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A day in the life of Freakonomics email

We get at least 50 Freakonomics-related emails a day.

Here is a sampling of emails from the last day or two, just to give you a flavor of the mixed blessing that comes with a best-selling book.

email #1: I think this email is actually serious, although maybe it comes from someone with such a great sense of humor that it went completely over my head:

Dear Dr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner:

I write to express my dissatisfaction with Freakonomics A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything, which I recently purchased. I suspect this publication is not representative of your normal course of business or typical product.

My dissatisfaction stems from the following observations/typographical errors. It is important to note I was not proofreading the book; I was merely trying to enjoy myself. Accordingly, there may several additional mistakes I did not discover; those I came across were distracting and ruined the experience.

1. Page 70: talks about “Kevin” and “Tom” two Enron traders who, as we soon find out from the transcripts of a telephone conversation, discussed the refund California officials asked Enron to issue for price gouging. Directly beneath their introduction, the transcripts appear, but now the two traders are “Kevin” and “Bob.” The names Bob and Tom are not confusable. You must agree a typographical error in a book sold for $25.95 in inexcusable. I was bothered and distracted, as a reader, to have to disentangle my way through the book.

2. Page 155, second paragraph, claims author Steven Pinker wrote the following in his own book, Blank Slate:

“Patients in traditional forms of psychotherapy while away their fifty minutes reliving childhood conflicts and learning to blame their unhappiness on how their parents treated them”

I suspect there are words missing from the above-excerpt. The way it is written does not make sense.

3. Page 156, second paragraph, the following sentence appears:

“He makes sure to be asleep by the time his father come home from drinking, and to be out of the house before his father awakes.”

Emphasis added. As you know, merely applying grammar check software finds the above faulty.

4. Lastly, the book includes several references (advertisements) to specific websites, which in my opinion seems unnecessary. I understand this is a matter of taste, but I feel the book inserted websites to advertise and not to enhance the readers’ experience. I do not appreciate being marketed to when I read a book, as I expect to when I read a magazine.

While isolated errors may occur, you must agree the above items would distract from the readers’ experience. It certainly did mine.

I look forward to your response and a refund of the purchase price ($25.95).

Please contact me with any questions.

Signed, XXXXXX


One or the other of us tries to respond to all the emails we receive. Dubner took it upon himself to reply to this one:


Re points No. 1 and No. 3, I agree: those were typos that should been caught but weren’t; they will be corrected in future editions.

Re point No. 2: I am not sure why this sentence “does not make sense to you”; perhaps you are unaccustomed to the use of “while” as a verb?

Re point No. 4: I can think of only a few URL’s in the text of the book, and one of them, is only a hypothetical address. The URL’s in the endnotes are for people to further research the issues in the book. In neither case would I consider the use of the URL’s intrusive, and we certainly derived no advertising income from any of them.

So that leaves us with a grand total of 2 words, out of approximately 70,000, about which you have legitimate complaints. For a book that cost $25.95, the two words represent less than 1 cent’s worth. But I’ll be a sport and send you a whole dime if you’d like. Shall I use your office address below?

Thanks, SJD


email #2: This next one is hard-nosed and thoughtful — the sort of email that we like to get and try to take seriously.


First let me say that I’ve been reading your book for a few weeks now and I’m getting a great deal from it. I think it is well written and very thought provoking. However, I take serious issue with your usage of the word, “nigger” on page 96.

No self-respecting black man (or woman) uses the word, “nigger” to refer to himself or his kind. Some (especially those one might find among gang members) may use the word, “nigga” – a derivative of the word, “nigger”. But believe me, it would be exceptionally difficult to find an African American person numb (or dumb) enough to use “nigger” to identify himself and/or his kind.

We find the word, “nigger” repulsive and I’m deeply irritated that someone like Mr. Venkatesh, who boasts such intimate interaction with black urbanites, would not have picked up on the difference and shared it with you. I find that this is a common mistake made by whites and that the mistake’s motivation comes in different forms. Some whites are simply ignorant, while others are intentionally blind. My hope is that you are among the former.

The word, “nigger” still retains all the stigma and sting it was created to deliver during pre civil-war and “Jim Crow” times. On the other hand, “nigga” (regardless of its origin) carries an altogether different connotation and is commonly used as a term of endearment among blacks in this country.

Thanks for your consideration.




We asked Sudhir Venkatesh, whose research the above email is referring to, his response to the email. Here is how Sudhir, thoughtful and insightful as always, replied:

Why did i use “nigger,” not “nigga”? That is an
interesting question. In the late 1980s, the lexical differences
between the two terms had not been fully established, i.e., with
the kind of certainty that we have today. Certainly, in parts of
the black arts community, as the poets and rappers began to
cement their inversion of popular terms, one would find nigg-A starting
to challenge nigg-ER, but there had not yet arrived a firm
concensus in the popular imagination. Indeed, some critical tensions still
remain, as anyone who spends time in a black barbershop will
find out… What do i mean by this? let me point to J.T.’s use of the
term in my quote.

J.T. was explicitly using nigg-ER. He explained why later in a
conversation with me: Nigg-ER has long carried social
inflections that reflect low-wage, highly de-valued labor– not as in the
slavery period but the kind that blacks suffered in jim crow
(and,frankly, that white ethnics also suffered in the late 19th
century). To be a “nigger,” in JT’s eyes, was to work for little
pay, with no autonomy, in a meaningless, dead end job.
Interestingly, he saw this both in service sector work in the
ghetto as well as the jobs available for most blacks in the
corporate sector. He had a deep, resonant connection to his
status as a laborer in part b/c of the industrial working class
background of his parents. Thus, in the quote on p.96, he is referring to
his status as a marginal, post-industrial laborer, one who is
alienated from his work and so, is much like a jim crow “nigger.”

Nigga’ is the politicized term of the underclass, i.e., those
who are largely out of the labor force. Individuals appropriating
this term reference not the kind of work they are limited to doing
(cleaning services, clerking, general labor on construction,
domestic work, etc.), but the fact that they are doing NO work
at all, and hence are seeking out income in an underground sphere.
Nigg-A, then, signifies one’s status in an ALTERNATE labor
sphere,not the classical industrial labor market, but the informal,
shady,hidden, criminal… market.

Now, JT was a drug dealer, so why did he not use nigg-A? After
all,he was working in the criminal sphere… Well, in the later
1980s and 1990s, those in the gang who dealt drugs would call their
practice “work”– they worked in shifts, they had duties and
roles, they had a hierarchy and so on. In other words, they identified
themeselves after their blue collar predecessors. Only those in
the rap videos tended to de-emphasize this, ironically (and perhaps

hope this helps,



email #3: Then there are the ones that simply leave me confused:

I saw this article and had to wonder what you thought of the comments about your work. I’d hope you’d be offended by it.

Particularly this brief analysis of your grandiose assumption.

“Not one single American parent, the authors(levitt) would have us believe, refused to brand their child with a lifetime tax slave identity number, in exchange for a bounty of a mere hundred or so dollars. Not a single parent simply stopped seeking a modest deduction for a real child, rather than number him.”

I’ve read some of your work before and you seem proud about being “value free” in you objective work, but it with your recommendation that the IRS should be harsher in it’s tax enforcement it seems you are placing a higher subjective value on the inherent goodness of government revenue relative to that of laboring individuals. Am I presumptous? Or is this your true bias?

Signed, XXXXX


I haven’t figured out what to write back on this last one. Any suggestions?