An econ tome for both freaks and geeks
By Justin Fox

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The simple-concept-that-explains-the-world book--epitomized by Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point--has been big for a while. So big that the approach is getting a bit tired.

Now economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner have collaborated to launch a related but refreshingly different genre with Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. They use complicated concepts--such as regression--to explain many different things about the world.

Levitt, a professor at the University of Chicago, is obsessed with questions that you might not think an economist would care about, such as: Do sumo wrestlers cheat? Does being named "Temptress" hurt your job prospects? What caused crime rates to drop so dramatically in the 1990s?

Armed with the attitude of a puzzle solver and the tools of statistical economics, Levitt finds different ways to get at the answers to each. He concludes that yes, sumos cheat, and that no, bad names are not destiny --although having parents dense enough to name you "Temptress" does hurt. Finally, and most controversially, he argues that the causes of the crime drop were more prisons, more cops, and most important, the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion in 1973--which meant that the babies most likely to grow up to be criminals were less likely to be born. Levitt does not see that as an argument for abortion, though. "The tradeoff between higher abortion and lower crime is, by an economist's reckoning, terribly inefficient," he and Dubner conclude.

There is no obvious leitmotif, ideological or otherwise, to Levitt's work, and that is perhaps its greatest charm. In his hands, economics, far from being a dismal science, is a tool for the curious. -- Justin Fox