Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, Harper Perennial, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-073133-5
Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, and journalist Stephen Dubner, explore “the hidden side of everything” in their groundbreaking bestseller Freakonomics. The authors admit in the introduction that the book “has no unifying theme” and that their approach in applying economic theories to their curiosities is a bit “strange”. The result is an engaging study of how our behavior, in a variety of ways and circumstances, is driven by economic incentives. The chapter titles reveal Levitt and Dubner’s idiosyncratic approach to their topic. “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?” explores why people cheat. “How is the Klu Klux Clan like a group of real estate agents” describes the power of information on our behavior. “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” takes the reader inside a crack den to show how it’s not much different from legitimate businesses. “Where have all the criminals gone?” traces the drop in crime we experienced in the nineties back to one woman’s choice. “What makes a perfect parent” and “Perfect parenting, part II” show the real effects parent choices have on their children.
Teenagers typically feel that the study of Economics is dry and boring. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, is their textbook, which explains theories but doesn’t apply them in ways students can relate to. This is what Freakonomics does so well. While I would never recommend replacing an Economics textbook with Levitt and Dubner’s book, I would recommend reading it before, during, or after the course in order to increase their interest in the field.
What Levitt and Dubner have done in Freakonomics is combine the explanation of economic theories with great storytelling to make this study both informative and engaging. Teens who care little about economics will enjoy reading how financial incentives drove Chicago schoolteachers to help their students cheat on state tests. They will be fascinated following University of Chicago graduate student Sudhir Venkatesh into a crack den to find out how drug dealing really works. Most shockingly, they will be interested in reading Levitt and Dubner’s assertion that greater access to abortion leads to less crime. All the stories in the book are compelling and offer students and teachers a wealth of topics to discuss. In the end, the book does offer some kind of unifying theme around the idea that our behavior is shaped by incentives created for us by our social and political institutions.
How is a schoolteacher like a Sumo wrestler? How is a crack den like a major corporation? What makes a perfect parent? By asking interesting questions, authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt have written a fascinating book on how economic forces shape our behavior for good and bad.
Information about the authors
From the authors’ Amazon.com page we learn that “Steven D. Levitt is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a 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.”
Economics, Civics, English
How much of your behavior is shaped by economic forces?
What should we do with the author’s assertion that more abortions lead to less crime?
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 11 and up
Why did I include this title?
This is one of my favorite non-fiction books for teenagers because it allows them to explore ways our social behavior is shaped by economic forces. When I taught this book in my English class, it was usually the class favorite because of the way it combines storytelling with economic data. Unlike many non-fiction books that have a unifying theme and hammer it into the reader’s head over the course of many chapters, this “treasure-hunt approach” gives readers a lot of different things to think about and keeps them engaged from beginning to end.