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Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by
Edition:
Revised
ISBN13:

9780061234002

ISBN10:
0061234001
Format:
Hardcover
Pub. Date:
10/1/2006
Publisher(s):
HarperCollins Publications

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    Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything





Summary

Which 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 parents really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime? These may not sound like typical questions for an econo-mist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much-heralded scholar who studies the riddles of everyday life-;from cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing-;and whose conclusions turn conventional wisdom on its head. Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They usually begin with a mountain of data and a simple question. 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. Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, Levitt and Dubner show that 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. In Freakonomics, they explore the hidden side of . . . well, everything. The inner workings of a crack gang. The truth about real-estate agents. The myths of campaign finance. The telltale marks of a cheating schoolteacher. The secrets of the Klu Klux Klan. What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world, despite a great deal of complexity and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and-;if the right questions are asked-;is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.

Author Biography

Steven D. Levitt is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the recipient of the John Bates Clark medal, awarded to the most influential economist under the age of forty. Stephen J. Dubner, a former writer and editor at The New York Times Magazine, is the author of Turbulent Souls (Choosing My Religion), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper, and the children's book The Boy with Two Belly Buttons.

Table of Contents

AN EXPLANATORY NOTE ix
In which the origins of this book are clarified.
PREFACE TO THE REVISED AND EXPANDED EDITION xiii
INTRODUCTION: The Hidden Side of Everything 1(14)
In which the book's central idea is set forth: namely, if morality represents how people would like the world to work, then economics shows how it actually does work.
Why the conventional wisdom is so often wrong
How "experts"— from criminologists to real-estate agents to political scientists—bend the facts
Why knowing what to measure, and how to measure it, is the key ru understanding modern life
What is "freakonomics," anyway?
1. What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common? 15(34)
In which we explore the beauty of incentives, as well as their dark side—cheating.
Who cheats? Just about everyone
How cheaters cheat, and how to catch them
Stories Porn an Israeli day-care center
The sudden disappearance of seven million American children
Cheating schoolteachers in Chicago
Why cheating to lose is worse than cheating to win
Could sumo wrestling, the national sport of Japan, be corrupt?
What the Bagel Man saw: mankind may be more honest than we think.
2. How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents? 49(30)
In which it is argued that nothing is more powerful than information, especially when its power is abused.
Spilling the Ku Klux Klan's secrets
Why experts of every kind are in the perfect position to exploit you
The antidote to information abuse: the Internet
Why a new car is suddenly worth so much less the moment it leaves the lot
Breaking the real-estate agent code: what "well maintained" really means
Is Trent Lott more racist than the average Weakest Link contestant?
What do online daters lie about?
3. Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms? 79(26)
In which the conventional wisdom is often found to be a web of fabrication, self-interest, and convenience.
Why experts routinely make up statistics; the invention of chronic halitosis
How to ask a good question
Sudhir Venkatesh's long, strange trip into the crack den
Life is a tournament
Why prostitutes earn more than architects
What a drug dealer, a high-school quarterback, and an editorial assistant have in common
How the invention of crack cocaine mirrored the invention of nylon stockings
Was crack the worst thing to hit black Americans since Jim Crow?
4. Where Have All the Criminals Gone? 105(28)
In which the facts of crime are sorted out from the fictions.
What Nicolae Ceausescu learned—the hard way—about abortion
Why the 1960's was a great time to be a criminal
Think the roaring 1990's economy put a crimp on crime? Think again
Why capital punishment doesn't deter criminals
Do police actually lower crime rates?
Prisons, prisons everywhere
Seeing through the New York City police "n2iracle"
What is a gun, really?
Why early crack dealers were like Microsoft millionaires and later crack dealers were like Pets.com
The superpredator versus the senior citizen
Jane Roe, crime stopper: how the legalization of abortion changed everything.
5. What Makes a Perfect Parent? 133(30)
In which we ask, from a variety of angles, a pressing question: do parents really matter?
The conversion of parenting from an art to a science
Why parenting experts like to scare parents to death
Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?
The economics of fear
Obsessive parents and the nature-nurture quagmire
Why a good school isn't as good as you might think
The black-white test gap and "acting white"
Eight things that make a child do better in school and eight that don't.
6. Perfect Parenting, Part II; or: Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet? 163(26)
In which we weigh the importance of a parent's first official act—naming the baby.
A boy named Winner and his brother, Loser
The blackest names and the whitest names
The segregation of culture: why Seinfeld never made the top fifty among black viewers
If you have a really bad name, should you just change it?
High-end names and low-end names (and how one becomes the other)
Britney Spears: a symptom, not a cause
Is Aviva the next Madison?
What your parents were telling the world when they gave you your name.
EPILOGUE: Two Paths to Harvard 189(4)
In which the dependability of data meets the randomness of life.
Bonus Material Added to the Revised and Expanded 2006 Edition 193(92)
Notes 285(24)
Acknowledgments 309(2)
Index 311

Excerpts

Freakonomics Rev Ed
A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Chapter One

What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?

Imagine for a moment that you are the manager of a day-care center. You have a clearly stated policy that children are supposed to be picked up by 4 P.M. But very often parents are late. The result: at day's end, you have some anxious children and at least one teacher who must wait around for the parents to arrive. What to do?

A pair of economists who heard of this dilemma—it turned out to be a rather common one—offered a solution: fine the tardy parents. Why, after all, should the day-care center take care of these kids for free?

The economists decided to test their solution by conducting a study of ten day-care centers in Haifa, Israel. The study lasted twenty weeks, but the fine was not introduced immediately. For the first four weeks, the economists simply kept track of the number of parents who came late; there were, on average, eight late pickups per week per day-care center. In the fifth week, the fine was enacted. It was announced that any parent arriving more than ten minutes late would pay $3 per child for each incident. The fee would be added to the parents' monthly bill, which was roughly $380.

After the fine was enacted, the number of late pickups promptly went . . . up. Before long there were twenty late pickups per week, more than double the original average. The incentive had plainly backfired.

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. Economists love incentives. They love to dream them up and enact them, study them and tinker with them. The typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme. His solution may not always be pretty—it may involve coercion or exorbitant penalties or the violation of civil liberties—but the original problem, rest assured, will be fixed. An incentive is a bullet, a lever, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation.

We all learn to respond to incentives, negative and positive, from the outset of life. If you toddle over to the hot stove and touch it, you burn a finger. But if you bring home straight A's from school, you get a new bike. If you are spotted picking your nose in class, you get ridiculed. But if you make the basketball team, you move up the social ladder. If you break curfew, you get grounded. But if you ace your SATs, you get to go to a good college. If you flunk out of law school, you have to go to work at your father's insurance company. But if you perform so well that a rival company comes calling, you become a vice president and no longer have to work for your father. If you become so excited about your new vice president job that you drive home at eighty mph, you get pulled over by the police and fined $100. But if you hit your sales projections and collect a year-end bonus, you not only aren't worried about the $100 ticket but can also afford to buy that Viking range you've always wanted—and on which your toddler can now burn her own finger.

An incentive is simply a means of urging people to do more of a good thing and less of a bad thing. But most incentives don't come about organically. Someone—an economist or a politician or a parent—has to invent them. Your three-year-old eats all her vegetables for a week? She wins a trip to the toy store. A big steelmaker belches too much smoke into the air? The company is fined for each cubic foot of pollutants over the legal limit. Too many Americans aren't paying their share of income tax? It was the economist Milton Friedman who helped come up with a solution to this one: automatic tax withholding from employees' paychecks.

There are three basic flavors of incentive: economic, social, and moral. Very often a single incentive scheme will include all three varieties. Think about the anti-smoking campaign of recent years. The addition of a $3-per-pack "sin tax" is a strong economic incentive against buying cigarettes. The banning of cigarettes in restaurants and bars is a powerful social incentive. And when the U.S. government asserts that terrorists raise money by selling black-market cigarettes, that acts as a rather jarring moral incentive.

Some of the most compelling incentives yet invented have been put in place to deter crime. Considering this fact, it might be worthwhile to take a familiar question—why is there so much crime in modern society?—and stand it on its head: why isn't there a lot more crime?

After all, every one of us regularly passes up opportunities to maim, steal, and defraud. The chance of going to jail—thereby losing your job, your house, and your freedom, all of which are essentially economic penalties—is certainly a strong incentive. But when it comes to crime, people also respond to moral incentives (they don't want to do something they consider wrong) and social incentives (they don't want to be seen by others as doing something wrong). For certain types of misbehavior, social incentives are terribly powerful. In an echo of Hester Prynne's scarlet letter, many American cities now fight prostitution with a "shaming" offensive, posting pictures of convicted johns (and prostitutes) on websites or on local-access television. Which is a more horrifying deterrent: a $500 fine for soliciting a prostitute or the thought of your friends and family ogling you on www.HookersAndJohns.com?

So through a complicated, haphazard, and constantly readjusted web of economic, social, and moral incentives, modern society does its best to militate against crime. Some people would argue that we don't do a very good job. But . . .

Freakonomics Rev Ed
A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
. Copyright © by Steven Levitt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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