Staff Pick: “Freakonomics”


Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Economist Steven D. Levitt and author/journalist Stephen J. Dubner joined forces in 2006 to publish the trendy “Freakonomics” book, which was made into a movie. It’s based on the theory that economics can explain everything, and that people respond to incentive-based motivation. For instance, a real estate agent may convince you to sell your house for a lower price to get his commission sooner, while he himself would hold out if he wanted a certain price for his own house. They draw a parallel between teachers, who cheat so students can meet certain mandated standards, and sumo wrestlers who intentionally lose so fellow wrestlers can reach higher levels to reap financial gain. Another case study involves students getting money to improve grades. Money is a great motivator for some, while others don’t want to change their behavior and/or reputation. Perhaps their most controversial theory is that birth control can lead to a lower crime rate. The reasoning here is that there will be less unwanted children to roam the streets and join gangs.

The message here is that we need to look at things from another angle. Things might not be as cut and dry as we think. Levitt and Dubner bring up many interesting points. Their efforts have led to the creation of a Freakonomics blog, podcast and consulting group. They have also published a follow-up book titled SuperFreakonomics (2009). It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

– Carl (Local Historian Librarian)