Saturday, December 20, 2008


I thought economics was about price elasticities, interest rates and diminishing marginal utilities. Then I read Freakonomics.

Authors Levitt ("rogue" economist) and Dubner (journalist) stray far from my perceptions of economics in search for solutions for some interesting (and extremely varied) questions. How do parents of different races choose names for their children? What sort of contestants on "The Weakest Link" are most likely to be discriminated by fellow competitors? And, my personal favourite, "If crack dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers?"

Not the questions I'd expect an economist to ask. Yet Levitt insists that these enigmas are fair game for any economist as their solution involves understanding how people react to incentives.

What unites all these stories is a belief that the modern world is not impenetrable, is not unknowable and unpredictable, and "if the right questions are asked" is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking. Levitt shows how to see through all the clutter.

Freakonomics is about "unconventional wisdom", using the raw data of economics in imaginative ways to ask clever and diverting questions. It makes me think about my area of research in visualization in that Levitt asks a question, takes the relevant raw data of economics, processes it and then articulates his solution to the wider audience through words.

Levitt has re-designed the stereotypical boring economist. 

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