Review: ‘Freakonomics’

Buy stock in Monsanto. Invest in solid gold. Sell Microsoft shares. This sounds like advice from a typical economist, but economist and author Steven Levitt is far from orthodox. In each chapter of “Freakonomics,” Levitt brings meaning and connections to two seemingly unrelated concepts. Levitt does this by using economics to analyze the demands and motivations of different people in different situations. The first chapter delves into the similarity between teachers and sumo wrestlers. When teachers are on merit pay, the evidence shows that some cheat to raise student grades. In Japan, sumo wrestlers are treated with the highest honor. Levitt’s statistical analysis demonstrates blatant cheating from some of these wrestlers. Better wrestlers throw matches to worse opponents, expecting the favor to be returned on a future match. Surprisingly, both teachers and sumo wrestlers can be motivated to cheat.

“Freakonomics” dissects many other examples and simplifies the statistics to allow readers to follow along. As limited as my knowledge of statistics is, I can compare the percentages and come to my own conclusion. Levitt has reached a balance between spoon-feeding the information and inundating the reader with symbols and equations. For example, Levitt compares Ku Klux Klan membership with lynching of African Americans. The information is featured in a reader-friendly chart of membership and lynchings for each year. Surprisingly, an increase in membership corresponds with a drop in lynchings. This and other unexpected results unfold in every chapter of “Freakonomics.” These conclusions are more than just interesting facts to be left to theory; the final chapter tackles the issue of naming a baby. Levitt explains the effects a name can have on a child as he grows and matures.

For anyone who ponders the far-reaching effects of decisions, “Freakonomics” is filled with surprising results that will keep the reader engaged. Levitt has created a new perspective on economics, sure to appeal to modern readers.