Thursday, August 24, 2006

'Freakonomics' by Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Every quarter Calvin Seminary sponsors a book group. Last spring we read the wonderful Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (my review is here). This quarter the book is the quirky Frekonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Levitt is an economist (a “rogue economist", according to the book jacket) who has a unique view of the world. Dubner, a reporter, did a feature on him and many people enjoyed it and suggested that Levitt write a book. Levitt had no interest in that but suggested that he’d be the source if Dubner would write it and so we have the book of Levitt’s as written by Dubner.

Levitt does, indeed, have a unique view of the world. He thinks that lots of difficult questions can actually be answered if you have the right data. And he thinks he often has the right data. These are questions like “If selling crack is so lucrative, why do crack dealers live with their moms?” and “do realtors really get people the best prices on their homes?”

Throughout the book it seems like Levitt continues to pull rabbits out of his hat with one amazing data trick after another and as the book goes on you keep waiting for it to add up to something. That’s just the thing, though. It never really does. It’s like all topping and no pie or all dessert and no main course. Pick your own metaphor and it might well work too.

Don’t get me wrong, half way into the book I was telling people about it and saying “this is a cool book – you should read it” to people but, by the time I got finished I was less enthusiastic. I think Levitt has some really interesting ideas (although the chapters on the crime rate being linked to abortion were just a little weird) but there is no grand climax to the book. I really wanted it to go somewhere but it just never did.

So, if you have a chance you might want to read it because there is a lot of cool stuff in there but don’t read it looking for Levitt to tell you “what it all means” because to him it seems that it’s just the solution to yesterday’s crossword puzzle that he left here to amaze us. In the meantime he’s off checking on something else.

1 comment:

Ron Rienstra said...

That was exactly my response to it, too, Bob.