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Non Fiction

Freakonomics (not too freaky actually!)

freakonomicsWhich 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 good parenting really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of 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 riddles of everyday life whose conclusions turn conventional wisdom on its head. They usually begin with two seemingly unrelated questions and a mountain of data. 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.  Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist.   

The authors demonstrate (Using simple economics / math) how:

  • What do school teachers and Sumo Wresters have in common? This is my favourite chapter as the authors demonstrate pattern of discerning eyes to see how teachers cheat on student’s exam sheets so that they do not get penalise by the system. And how Sumo wrestler is willing to let his opponent win if losing one game is of no effect to the winner. What is the incentive to cheat? How does a Bagel man who left his Bagel on office block and operate on honour system make his living? Is his discrepancies between bagel sold and money collected a good gauge for white collar crime?
  • How Ku Klux Klan like a Group of Real Estate Agents? real estate agents don’t care how much more we could get on our property, while they sell their own for the best prices, because the meagre commission wouldn’t amount to much, hence better to close the deal and move on to the next. Ku Klux Klan secret society was difficult to infiltrate because we are a victim of information asymmetric.
  • Why Drug Dealers still live with their Moms because drug dealers at the lower hierarchy don’t earn enough to live while the top men of the pyramids are very rich. You also get a profit and loss account of Dealers expenses with the help of Sudhir Venkatesh’s undercover role as the ring member.
  • How is our fear of imminent death is greater than fear of gradual death? How is that we think a house with Guns are more dangerous for children than a house with a swimming pool, where statistics says children died of drowning is more than died of accidental gun shot? How is it that we are more afraid of flying when it is more likely we meet with a road accident than an air crash? How is it that we are more afraid of terrorism when heart attack kills a lot more people? It is the imminent possibility of death that drives fear. Fear best strives in present tense.
  • The authors nullified all possible causes of crime prevention measures by argument and statistics and deduce that crime rate in USA has dropped due to legalising abortion. Far fetched? But I tend to agree with them.
  • Your name can make or break your life. And the book went on to tag each boys and girls name with how many years of education of the mother. My name sits on the upper educated quartile, so does Sophie and Veronique. (It’s crap, don’t believe in it! If any good were to come out of reading this, is not to name your boy ‘Loser’ and your girl ‘Temptress’!)
  • Parents have no active role to play in a child’s life, but a lot to do with what they were born genetically. (Yeah that’s what I believe. Throw that parenting books away, because if you and your partner are genius, chances are your kids are too). And then perhaps for fear of discouraging well intention parents, the author went on to say that random effect happens, underprivileged do get to be great, and the privileged possibly become a bomb criminal like Ted Kaczynski.
Steven Levitt

Steven Levitt

The book is armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties, so what if it hasn’t got a unifying theme? It’s engaging, with one topic alludes to another. It’s like having a conversation with the authors, and they gently bring you from one topic to another seamlessly, and at the end of the conversation you look back and think to yourself, hey, we discussed many things, mostly discourse about things we think are not related but could be directly related. 

There are a few topics that I think is a bit too speculative; they draw correlations where there should be none. There’s a bit about race and academic performance that still sits badly with me. But I guess it’s polarizing issues like this that make economics interesting.

While many of the examples are amusing or engaging in their own right, what really results from the book are a lot of questions on the part of the reader. Every principle in the book is made clear and backed up with both statistics and logic. No, the questions this books provokes are larger than that (just think, “if drug dealing and McDonald’s are so similar, what does that say about capitalism?” and “if real estate agents are actually acting on their own agendas, who else might be?”). The book is great at making people think – about themselves, the world, humanity, whatever. It’s great at making people doubt experts, to doubt conventional wisdom, even to doubt themselves. It encourages readers to use a sort of every-day empirical method to think about the world around them, rather than to just stand by and never question.

Overall though, I loved the book. The writing is great, the material is even better; the reasoning is sound, defeat is conceded and there is no overt bias (it’s not telling you that capitalism or socialism is good or bad, whether you should give up parenting or not, whether a bad name would tarnish you for life; it’s just explaining, in simplest terms, why these mechanisms exist). Even if it’s disturbing, even if it’s controversial, but the book makes you think. I highly recommend it, and encourage you not to pass it up just because it’s nonfiction!

Stephen Dubner
Stephen Dubner

Verdict: 4/5
What I like most about the book: Witty, humourous, bizarre, thoroughly engaging and mind-bending for a non-fiction. Keeps you interested from beginning till end.

What I like least about the book: The book is well written and though it suffers from a problem common to books of this genre – the evidence presented is selected so as to support the hypotheses. I can’t help feeling because Levitt get ripped-off from a real estate once, he legitimised his personal bias and backed it up with stats about real estate agents that has no interest of the buyer in mind. And the statistics about how high a percentage of men and women tendency to exaggerate about their personal qualities when advertised in the match-making websites, i.e. a man tend to exaggerate how rich he is and a woman how gorgeous she is. Is that anything new?!! Also the book is written in American context, take it with a pinch of salt if you think the findings are applicable to every country settings.

About the Writers: 
Steven David “Steve” Levitt (born May 29, 1967) Winner of the 2003 John Bates Clark Medal, he is currently the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, director of the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and co-editor of the Journal of Political Economy published by the University of Chicago Press. He co-authored the best-selling book Freakonomics (2005). Levitt was chosen as one of Time Magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World” in 2006. See more at: Wiki. 

Stephen J. Dubner (born August 26, 1963) is an American journalist who has written four books and numerous articles.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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