Children often seem blessed with bottomless curiosity, but as they learn more about the world, their curiosity tends to recede, replaced by resignation. It's safe to say, however, that economist Steven D. Levitt never stopped asking "Why?" It's equally safe to assert that Levitt's omnipresent "Why?" revolves around different questions than a 4-year-old's. It's hard to imagine even the most precociously intellectual tot asking why, if gang-affiliated crack dealers make so much money, so many of them still live with their mothers? Similarly, it's doubtful a kindergartner ever pondered whether the recent decline in American crime is attributable to the legalization of abortion following Roe vs. Wade.
Those are exactly the kind of questions Levitt and co-author/journalist Stephen J. Dubner ask and answer in Freakonomics, an addictive, irresistible crash course in the populist application of economics. The book began life as a popular article Dubner wrote about Levitt for The New York Times Magazine. Accordingly, it feels less like a substantive book with a strong thesis and a distinct beginning, middle, and end than like a really neat magazine article, the kind that gets circulated among friends, breezes by in a heartbeat, and ends way too quickly.
Freakonomics' most engaging chapters explore ideas that seem initially shocking, then thuddingly obvious, even commonsensical. Levitt's controversial linkage of abortion and decreased crime ignited controversy from both the right and left wings, but it seems eminently reasonable to suggest that a policy that keeps many of society's most unwanted and consequently crime-prone fetuses from coming to term would eventually have a pronounced impact on criminality.
Levitt has a remarkable gift for gazing into a dry pile of statistics and coming away with a novel, exciting theory about how the world works, and in Freakonomics, it's well matched by Dubner's gift for conveying Levitt's ideas and theories in vivid, fun, conversational language. For much of the book, the authors steer clear of technical jargon, so when in the weaker final two chapters they finally pull out the terminology of proper economics, it feels jarring, like a lenient professor suddenly assigning a deluge of homework.
By delving deep into seldom-explored subjects like a crack gang's surprisingly regimented organizational and economic structure, the authors find a number of revelatory ways of explaining the way money flows. And while Freaknomics' ideas often feel more like theories than facts, it's nevertheless exciting to have a loopy genius like Levitt out there asking rude, surprising questions and arriving at even ruder, more surprising answers.