Freakonomics is a very interesting read on the economics of random topics. Describing it as disparate is not an exaggeration- the book jumps around from sumo wrestlers to drug dealers to cheating school teachers and breaks down trends with compiled statistics. It is not simply data analysis though- it actually makes analyzing that data fun. Before you think this book is all about numbers, its other author has his foundation in journalism and adds color and a stream-of-consciousness style to the writing that makes it sound conversational. And there are a good deal of funny jokes as well.
Economics in general is an interesting subject that caught my attention in college and even had me considering it as a major. But it isn’t necessarily the study of money that fascinated me, but the analysis of trends, what they mean, and how to read and control these factors to achieve a desired result. Freakonomics, likewise, abstains from discussing the conventional and instead focuses on social, financial, and moral incentives and how society has responded to them.
One of the earlier focuses of the book is how the internet has brought power to the people. Experts have long hoarded and used information to get the better end of transactions with the uninformed. Now, with information readily available online, it is easy for the layman to get facts or price comparisons and make a more well-informed choice. It goes into great detail and breaks down numbers to show why, for example, it is in a real estate agent’s best interest to sell their customer’s houses below cost than to spend the extra time and money to get a better deal. Personally, this is something I’ve long suspected since I sold a house years ago and felt like I was rushed through a bad deal as if just getting it over with was the primary goal.
Of course there are times when I found the facts to be lacking. A section of the book explains how a record of racism could be gleaned from looking at the statistics of who was voted off The Weakest Link. The authors claim that the optimal strategy is to vote weak players off in the beginning and strong players off in the end, so any behavior that fell outside this rigid guideline was defined as anomalous. With this study I would be much more lenient and accept that different players may have different strategies or just not be smart enough or have the wherewithal at the time to conform to what someone else deems is in their best interests. Still, even these *loose* sections, while they are not as factually accurate, are still intellectually stimulating. While I usually find myself hating topics with shaky foundations being forced down my throat, I at least found entertainment with these.
Freakonomics is a surprisingly short read. I found myself actually wishing for more random topics by the time I was finished, especially since the last few chapters of the book are unfortunately the worst. The Revised and Expanded Edition luckily includes a lot of web articles written after the book’s release, providing me with a fix for a short while longer. If you are in the mood to read about social science that will make you think, Freakonomics won’t do you wrong.