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Steven D. Levitt is not your garden-variety economist. He’s not some ivory-tower numbers cruncher or nit-picking pedant. He's frequently called a “visionary,” because—in the words of bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell—he has “the most interesting mind in America,” and because he looks beneath the surface of things to find truths that statistics and theories sometimes obscure.
His statements about issues large and small can be startling. For instance:
“I’d like to put together a set of tools that let us catch terrorists. I don’t necessarily know yet how I’d go about it. But given the right data, I have little doubt that I could figure out the answer.”
It’s that cocky self-confidence that makes FREAKONOMICS: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything such a pleasure to read. You won’t find a formula for calculating inflation rates or an explanation of the impact of free trade on capital markets, but you will discover why crime is down in the United States. Levitt’s remarkable and disturbing explanation for the drop in felonious behavior can be summed up in one word: abortion. He is not a proponent of abortion, mind you, but he makes the compelling case that the millions of abortions performed in this country since Roe v. Wade (1973) have resulted in far fewer children being raised in indigent, single-parent families, and that, since crime in America is overwhelmingly committed by poor, fatherless kids, the recent decreases in crime have been caused not better or more police but by…abortion. This is similar to the argument made by the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto that the “Roe Effect” has been diminishing the pool of potential Democratic voters.
Levitt isn’t pushing a particular political agenda, and if he wants to influence us it’s simply to provoke clear thinking. And he is provocative. Consider some of his chapter titles: “What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?” or “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?” I was especially amused by Levitt’s demonstration that swimming pools are more dangerous than handguns. His perspective on reality can sometimes seem, well, freaky. Imagine, he says, a girl named Molly whose best friends are Amy and Imani:
“Molly’s parents know that Amy’s parents keep a gun in their house, so they have forbidden Molly to play there. Instead, Molly spends a lot of time at Imani’s house, which has a swimming pool in the backyard. Molly’s parents feel good about having made such a smart choice to protect their daughter.
But according to the data, their choice isn’t smart at all…The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn’t even close: Molly is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident…than in gunplay…”
FREAKONOMICS is the most surprising, enjoyable, and thought-provoking bestseller of 2005.—Brad Miner
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