BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Well ...

As anyone who regularly follows this space will tell you, I don't have exactly "popular" reading habits, and somewhere around half the time over on LibraryThing, I'll be the only person reviewing a particular book, and one of only a handful having a copy. Needless to say, in the case of Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, this is not the case (with over 12,000 copies logged in there, it's the 70th "most popular book", and it's been reviewed nearly 250 times). While this doesn't "cross the line" over into Fiction (for the past several years I have read only non-fiction), it has that "well, what do you say about a book that so many people have already read?" vibe about it, which I find oddly unsettling when looking at doing a review. On top of that, a follow-up edition ("Superfreakonomics" ... insert your own Rick James reference here) just came out, so there's buzz about on the subject, making my adding to the verbiage seem somewhat superfluous.

I ended up reading Freakonomics by a bit more direct route than is typical of my recent acquisitions ... at the open session of this summer's Ad:Tech conference here in Chicago, the noted "chief innovation officer" for the Publicis Group, Rishad Tobaccowala, strongly recommended that if one hadn't read the book, one should make a point of doing so. In my recent job search, I have become quite "coachable" when it comes to suggestions from the leading lights in the fields where I'd like to be working, so I promptly put in an order with Amazon for a copy.

For those of you not familiar with the book, it is a collaboration of a noted economist, Levitt, and a former NY Times editor, Dubner. The book arose from Levitt's application of economic theory to various societal issues, with frequently unsettling results (the "central idea" of the book is rendered: "if morality represents how people would like to world to work, then economics shows how it actually does work"). This starts out fairly straight-forwardly, with an analysis that helped filter out "cheating" teachers in the Chicago Public School system, and then mirroring this with a look at how Japanese Sumo wrestling appears to be "fixed". The book would have been a much dryer read, however, if it had stayed in a strictly numerical zone like that, but it soon shifts into a more general range, looking at how the Ku Klux Klan was battled by opponents who focused on airing its secrets, and how, without the aura of those secrets, the organization lost much of its appeal, and comparing this with the reality of real estate agents using their "secrets" to frequently make deals that are not in the full interest of their clients.

The middle sections of the book are the most controversial, first looking at inner-city drug dealing as a business, which the authors end up considering not much different, structurally, than a fast-food chain, or other highly stratified corporate entity, as a way of answering the question "why do drug dealers still live with their moms?" (short answer: the average gang member typically clears less than minimum wage while the "obscene profits" concentrate at the top of the organization). Most notable, of course, is the section on why, contrary to all forecasts in the 80's and 90's, did crime suddenly drop. The analysis here points not to "new policing strategies", not to the economic boom of the era, but to the effects of Roe vs. Wade ... that substantial chunks of what would have been a whole generation of criminals were aborted in the inner cities, and rather than "coming of age" as a predicted wave of street thugs, appeared as a major gap in the numbers. Needless to say, this was a horrific concept to both the Religious Right and the Lenient Left, and gave the authors their biggest notoriety.

The last sections deal primarily with parenting, with many "counter-intuitive" revelations about what is and what isn't important in raising kids, at least as the numbers indicate. I must admit that I had some firmly-held opinions challenged here regarding the value of certain things we worked hard to put in place for our kids. This then moves back into controversial areas with a look at naming patterns, and how black kids end up with names which are likely to stigmatize them (in terms of moving into mainstream society), as well as to long-term patterns of name use.

What I believe that Mr. Tobaccowala was getting at in so strongly recommending this book is to be in a place where one questions "the conventional wisdom" and looks beyond the surface appearances of societal features. Certainly (despite "the numbers" presented here), much in Freakonomics can be taken with a grain of salt, but it is something of a light being shone into areas not specifically considered previously.

As one might expect, this is widely available, and would no doubt be in stock at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor; however, Amazon has it at almost half (42% discount) off of cover, which is quite a deal (and on a par with the available used copies), so that's likely your best bet, if this is something that you've "been meaning to get around to reading".

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Tags: book review

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