Wednesday, February 21, 2007

book clubbing in February

February was a nonfiction month for my book club. We read...

Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

A shortened version of the publisher’s book description:
Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?
These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much-heralded scholar who studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing—and whose conclusions turn conventional wisdom on its head. [...]
Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and [Stephen J. Dubner] show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives—how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. In Freakonomics, they explore the hidden side of . . . well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Klu Klux Klan. [...]

Freakonomics is essentially a repackaging of the work of economist Steven Levitt (who actually teaches at my alma mater) previously published in academic journals. His collaborator, author and journalist Stephen Dubner, was able to produce a work more easily digestible by the general public (I say this because the book reads as if it was written almost completely by Dubner).

Personally, while I thought the book was interesting, I’m not sure that it lives up to all the hype especially since it falls significantly short of the claim in its subtitle: to explore "the hidden side of everything" (emphasis mine). The book consists of six chapters each of which explores one or two things (with a few other things tangentially discussed); that’s a far cry from everything.

In any case, none of us were really crazy about the book (one didn't like the part about the Sumo wrestlers, some questioned the data used and what assumptions were made, two people thought you could just read the introduction and skip the rest) and much of our book club discussion this month actually veered away from the book itself to other interesting economics questions.

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