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Freakonomics   book icon  
by Steven Levitt (2005)

read: 1 May 2006
rating: [+]
category: non-fiction

Levitt is supposedly an economical genius. I know that because I read the article in the New York Times magazine about him. This book is written by the same guy. Or, rather, it’s co-written by that guy and Levitt himself. It’s like a longer version of the newspaper article. It has a lot of inteersting economics examples giving you real numbers behind some of the things we take for granted about the way money works. Think drug dealers make a lot of money? Think again. Levitt has access to some of the numbers and shows how drug dealers, except for the highest eschelon, aren’t pulling in too much money and by and large live with their families. Then again the hope that you’ll make it big as a drug dealer seems slightly more realistic than the hope that you’ll eventually be president, so the slog is worth it.

My only exposure to Levitt and his ideas has been via this writer who is obviously fond of him. This book can seem a bit haigiographic at times. I’m sure the guy is really smart. I’m sure his ideas are novel and interesting, the way he looks at social problems through a lens of pure money. On the other hand, they don’t seem that out there. Once you realize that there was a drop in the crime rate when abortions became legalized -- or rather when the generation of children whose mothers had access to abortions grew up -- the question for me is “Then what?” If it’s true, can’t you use that bit of information to affect social change? Maybe? Levitt is also the only economist I’ve read who says that Head Start programs don’t really work. He calibratesHead Start attendance with childrens' future test scores. This really goes against conventional wisdom about Head Start (mainly of the “Head Start works!” variety) and I’d like to hear more about it. In short, the book brings up a lot of good ideas and good research by Levitt, but the answers he discovers aren’t as useful in the pure science-y air of economics as they would be being put to good use outside of academia. After reading this book, I’d like to know more.

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