Understanding the world in economic motivations

July 03, 2005|By James O'Shea | James O'Shea,Chicago Tribune

Economics

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Morrow. 256 pages.

Freakonomics is the book world's answer to kung pao chicken. You get the sizzle and spice of a tasty dish, but not much in the way of real food. A breezy and iconoclastic look at the world through the eyes of a rogue economist, Freakonomics is not your usual heavy tome about the dismal science. If you are looking for something like Lester Thurow's The Zero Sum Society, an insightful book suggesting that economic policy-makers play a high-stakes game in which they take as much as they give, Freakonomics is not for you.

The book uses the data and methodology of economics to poke holes in the conventional wisdom about sensitive and thorny issues ranging from crime, real estate and abortion to parenting and sumo wrestlers who cheat. Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economics professor, is the rogue economic brain behind the book and Stephen J. Dubner the writer. The two decided to collaborate on a book after Dubner wrote a glowing New York Times Magazine piece about Levitt that started off with a description of him as "the most brilliant young economist in America." Writers like that aren't easy to find, so Levitt called on Dubner when the magazine piece sparked the interest of book publishers. Excerpts from Dubner's profile are sprinkled liberally throughout the book.

A key premise underlying Freakonomics is the relationship between morality and economics: The former may represent the way we want the world to work, but the latter shows how it actually works. You can understand the world and why it works the way it does, the authors say, by simply scrutinizing the economic incentives that motivate everyone, from real estate agents to drug dealers. Think the ghetto is full of drug-running kids who won't take a job flipping hamburgers at McDonald's because they can make more money selling coke of a different kind? If you do, Freakonomics can teach you a thing or two. The authors argue that young apprentice drug runners actually make the equivalent of the minimum wage or less. Only ringleaders make a bundle.

The sections on the drug trade actually rely on some fascinating and rare street-level research done by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who spent years hanging around with a Chicago branch of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation street gang.

In Freakonomics, that provides the grist for the chapter "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?", which portrays the Black Gangster Disciple Nation as an organization much like an American corporation. The book's strength lies in its style and the authors' willingness to challenge conventional wisdom in matters big and small. Their political incorrectness, in choice of subjects and conclusions, is refreshing and fun. But the book struggles with the same challenges that face the modern media. In its attempt to entertain and entice readers with an irreverent style, Freakonomics, at times, substitutes style for substance, leaving looming questions unanswered.

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