Saturday, April 30, 2005

Freaking Out Over Freakonomics

A strange vibe is loose upon the land. Not the least of the evidence for this assertion is provided by Freakonomics. An economics book at #3 on, #2 on Barnes & Noble, and #4 on the New York Times list of nonfiction best sellers? Almost unheard of. There must be a reason.

You can taste a sample of the peppery, iconoclastic flavor of the book (as if the title wasn't a dead giveaway) by visiting the Freakonomics web site. I haven't read the book yet, so I can't review it. But, I'll soon be posting my comments on news coverage given to some of the authors' controversial explanations for everyday events.

Speaking of the authors, what a lead author this publishing miracle has. Steven D.Levitt of the University of Chicago won the John Bates Clark medal two years ago, an annual award given to the best young American economist. Since many winners of the Nobel prize in Economics first received the Clark medal, Levitt's abilities are unquestioned.

Lest you think that Levitt's approach to economics is something new, however, it's not. Levitt studied under Nobel-winner Gary Becker, who also blazed new trails through the tangled underbrush of economic issues 40 years ago. Becker's application of economics to explain racial discrimination broke new ground for economists. In 1996, David Friedman (an excellent economist and writer, who also happens to be the son of Nobel-winner Milton Friedman), served up a similar dish to Levitt's with the publication of Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life. Unfortunately for Professor Friedman and readers everywhere, his book currently ranks at #59,549 on (paperback version). I don't know how many copies it sold before it went out of print, but I hope the answer is "lots and lots."

Since Americans usually don't do very well on tests of economic literacy like this one, I'm glad that economics is tickling the public's reading fancy these days. That's a hopeful sign for America. And I hope Professor Friedman revises and updates Hidden Order, that the book comes back into print, and that it rises to the top of the best-seller lists, too. No reason for a Levitt monopoly at the top. Nor even a Levitt/Friedman duopoly. Not with all the other brilliant economists out there just itching to serve up a taste of their own clever insights.



At 11:03 PM, Blogger Ronald M. Ayers said...

Professor Friedman pointed me to the paperback version of Hidden Order, which is still in print. I made a change in the original post to reflect the sales rank of the paperback version. He also informed me that the book has sold 20,000 to 30,000 copies so far. I was also extremely interested to learn that there is a German edition, a Japanese edition, and a possible Korean edition.

My gut feeling is that when one economics book reaches out and stimulates the thinking of Americans, it helps to create a market for even more of the same. I reiterate that some enterprising economist needs to move quickly and follow up the success of Freakonomics. Maybe diet and exercise books will move down on the best seller lists for a while. One can only hope.

By the way, I haven't taught intermediate Price Theory for many years, but I recall admiring Professor Friedman's innovative Price Theory text when it came out a decade or so ago. That book makes economics relevant by delving deeply into incentives and the consequences for behavior. The link to Friedman's Price Theory is here.

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