Red Koi Reviews

See what I've seen, hear what I've heard

Freakonomics

Posted by redkoireviews on 16/12/2006

Freakonomics bookcoverI picked this up at the airport, after hearing about it on the radio. Economist Steven Levitt teamed up with journalist Stephen Dubner to write about what economics can tell us about human behavior and society.

They use a variety of interesting example to make some surprising conclusions: legalised abortion reduced crime 20 years later, good parenting is more about your life before being a parent, and the relationship between names and socio-economic status.

I really enjoyed it – it’s not what most people will think of as economics so don’t dismiss it as a dry read. Statistics is the foundation of the book, with some discussion of incentives, and some crude guesses at other social phenomena.

Like most economists I’ve met, Levitt argues that incentives are what drives almost everything about people and society. I’ve always found that argument to simplistic – like hedonists who say the only thing that drives people is pursuit of their own happiness (the two are almost the same). It assumes that people respond rationally to the size of any ‘incentive’, which most people don’t. It also assumes people are good at comparing different outcomes on an equal basis over time, which they don’t. Levitt also has that tendency to make a complex system into a nice, simpler one where cause and effect is a more straightforward affair. Perhaps that comes from having to turn it into a saleable book rather than an academic paper.

Finally, it shits me when people blur science and conjecture. Levitt presents his statistical findings and then hooks his own opinion on without much distinction.

But for all that the case studies are an interesting insight into human and societal behavior. I’d love to see more, and more involvement of psychologists. You can get a flavour of the book and the authors at their blog.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

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