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Home > Reviews > Freakonomics

Freakonomics
Written by Orna PepperMint   

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner 242 P. William Morrow. 25.95$.

Review by Orna Gadish

Economy is a fascinating field, and Freakonomic helps readers to look at various phenomena in real life from a different perspective, a social-economic one. Many incentives, occurrences, and events resulting in people’s behavior, and also businesses and organization’s incentives just can't be understood otherwise. Using economist’s binoculars is mandatory in understanding modern life events.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner 242 P. William Morrow. 25.95$.

Book Review by Orna Gadish

Economy is a fascinating field, and Freakonomic helps readers look at various phenomena in real life from a different perspective, a social-economic one. Many incentives, occurrences, and events resulting in people’s behavior, and also businesses and organization’s incentives just can't be understood otherwise. Using economist’s binoculars is mandatory in understanding modern life events.

Nonetheless, it seems, economic perspective alone is not sufficient. Any phenomena can be translated into a set of figures and analyzed based on statistics. Beyond number crunching, the real thing is the ability to detect an underlying pattern that explains and affects how people behave and think.

For this ability to inspect details, detect the pattern, and analyze its meaning with relevance to real-life events, I found Freakonomics enlightening. It is true that the authors expand the overview, putting a huge emphasis on the background—presenting statistics and facts. But this is deliberately done to convince the readers not to accept the events as they are. Readers are triggered into extracting the beyond the surface patterns, with the aid of the book, later realizing the patterns' meaning.
 

To make my point clear, let's take a look at a few examples. In one of the chapters Levitt nails a bunch of US Chicago public school teachers for artificially inflating their students' standardized test-scores. The evidence is clear, Levitt actually reproduces all the answer sheets from two Chicago classrooms and challenges the readers to spot the cheater.

Then he shows how it is done. He points to suspicious patterns that the reader probably missed. Looking for an answer, he piles pattern on pattern, ruling out one explanation after another, until only the most insidious explanation remains: The teachers cheated consistently, in order to higher-score their classes, their schools, and in order to obtain higher rating for their own tuition level within organizations. And the motive is clear: the better the pupils perform, the better reputation and salary they are going to get.

Another interesting treatment is the case of the cheating Sumo wrestlers. Here, an entirely different kind of data (the win-loss records from tournaments) is presented: The identification of a suspicious pattern, a labyrinth of reasoning to rule out innocent explanations, followed by a compelling indictment: Sumo Wrestlers cheat, in order to inflate the money streamed at their so called “sport” gambling business.

Levitt goes on and scrutinizes real-estate brokers’ interests in a deal, asking whether they really represent their clients' interests. The answer is No. Being acquainted with the figures, the data analyses bring the readers to one  conclusion: real estate brokers are like “double agents”–working for the seller they will do just about anything to ensure the highest price, while at the same time, promising the buyers the best deal of their lives. Since their revenue of any deal comes to only a few percents—lowering the asset’s price for the sake of "the deal" is an evident result, serving buyers way more than the sellers.

Americans tend to trust their brokers (whether they are real estate agents, mortgage brokers, financial brokers etc.) They are far from spotting the malevolent incentives beyond the scene. Could it be so that American’s nature is more naïve? As opposed to Israelis, for instance, that are frequently skeptic about their brokers. Israelis use real-estate broker-services in moderation. They don’t have mortgage brokers, however financial brokerage is gaining more popularity today. Perhaps Israelis doubt has to do with their reluctance to pay the commission; perhaps Israelis are simply less naïve.

Another sensational and controversial issue is the explanation why crime rates in the US have fallen so dramatically in the previous decade. Levitt collected figures demonstrating that crime began falling in the US just 18 years after the US Supreme Court effectively legalized abortion. In addition to that, in five states, crime began falling three years earlier than it did everywhere else. These were exactly the five states that had legalized abortion three years before the sweeping Roe v. Wade law took effect in 1973.

Levitt piles pattern on pattern, until eventually, the evidence overwhelms the reader completely. The bottom line is—that legalized abortion was the single biggest factor in bringing the crime-wave of the 1980s to a convincing halt. This fragile, at times religious issue strikes the readers, leading them to the question: why? The answer is that teen single-moms who are usually poor, bring up their unwanted kids to an unstable reality, where crime might be the ultimate retreat. Childhood poverty and a single-parent household are two of the strongest predictors of future criminality, it appears.

So should abortions be legalized because of its tremendous positive-effect on crime-rates? Perhaps they should. But Levitt does not seem to solve this debate, but rather constructs the right framework for thinking about it critically and then leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions.

The daring book is on to other questions, such as: Why do so many drug dealers live with their mothers? What do crack gangs and McDonald's restaurants have in common? Which parenting strategies work and which don't? Does a good first name contribute to success in life? All of these questions are answered in a maverick manner, unafraid to break the consensus about social-conventional occurrences.

My personal preference of ingenious explanations to the naive and the ingenuous ones—led me to believe that Freakonomics is inspiring in the special way it treats conventional and controversial issues. Light is shed on patterns from a different angle, always making readers active in extracting the underlying patterns out of plain statistics. Explaining the hidden economic-motivation behind the scene, the one that is not usually evident at first glance—the readers are eventually left inspired to think.

For the Freakonomics site - see: http://www.freakonomics.com 



 
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