to illustrate the author’s viewpoints. However, this contributed to the main drawback of the book in my opinion. There were certain occasions where Levitt only provided a limited economic explanation of the ideas he was trying to convey and instead spent a lot of time discussing tedious and irrelevant detail. This shallow economic analysis was something I realised at only the end of the chapter upon reflection as the writing style is generally intuitive and easy-to-read. Maybe that is just me—someone who is interested in the economics and not the fluff.

Having said this, the structure of the book makes it simple to pick-up and start reading from any chapter as they can be largely be read independently of one another. This makes the book a perfect candidate to sit at your desk, on a coffee table or at your bedside as it quickly draws and keeps the attention of the reader.

Overall, I was a bit late to the party on Freakonomics despite listening to the duos identically named podcast series, but I enjoyed reading about the different examples and insights provided by Levitt and Dubner. The book is probably more suited to people who aren’t studying economics as it will likely leave economics students wanting a greater understanding and economic reasoning however, it is still an interesting read that I believe most people will enjoy – 4/5 stars.  

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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