Freakonomics

I’m late to the party in reading this book (as I am with many things), and for that reason I don’t think it’s worth going into extreme detail about. But I do have some peripheral thoughts. Having read a couple of Malcolm Gladwell’s books before this one, I definitely understand the mass appeal of these big-concept, vaguely economics-based things. They’re written very seductively, statistics being that sexy mistress, and they make you feel incredibly smart after reading them. But for all the freak-outs that Freakonomics caused, I really do prefer Gladwell’s style of clean, organized writing and layout to Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s swirly mass of ideas. They sure do bring everything full circle a million times over — crime relates to abortion relates to parenting relates to names relates to entitlement relates back to crimes, with several more offshoot topics from those — but I didn’t fall for this too-convenient structure of theirs. It sort of just seemed like they wanted to talk about some stuff that they had thought about for a long time. Which is cool. It just reads a little more stream-of-consciousness than I had expected. Also, each chapter is preceded by this italicized paragraph of blubbering praise for their genius. Off-putting, to say the least.

Complaints aside, of course I learned a lot from this book. I learned a few things that maybe I’d even thought about but had never thought deeply enough about, and I learned a few things that I never would have thought about, too. On p. 33, the Stevphens talk about the intricacies and advantages of teachers cheating to improve their students’ test results, an idea which actually made me kind of nauseous. The fact that the system even allows for this kind of rigging–or that it might reward it–is mind-boggling. Without getting into the details, I’ll just say that I can’t imagine having a kid and putting them through what I think is a good school, only to have their test results mangled and their future altered by a teacher trying to damn the man for whatever reason. On p. 118, the Stevphens discuss health care restrictions in pree-1966 Romania; “If a woman repeatedly failed to conceive, she was forced to pay a steep ‘celibaby tax,'” a phrase that made my eyes bug out. It’s facts like these that really do make me thankful that I live in America, no matter how fickle our government can be. And on p. 151, discussing the dangers of driving vs. flying, “It’s the imminent possibility of death that drives the fear–which means that the most sensible way to calculat efear of death would be to think about it on a per-hour basis.” This sentence made me smile.

To someone who hasn’t read the book yet, these quotes are extremely out of context and very peripherally related. That’s not the case in the book, though; as I said before, everything is connected somehow, though not always in the most obvious way or with the slickest wording. Despite the hype, the book is worth reading. (Just not getting too hyped about, anymore.)

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