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Freak Out!

Freakonomics, a new book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is as interesting as it is controversial.

12:00 AM, May 4, 2005 • By DEAN BARNETT
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STEVEN D. LEVITT CLAIMS that physically he is the "weakest human being alive." He may also be one of the most courageous.

Along with his coauthor Stephen Dubner, Levitt has written a book called Freakonomics, which details his innovative and brilliant way of looking at the world. Levitt's mind works in the following manner: First he asks questions that few have the creativity to ask; then he follows a rigorous statistical analysis to find the answers.

Some of Freakonomics' conclusions are fearlessly contrarian. To wit, Levitt posits, among other things, that some teachers are cheaters, real estate agents tend not to serve their clients' best interests, successful parenting has a lot more to do with who the parents are than how they actually parent, and crime rates dropped in the 1990s as a direct result of 1973's Roe v. Wade decision. In spite of the controversy that Freakonomics is almost certain to cause, Levitt has produced a work full of stunning insights that can rightfully be called genius.

Perhaps the best way to describe Levitt to the literary world would be this: Imagine Malcom Gladwell, the gifted author of The Tipping Point and Blink. Supplement Gladwell's considerable gifts for observation and detail with what Gladwell himself calls America's "most interesting mind" and you've got Levitt.

Levitt graduated Harvard in 1989 summa cum laude and received a Ph.D. in economics from MIT in 1994. After becoming a chaired professor at Chicago at the tender age of 35, Levitt recently won the John Bates Clark medal, which is awarded every two years to America's best economist under the age of 40. (The Clark medal is widely viewed as a precursor for an eventual Nobel Prize.)

THE ENTIRE PURPOSE OF FREAKONOMICS is to reveal counterintuitive and often unsettling truths. Levitt aims to show the world how it is, not how we wish it were or how the "conventional wisdom" deems it.

Levitt knew that exposing such truths would cause no small amount of offense in numerous quarters. In one chapter sure to make enemies, Levitt asks, "What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?" The answer: Both groups are willing to cheat. I don't want to ruin all the fun and describe how Levitt reaches his almost undebatable conclusion, but one must admire the audacity of a man so willing to stand up to both the teachers' unions and sumo wrestlers.

But Levitt is just getting warmed up. Another chapter details the similarities between the Ku Klux Klan and real estate agents. Levitt and Dubner relate a hilarious anecdote about an intrepid southerner named Stetson Kennedy, who, over 50 years ago, turned the Klan from a frightening, shadowy entity into a national laughing-stock by leaking their previously secret nomenclature to the Superman Radio Show. The show then proceeded to have Superman take on the Klan. Having their ridiculous and child-like terminology (Klavern, Klaliff, Kludd, Exalted Cyclops, etc.) broadcast on the air as Superman vanquished them irrevocably humiliated the Klansmen.

The point of the comparison between the Klan and realtors is to show that both entities "make their money" (so to speak) the same way--by hoarding information. For the Klan, the organization's dark secrecy was the information the Klansmen hoarded. Once their secrets were revealed and the Klan's pathetic nature made widely known, the KKK was almost instantly a spent force.

For real estate agents, the hoarded information is the actual condition of the real estate market; real estate agents tend to deny this valuable information to the customers they are purportedly serving. As is the case throughout the book, Levitt supports his assertions regarding the slippery nature of real estate peddlers with thorough and impressive statistical analysis.

It is actually one of the many small miracles of Freakonomics that, in spite of the dense and complex nature of its many arguments, it is from start to finish a good read. Much of the credit for this doubtlessly belongs to Levitt's co-author Stephen Dubner. So skillful is Dubner that even a two page definition of regression analysis passes by not just painlessly, but pleasurably.

FREAKONOMICS IS MOST LIKELY to become controversial (and perhaps notorious) because of its chapter on crime and abortion. During the first half of the 1990s, a bewildering variety of experts forecast that America would soon be engulfed in a virtual tsunami of crime.

Happily, these prophecies of doom proved wildly off base. To paraphrase an old saying, failure is an orphan but success begets a thousand politicians vying for the credit. In this case, there were several seemingly plausible explanations for the non-explosion (and indeed reduction) of crime. Some experts said Rudolph Giuliani's and William Bratton's innovative way of implementing Jams Q. Wilson's "broken window" theory of sociology saved the day. Others pointed to tougher gun laws. Still others suggested more policemen or more widespread use of capital punishment deserved the credit.

While it was wonderful to believe that the aggressive removal of squeegee men or some other easily implemented--and therefore easily repeated--policy decision saved our society from the super-predators, perhaps the actual explanation for society's success in this struggle is more disquieting. Levitt convincingly argues that the fortuitous drop in crime of the late 1990s was due to 1973's Roe v. Wade decision.

Here is Levitt's theory boiled down to its essence: "Decades of study have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade--poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get--were often models of adversity . . . Just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet." Levitt goes on to support this assertion with an almost unassailable statistical analysis (although given the discomfiting nature of his argument, it is likely to be vigorously assailed nonetheless).

Talk about courageous; it's hard to imagine who on the political spectrum is going to be comfortable with this theory.

But Levitt is careful to stress that he is just describing the world as it is, and not making normative prescriptions. As he says near the book's conclusion, "Freakonomics-style thinking doesn't traffic in morality . . . [I]f morality represents an ideal world, then economics represents the actual world."

In Freakonomics, Levitt has described aspects of that "actual world" with stunning originality and breathtaking audacity. How our society responds to these realities is of course an open question, but Levitt and Dubner have done their job. They have written one of the decade's most intelligent and provocative books.

Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at under his on-line pseudonym James Frederick Dwight.