Byline: A.G. Gancarski, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
In recent memory, there has not been an economics text that has gripped the popular consciousness like this intriguing and strikingly original collaborative offering from wunderkind economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times Magazine contributor Stephen J. Dubner. But then again, there have not been many books in the genre that have explored "the hidden side" of so many disparate undertakings.
The book deals with economics on its most primal and street level, fielding questions that seem to have eluded John Kenneth Galbraith, John Maynard Keynes and other titans of the social science. A few of those pressing questions that Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner consider include the following: Why and how would schoolteachers rig the administration of standardized tests? Why do sumo wrestlers fix their matches? What do a crack dealer, a high-school quarterback and an editorial assistant have in common?
And why didn't Jerry Seinfeld's iconic 1990s sitcom resonate with black audiences? One of the singular accomplishments of this book is its ability to bring together analyses of seemingly unrelated situations, and explain all of them through imparting a simple truth; namely, that people respond, more or less rationally, to economic incentives. Desire drives people to take actions that may seem irrational from the outside, and it is this insight that leads to some of the strongest prose in this book.
In a chapter titled "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?" the authors argue that life essentially is a tournament, and that street-level drug dealers are willing to incur unfathomable risks for the distant possibility of being a drug kingpin. Taken on its own, this insight is not terribly original. But where Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner shine is in the art of comparison. When the authors compare a thug on a corner selling nickel bags to a high-school quarterback training for a professional career to establish the idea that people are willing to take unfathomable measures for the right payoff, however remote the chance for that payoff is, it is hard to argue with them.
This book is largely based on papers and theories Mr. Levitt has been developing for some time, and so it is inevitable that the text here revisits long-simmering controversies. Perhaps the most controversial assertion in this book is Mr. …