An Economics Page-Turner? Yes, Indeed; Author Surveys Modern Life in Unique Way

Article excerpt

Title: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side to Everything

Author: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Data: William Morrow, 242 pages, $25.95

Review by JENNIFER FISH DECAMP

The Times-Union

In 2001, economist Steven Levitt was called an ideologue, a racist and evil.

His crime: co-authoring a paper suggesting that the falling crime rate of the '90s could be attributed to the legalization of abortion in Roe vs. Wade. He reasoned that the children most likely to lead criminal lifestyles came into the world unwanted, maybe even to drug-addicted or teenage women. They tended to grow up neglected in low-income and/or single-parent homes.

In 1980, 1.6 million fetuses were aborted.

That's 1.6 million unwanted lives -- some of whom may have turned to a life of crime as teenagers if they had been born. Then the '90s saw the first generation of teenagers come of age in a post-Roe-vs.-Wade world with less crime.

The liberals wanted to string Levitt up for singling out the impoverished and black communities; conservatives took offense at his positive reinforcement of abortion.

Risky? Undoubtedly.

Interesting? Definitely.

This unique, even roguish, approach defines Levitt's curious way of surveying modern life. He writes in the introduction of his alternative, pop-culture-inclined economics primer Freakonomics, "What this book is about is stripping a layer or two from the surface of modern life and seeing what is happening underneath."

For a book that Levitt claims has no unifying theme, that statement serves as the "missing" central link. Because without the author's dogged pursuit of an obvious (though often ignored) answer, there would be no Freakonomics.

Levitt's book does for economics what authors Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) did for neuroscience and psychology and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) did for the imperialistic fast-food industry. He takes the jargon of basic economics and makes it easy to read and understand.

He writes, "Economics is, at root, the study of incentives: how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing." Or on cheating, "Cheating is a primordial economic act: getting more for less."

Then Levitt goes on to explain these by comparing school teachers to sumo wrestlers -- both will cheat under the right circumstances. …