Freak Out

Freak Out

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
William Morrow, 2005, 207 pp., $25.00

Twice on planes I’ve saved someone’s life. On both occasions the endangered people were aircraft safety engineers, and during takeoff, just when the plane shuddered as if it would veer and break apart, the guy, seated next to me, started telling me about deadly plane collisions that had happened right on that runway, adding that it was in a plane just like this one, pointing out where it happened just up ahead. Anyone else, I’m convinced, would have throttled him, and jury members would have nodded their heads in understanding. I don’t know why I didn’t, but they got lucky. They were brave enough to tell uncomfortable truths, and you have to be willing to upset your audience if you’re going to do that.

Which is where Freakonomics comes in. Authors Levitt and Dubner claim that they are telling just such uncomfortable truths: that drug dealers are poor, that trying to be a good parent doesn’t alter your child’s prospects, that sumo wrestlers and schoolteachers cheat, and, most contentiously, that legalized abortion has led to a drop in crime. Although the book promises “a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything” (Levitt is an economist, Dubner a New York Times reporter who met Levitt while writing an enthusiastic profile of him), it dodges as many uncomfortable truths as it tells. That’s because Levitt is the Times’s version of a countercurrent thinker: not one who swims against the stream, but one who circles in interesting eddies. Here, what’s hidden isn’t the truth obscured by big business, the government, and corporate media. People who swim in these circles dismiss left as well as right, believing some privileged truth is available to the person talented enough to ignore all that partisan arguing.

As just such a talented person, Levitt is adept at picking odd questions and developing fresh answers. In doing so, he plays both sides of the aisle, either refusing to draw political conclusions from his work or, more often, not asking political questions about who shaped the terrain he’s exploring in the first place. Take his discussion of cheating schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers, he finds, let a competitor win if the match means a great deal to the competitor’s career but nothing to their own. In a study of Chicago public school testing data, he discovered that when the fad for get-tough education policies tied teachers’ jobs to their students’ standardized test scores, 5 percent of teachers appear to have filled in multiple-choice answers that students left blank at the end of the test. Levitt apparently sat in the room while these teachers were broug...