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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Revised and Expanded)

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Revised and Expanded)

4.3 224
by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

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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? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a


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? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on 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 stuff and riddles of everyday life -- from cheating and crime to sports and child rearing -- and whose conclusions regularly turn the conventional wisdom on its head. He usually begins with a mountain of data and a simple, unasked question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics.

Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and co-author 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 set out to 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 Ku Klux Klan.

What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and -- if the right questions are asked -- is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Steven Levitt, through devilishly clever and clear-eyed thinking, shows how to see through all the clutter.

Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.

Editorial Reviews

Is this book's appeal due to its wacky revisionist title, its unsettling take on Roe v. Wade, or just its compulsively readable argument that economics does nothing more than study the incentives that drive us? Probably all of the above. What we do know is that it's the only economics book we've ever labeled a page-turner. An extraordinary work of social science explanation without oversimplification.
Jim Holt
Economists can seem a little arrogant at times. They have a set of techniques and habits of thought that they regard as more ''rigorous'' than those of other social scientists. When they are successful -- one thinks of Amartya Sen's important work on the causes of famines, or Gary Becker's theory of marriage and rational behavior -- the result gets called economics. It might appear presumptuous of Steven Levitt to see himself as an all-purpose intellectual detective, fit to take on whatever puzzle of human behavior grabs his fancy. But on the evidence of Freakonomics, the presumption is earned.
— The New York York Times
Publishers Weekly
Though the idea of listening to an economics text may bring to mind nightmarish visions of incomprehensible facts, figures and graphs, this audiobook is refreshingly accessible and engrossing. Journalist Dubner reads with just the right mix of enthusiasm and awe, revealing juicy morsels of wisdom on everything from what sumo wrestlers and teachers have in common (a propensity to cheat) to whether parents can really push their kids to greatness by buying them Baby Einstein toys and enlisting them in numerous before- and after-school activities (not really). The only section that doesn't translate well to the format is the final one on naming conventions. The lists of "White Girl Names" and "Black Girl Names," and "Low-End" names and "High-End" names can be mind-numbing, though the text that breaks up these lists will intrigue. Overall, however, these unusual investigations by Levitt, the "rogue" of the subtitle, make for meaty-and entertaining-listening. Simultaneous release with the Morrow hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 14). (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Economist Levitt and Dubner (Turbulent Souls) team up in this intriguing, quirky look at life and how to understand better the world in a new way. In 2003, the New York Times Magazine sent Dubner to do a profile of Levitt, and the idea for this book was born. Levitt looks at a variety of data, including KKK membership rolls, online dating services, and names for children, and finds in the math underlying answers to difficult questions that have a freakish quality. The quirky chapters include the commonality between schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers, why drug dealers still live with their mothers, and what makes a perfect parent. The crisp, bright narration by Dubner enlivens this title, which will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point as well as to economists. Recommended for university libraries supporting a business and economics curriculum and larger public libraries.-Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Why do drug dealers live at home? Levitt (Economics/Univ. of Chicago) and Dubner (Confessions of a Hero Worshiper, 2003, etc.), who profiled Levitt for the New York Times, team up to demolish conventional wisdom. To call Levitt a "rogue economist" may be a tad hyperbolic. Certainly this epitome of antistyle ("his appearance is High Nerd: a plaid button-down shirt, nondescript khakis and a braided belt, brown sensible shoes") views the workaday world with different eyes; the young economist teases out meaning from juxtapositions that simply would not occur to other researchers. Consider this, for instance: in the mid-1990s, just when the Clinton administration projected it was about to skyrocket, crime in the U.S. fell markedly. And why? Because, Levitt hazarded a few years ago, of the emergent effects of the Roe v. Wade decision: legalized abortion prevented the births of millions of poor people who, beset by social adversity, were "much more likely than average to become criminals." The suggestion, Dubner writes, "managed to offend just about everyone," conservative and liberal alike, but it had high explanatory value. Levitt hasn't shied away from controversy in other realms, either, preferring to let the numbers speak for themselves: a young man named Jake will earn more job interviews than one with the same credentials named DeShawn; the TV game show The Weakest Link, like society as a whole, discriminates against the elderly and Hispanics; it is human nature to cheat, and the higher up in the organization a person rises, the more likely it is that he or she will cheat. Oh, yes, and street-level drug dealers live at home with their moms because they have to; most earn well belowminimum wage but accept the bad pay and dangerous conditions to get a shot at the big time, playing in what in effect is a tournament. "A crack gang works pretty much like the standard capitalist enterprise," Levitt and Dubner write, "you have to be near the top of the pyramid to make a big wage." An eye-opening, and most interesting, approach to the world.
Malcolm Gladwell
“Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America... Prepare to be dazzled.”
Great Reads - People
"Principles of economics are used to examine daily life in this fun read."
Kurt Andersen
“Freakonomics is politically incorrect in the best, most essential way.... This is bracing fun of the highest order.”
Entertainment Weekly
“The funkiest study of statistical mechanics ever by a world-renowned economist... Eye-opening and sometimes eye-popping”
Philadelphia Daily News
“Levitt is a number cruncher extraordinaire.”
Associated Press
“An unconventional economist defies conventional wisdom.”
Associated Press Staff
“An unconventional economist defies conventional wisdom.”
Wall Street Journal
“If Indiana Jones were an economist, he’d be Steven Levitt… Criticizing Freakonomics would be like criticizing a hot fudge sundae.”
Financial Times
“Levitt is one of the most notorious economists of our age.”
New York Times Book Review
“The trivia alone is worth the cover price.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Levitt dissects complex real-world phenomena, e.g. baby-naming patterns and Sumo wrestling, with an economist’s laser.”
Washington Post Book World
“The guy is interesting!”
“A showcase for Levitt’s intriguing explorations into a number of disparate topics…. There’s plenty of fun to be had.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Freakonomics was the ‘It’ book of 2005.”
Business World
“An easy, funny read. Many unsolvable problems the Americans have could be solved with simple means.”
Book Sense Picks and Notables
“Freakonomics challenges conventional wisdom and makes for fun reading.”
New York Times Book Review: Inside the List
“Provocative… eye-popping.”
The Daily Standard
“One of the decade’s most intelligent and provocative books.”
People: Great Reads
“Principles of economics are used to examine daily life in this fun read.”
New York Times Book Review: Inside the List
“Provocative… eye-popping.”
People: Great Reads
“Principles of economics are used to examine daily life in this fun read.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Revised and Expanded
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Do Schoolteachers
and Sumo Wrestlers
Have in Common?

Imagine for a moment that you are the manager of a day-care center. You have a clearly stated policy that children are supposed to be picked up by 4 p.m. But very often parents are late. The result: at day's end, you have some anxious children and at least one teacher who must wait around for the parents to arrive. What to do?

A pair of economists who heard of this dilemma -- it turned out to be a rather common one -- offered a solution: fine the tardy parents. Why, after all, should the day-care center take care of these kids for free?

The economists decided to test their solution by conducting a study of ten day-care centers in Haifa, Israel. The study lasted twenty weeks, but the fine was not introduced immediately. For the first four weeks, the economists simply kept track of the number of parents who came late; there were, on average, eight late pickups per week per day-care center. In the fifth week, the fine was enacted. It was announced that any parent arriving more than ten minutes late would pay $3 per child for each incident. The fee would be added to the parents' monthly bill, which was roughly $380.

After the fine was enacted, the number of late pickups promptly went ... up. Before long there were twenty late pickups per week, more than double the original average. The incentive had plainly backfired.

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. Economists love incentives. They love to dream them up and enact them, study them and tinker with them. The typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme. His solution may not always be pretty -- it may involve coercion or exorbitant penalties or the violation of civil liberties -- but the original problem, rest assured, will be fixed. An incentive is a bullet, a lever, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation.

We all learn to respond to incentives, negative and positive, from the outset of life. If you toddle over to the hot stove and touch it, you burn a finger. But if you bring home straight A's from school, you get a new bike. If you are spotted picking your nose in class, you get ridiculed. But if you make the basketball team, you move up the social ladder. If you break curfew, you get grounded. But if you ace your SATs, you get to go to a good college. If you flunk out of law school, you have to go to work at your father's insurance company. But if you perform so well that a rival company comes calling, you become a vice president and no longer have to work for your father. If you become so excited about your new vice president job that you drive home at eighty mph, you get pulled over by the police and fined $100. But if you hit your sales projections and collect a year-end bonus, you not only aren't worried about the $100 ticket but can also afford to buy that Viking range you've always wanted -- and on which your toddler can now burn her own finger.

An incentive is simply a means of urging people to do more of a good thing and less of a bad thing. But most incentives don't come about organically. Someone -- an economist or a politician or a parent -- has to invent them. Your three-year-old eats all her vegetables for a week? She wins a trip to the toy store. A big steelmaker belches too much smoke into the air? The company is fined for each cubic foot of pollutants over the legal limit. Too many Americans aren't paying their share of income tax? It was the economist Milton Friedman who helped come up with a solution to this one: automatic tax withholding from employees' paychecks.

There are three basic flavors of incentive: economic, social, and moral. Very often a single incentive scheme will include all three varieties. Think about the anti-smoking campaign of recent years. The addition of a $3-per-pack "sin tax" is a strong economic incentive against buying cigarettes. The banning of cigarettes in restaurants and bars is a powerful social incentive. And when the U.S. government asserts that terrorists raise money by selling black-market cigarettes, that acts as a rather jarring moral incentive.

Some of the most compelling incentives yet invented have been put in place to deter crime. Considering this fact, it might be worthwhile to take a familiar question -- why is there so much crime in modern society? -- and stand it on its head: why isn't there a lot more crime?

After all, every one of us regularly passes up opportunities to maim, steal, and defraud. The chance of going to jail—thereby losing your job, your house, and your freedom, all of which are essentially economic penalties -- is certainly a strong incentive. But when it comes to crime, people also respond to moral incentives (they don't want to do something they consider wrong) and social incentives (they don't want to be seen by others as doing something wrong). For certain types of misbehavior, social incentives are terribly powerful. In an echo of Hester Prynne's scarlet letter, many American cities now fight prostitution with a "shaming" offensive, posting pictures of convicted johns (and prostitutes) on websites or on local-access television. Which is a more horrifying deterrent: a $500 fine for soliciting a prostitute or the thought of your friends and family ogling you on www.HookersAndJohns.com ...

The foregoing is excerpted from Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

What People are Saying About This

Kurt Andersen
“Freakonomics is politically incorrect in the best, most essential way.... This is bracing fun of the highest order.”
Malcolm Gladwell
“Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America... Prepare to be dazzled.”

Meet the Author

Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, given to the most influential American economist under forty. He is also a founder of The Greatest Good, which applies Freakonomics-style thinking to business and philanthropy.

Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He quit his first career—as an almost rock star—to become a writer. He has since taught English at Columbia, worked for The New York Times, and published three non-Freakonomics books.

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Freakonomics A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything Revised and Expanded) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 224 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a general interest book- and it certainly is interesting. The book, for anyone looking for an entertaining read, will like it. In a nutshell, the book takes a look at all sorts of things in society, from crack gangs to parenting, and then attempts to make sense of them by applying econonmic principles. According to the book, economics is really the study of incentives, and so using this kind of angle, the book comes up with answers to why things work the way they do.

A book that's hard to put down, I'm sure many readers will enjoy it. Also recommend The Sixty-Second Motivator for a more simplistic explanation of what motivates people and gives them incentives to do what they do.
MaykelP More than 1 year ago
Freakonomics was a very good book. i thought this book was going to be one of those boring economics with only numbers and weird vocab books , but it turned out to be an easy read. i like the way the booked wasn't much address to the number but how to solve and achieve preblems in life and the connection with econommics; also hepls you understand things such as " why do drug dealers still live with their moms"(Freakonomics). a question answered in the book.
Pass More than 1 year ago
Freakonomics provides the reader with the chance to take a new perspective on many different topics. It answers a seemingly complex question of why exactly drug dealers live with their mothers and shows how gangs are the reason why. This book is one that you would not want to put down and will want to read it through to the end. I would suggest that everybody reads this book and learn from it some very hard lessons. A chapter in the book describes how criminologists incorrectly found the answer to the 1990's crime rate drop and how that drop is linked to the legalization of abortion. Levitt and Dubner also show how everybody responds to an incentive, comparing the prices real estate agents get for their house versus their clients; also providing why a sumo wrestler is like a school teacher. This book shows the reader the hidden side of decision-making and how the economy works. It provides an insight to the world of economists and into the world of both psychology and sociology. From the book you can learn ways to bring patterns out of data (even though this wasn't an intention of the book) which is a very valuable skill to have. Another thing to learn is that common, conventional wisdom is mostly made up of lies and is created by "experts" in their own interest. It explains how those experts manipulate people by using their ignorance against them, and hopefully will teach the reader not to believe everything they hear. This book is one that every person needs to read at some point in their life, as it provides many different answers to life's questions and presents the method for answering those. Those methods can be used to answer your own personal questions and will help you out during your entire life.
SSSMN More than 1 year ago
I listened to the audio book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell before I listened to Freakonomics. They are similar in style -- drawing conclusions about modern phenomena based on outlying characteristics. But Gladwell does a better job of telling compelling stories. Freakonomics was more negative - discussing cheating teachers, drug gangs, etc. Gladwell found interesting correlations in less cynical subjects.
Annie_IRP More than 1 year ago
Freakonomics is certainly not the type of book I usually read, but I couldn't resist after all that I had heard about it. The six sections of the book, each bearing an intriguing title, explore truths behind modern day conventional wisdom, incentives, and morality. Covering a wide range of topics, from sumo wrestling to the bagel business to the Ku Klux Klan, the book offered a refreshing perspective to a few fascinating questions. Levitt's argument that legalized abortion played the central force behind the crime drop of the 1990s, though at first startling, seemed to be thoroughly supported with convincing evidence. This trend follows throughout the book, as the authors present plenty of statistics for each of their findings and let the numbers speak for themselves. Levitt and Dubner stand strong despite all controversy, further solidifying their arguments as well as making the expanded version an interesting read. Overall, the book was well-written and intended for a lay audience, straying away from sounding too scientific. Each chapter proved entertaining, as Dubner explains logical arguments with enthusiasm and a bit of humor. I truly enjoyed the eye-opening approach that Freakonomics offered and the strange topics of interest, learning much along the way.
eveyykim More than 1 year ago
Personally, the book did not appeal to me. But I have to agree that the book had a lot of interesting facts, and that I did learn a lot. It is an easy to read book and has humor, making the reading exciting to many.
trichick1225 More than 1 year ago
I felt the book was interesting and intriguing. It breaks down the concepts of economics into bite-sized read. It's a fanatic book and a good read
UCFJennybean More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. As an economics major it is so great to see the field studied and written about in a practical use that the majority will find interesting, even without ever really understanding an economics class. The reasearch was very thorough and the book is so fun and unique. It is a must read! I read this when it first came out years ago and I have re-read it multiple times out of the pure enjoyment of it.
tjm22 More than 1 year ago
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner is an easy, interesting book, even for people who do not usually like nonfiction or economics. Although based around economics the boook links people and situations that one would never believe could be linked before reading the book. With such chapters Why do drug dealers still with their parents? and What do sumo wrestlers and teachers have in common? the book only gives the facts about the situations and leaves readers up to the challenge of figuring out what these facts mean. As I opened the book I never believed it would keep my attention throughtout. But as the facts came out and two totally different situations were linked I couldn' t put the book down. This book is good for anyone intersted in learning random facts that can be turned into a whole diffrent level of learning. Fun and interesting this book could be read by almost anyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book presented a completely new way of viewing economics. The connections made were truly enlightening and at times humorous. Levitt's style of writing makes it so you don't want to put the book down until you've hit that back cover. Through reading this, I know have a new and appreciative perspective of Economics. 
Mariah Fallon More than 1 year ago
This is a good book, and it definitely succeeded in making economics appealing to the average person considering its best-selling status. The authors were not afraid to put forward some controversial ideas and always had interesting points to make and confidentially put forth to. Not every argument was bulletproof but I think it would be safe to say that they were thought provoking. The book is latent with humor and every argument was slowly constructed. I did, however, occasionally find the build too slow, but that wasn’t too inhibiting for my enjoyment, especially because I enjoyed its informative nature dealing with economics but striving further in relating interesting factors of history and instances for example the many factions of the KKK and their ridiculous and infantile nature was interesting and amusing.  But in an effort not to reveal too much, I would just say that it definitely impacts the reader in many ways, and supports being skeptical about many things put out in the world and curious and question asking. - Mariah Fallon   
Ashley Scoggins More than 1 year ago
Freakonomics was awesome! MUSSSSSSST READDDDDD :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it.
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AM_Olga_ More than 1 year ago
This unconventional economics book hooks a reader at first glance. It can relate to anyones life; since it portrays societies daily hardships. By doing so, its a simple, intriguing quick read, that one will never forget. Hands down, greatest economics book!
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Chrisperez123 More than 1 year ago
The topics in this book, ranging from cheating sumo wrestlers to crafty Real Estate agents, are explained with the full spectrum of possibility in mind. This book does a fantastic job of widening one's perspective and making one much more critically inclined. This is the type of book that anyone could benefit from reading, regardless of age or occupation. I'd recommend it to anyone!
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