Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I am currently engrossed in the southwestern frontier world of Sarah Agnes Prine, but I just realized that I have a stack of books that need to go back to the library this week and if I don't take some time to review them now, they'll soon be out of sight and out of mind. So I will tear myself away from Sarah's tale and the amazing voice talents of Valerie Leonard bringing it to life in my audio book, and try to stir up some recollections of something not related to frontier survival.

I'll start with Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and co-authored by Stephen J. Dubner. What that really means is, Levitt provided all the brains and research that the book was based on, and Dubner presented it in a format that would be interesting to the average reader. This popular book really deserves all the attention it's gotten. It is fascinating, engaging, and easy to read. It reads like a conversation, or rather, like an interesting fast-paced monologue because really, when someone is throwing that kind of stuff at you, what can you really contribute besides, "Huh, no kidding," and then let them continue?

Levitt's position is that economics is basically the study of incentives; why people do what they do; what are the incentives that drive them? I can support this idea because I've seen it at work. My sister-in-law studied social work in college and is a master of developing behavior modification programs that use incentives to encourage desired change. It was a strength professionally when working with mentally handicapped young adults, but it's also been a powerful tool in her personal life in helping her with her children, her husband, her volunteer work, you name it. Everyone responds to incentives; the trick is to discover what incentives work for an individual and (assuming you have a conscience and don't believe that the end justifies the means) how to constructively use that knowledge to encourage them to improve.

Levitt's research leads to surprising conclusions. He makes unusual comparisons and turns conventional thinking on its head (even attacks the whole idea of conventional thinking). He tackles a variety of subjects such as the Ku Klux Klan, real estate agents, crack dealers, school teachers, the gameshow The Weakest Link, and even parents who give their kids stupid names -- all in an effort to get to the bottom of why people do the things they do. And ultimately to illustrate that we need to be asking more questions to try to see things the way they really are instead of how the news media or various experts and authorities would spin it.

Some of the material is controversial (e.g. saying that parents don't have as much influence over their kids as genetics), and some could be downright offensive (e.g. insisting that legalized abortion was the biggest force behind the big crime drop in the '90's). But I never felt like he was pushing a political agenda so I felt free to agree or disagree with him however I wished. And sometimes I just had to say, "Huh, no kidding," and then continue drinking my 8 glasses of water a day and reading to my children even though he claims that neither activity is proven to have any benefit. As a side note, one drawback of encouraging the reader to question everything is that I couldn't help but question him and wonder how watertight his conclusions really were. And since the supporting empirical evidence was a bit sketchy at times (which I suppose it had to be for a book like this -- I wouldn't have understood it anyway), it was hard to know how much to trust him.

But a few things were clear. First, Levitt is a very smart man who asks interesting questions of the world around him. Second, Freakonomics is full of compelling insights into human nature (both the good and the bad). And third, it's a fun, quick read that will entertain you and just might make you question some of your long-held assumptions about the world as we know it and your relationship to it.

And now, I'm sorry, but the Siren song of Sarah's western drawl is filling my head again and calling me away, so the other books will have to wait this time!

1 comment:

  1. Huh, sounds interesting. I've never even thought about reading a book about economics (which I don't pretend to understand anyway) but this looks like it might be a place to start.