Paperback Freakonomics Released in U.S.; Here, for Free, Is the Only New Content
The paperback edition of Freakonomics goes on sale today. As with the Revised and Expanded hardcover (which, we are told, will stay in print), it includes several of our New York Times Magazine columns; it doesn’t, however, include a chapter of blog excerpts.
Instead, it’s got a fairly lengthy author Q&A. Guess where the questions came from? Yep: you.
Thanks again for the excellent questions. Here’s the entire Q&A:
Author Q&A’s have great potential but often fail because of the canned and bland questions fed to authors by their publishers — or, worse, the fawning questions invented by the authors themselves. (Tell us, were you brilliant even as a child?) So let’s put an end to that! We asked readers of our blog, www.freakonomics.com, to ask us what they wanted to know. As you’ll see, they responded with vigor.
How does your collaboration work? — Ryan
In a word, easily. The two of us have very different skill sets. Levitt is an academic researcher and Dubner is a writer. That doesn’t mean that Levitt doesn’t write; he does. And Dubner does research too. But if you were to spend a day looking over our shoulders (Levitt’s in Chicago and Dubner’s in New York), you’d find that Levitt spends most of his day feeding numbers into a computer while Dubner spends most of his day feeding words. That said, the nature of our collaboration on a given day is dependent on the nature of the material we are working on. We e-mail back and forth voluminously; we talk on the phone so much that our wives roll their eyes. In sum, we are more like a pitcher and catcher on a baseball team than, say, a right wing and a left wing on a soccer team.
Can you tell us about subjects that you researched but didn’t write about, possibly because the data didn’t tell you anything, it was too controversial, etc. I’d like to hear what was left behind on the editing room floor. — Mickey
If you think we would leave something out because it is too controversial, you obviously don’t know us very well! Maybe you will be convinced after reading our second book, SuperFreakonomics, where we write about prostitutes, terrorists, global-warming hysterics, and profit-seeking oncologists. There are countless research projects for which we couldn’t find the right data, or where the results just turned out not to be very interesting. For every 10 research ideas, only 2 will turn into academic papers and only 1 will be interesting enough for a book like this. Some readers assume that we can go out and answer any question we want, but it doesn’t work that way. The downside is that all kinds of fascinating subjects have eluded our grasp (so far); the upside is that readers know the stories we do tell are supported by data rather than just opinion or whimsy.
Am I worse off for never having read Freakonomics? — Terry
Sadly, yes. Independent testing has shown that people who read Freakonomics have sweeter-smelling breath, better posture, and more interesting dreams. Also, women feel no pain during childbirth; male readers find that their sperm swim faster.
Are you more concerned with presenting the average citizen a new way of looking at the world or with stimulating debate among people who are familiar with economics and its methods of analysis? — Christopher Luccy
Well, the obvious answer would be “both.” But if we had to choose one, it would surely be the former. There are a million books that explain the principles of economics, and they are widely read, usually at universities. But those books explain what economics is; they don’t really explain how to look at the world like an economist. While this latter goal may sound like something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, it can in fact be made bearable — as long you cover topics that the average reader is passionate about. Sumo wrestling, for instance.
How much of the book’s success do you believe can be attributed to your choice of title?
Levitt’s sister, Linda Jines, came up with the title; she is the real creative genius in the family. It’s hard to know how important the title has been, but our guess is … very. On the other hand, as we write in the book, the name you give your child has no discernible effect on that child’s life outcome. So should we expect the same from a book title? Perhaps not; a book and a person have different qualities. Still, it’s worth noting that some commercial ventures have succeeded wildly despite having names that, at first, must have seemed a detriment. Do you really think the first producers of Oprah had an easy time with that name? And what about ESPN?
Are there any baseball stats that, when compared over a period of time or based on age, show a strong suspicion of steroid use? — Joseph Rollo
We’ve looked in the data for evidence of steroid use, as have well-known baseball statisticians like Nate Silver (who is even better-known as the proprietor of FiveThirtyEight.com). It has proven hard to find anything that looks like the smoking gun that we see on teacher cheating or sumo wrestling. At this point, what’s most likely is that the effects of steroids on a baseball player’s performance just aren’t that stark. Sure, they get mighty beefy while taking steroids, but a lot of the power hitters were hitting home runs even when they were scrawny rookies.
Tell us about the criticism you have received from traditional/academic colleagues over Freakonomics. — J. Plain
Levitt’s academic colleagues tend to react in one of two ways. The majority of economists thought about it like economists: the success of Freakonomics probably increased the number of students wanting to take economics courses, and since the supply of economics teachers is fixed in the short run, the wages of academic economists should rise. That makes economists happy. A second group of economists decided that if Levitt could write a book that people would read, surely they could too. So there has been a flurry of “popular” books by economists — some good, some not so good. And then, inevitably, there are a handful of economists who feel that he violated the secret handshake of economics by showing the outside world that what economists do really isn’t that hard or complex. They will never forgive him.
What will a gallon of gas cost in 2019? What implications will this price have on our culture? — Mike Thomas
Economists, like everyone else, are terrible at predicting the future. But in all likelihood, a gallon of gas in 2019 will cost about the same (when adjusted for inflation) as a gallon of gas in 2009. Even if we are running out of oil (which we probably aren’t), we won’t be running out that soon. Perhaps the government will have the good sense to put larger taxes on gasoline, which we’ve advocated for a long time because of what economists call the negative externalities of driving.
What do bishops and tennis professionals have in common? — Stan
Comfortable shoes, unusual headgear, and a lot of love.
Of the examples discussed in the book, which have gained the greatest traction in the popular/political discussion? — Rick Groves
There has been a lot of talk about the relationship between legalized abortion and the crime rate. And some governments have cited the low wages of street-level drug dealers as an incentive to young people to go legit. But on a day-to-day level, the part of the book that’s probably spurred the most change is our discussion of real-estate agents. The standard fixed-commission, full-service Realtor model is gradually melting away. Even the White House weighed in, with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, which is meant to increase transparency between Realtors and their customers.
Why do you think that the U.S. Mint is still producing pennies if the cost of physically producing a penny is much greater than the value of the resulting penny? — Dutch
Don’t get us started! Dubner has by now become a well-known penny hawk, telling anyone who will listen — including 60 Minutes — that the penny is a beloved artifact that should finally be put out of its misery. It represents a massive waste of time and resources. One of its strongest supporters is the zinc lobby; did you know that modern pennies happen to be made of 97.5 percent zinc? The biggest reasons to keep the penny are inertia and nostalgia, but those aren’t very good reasons. Dubner counsels his children to avoid pennies at all costs, even throwing them away if necessary. For this, he has been called un-American.
Why are there so few economists in politics, as it is one of the most important issues in a country? Is it that they’d rather become professors, work in the private sector, become advisers or work in the Treasury, or do they think it is too compromising? — Neil
You ask an intriguing and important question. Many countries around the world have elected economists as president. In the U.S., however, economists generally do not fit into the political framework well. Why? One guess is that they are trained to think rationally and tell the truth about data. As any observer of U.S. politics knows, rationality and unvarnished data are practically forbidden on the campaign trail. Politicians (and, presumably, voters) are much more interested in emotion and rhetoric. That said, some administrations (Obama‘s, for one) hold economists in far higher regard than others.
Who would win an arm-wrestling match between Dubner and Levitt? Golf? Tennis? Chess? — Kevin
Dubner would definitely win arm-wrestling, Levitt would win golf. Tennis and chess would probably be hard-fought matches. Note: they are both quite good bowlers.
Some people buy a book because it is interesting and well written and some people buy a book because others are reading it. To what extent do you think the success of Freakonomics is due to the latter rather than the former? — Euclid
We have wondered the same. Books being what they are — not just stories and information, but stories and information that people like to talk about with other people — there is obviously an extra incentive to read what everyone else is reading. Our opinion is that of all the modes of book promotion (ads, reviews, interviews, etc.), none is so powerful as good word-of-mouth.
What do you guys like to read (recreationally)? — Robb
Levitt admits to having the reading interests of a tweener girl, the Twilight series and Harry Potter in particular. Dubner’s weak spot is sports, and newspapers (the old-fashioned kind, on paper).
While many of the stories and conclusions in Freakonomics are fascinating, there seems to be no clear methodology or set of principles that profit-maximizing executives can use in managing their business. Have you ever considered distilling the lessons (such as they are) into a handbook for the manager interested in exploiting the “hidden side” of business? — Drew
Drew, have you considered becoming a literary agent? (Also, we admire your ability to simultaneously flatter and condemn.) Here are the facts. For reasons that remain unclear, our publisher initially called Freakonomics a business book. This led to certain expectations — nearly all of which, surely, were dashed the moment any credible businessperson read the book. You are right: we do not lay out any profitable methodologies at all. That said, in recent years Levitt has done a lot of research in the business arena, which we feel may someday yield a good book that does indeed explore the “hidden side” of business.
How much is all the tea in China really worth? — Dave F.
About $1.5 billion. But just imagine how much more valuable
it would be if, like marijuana, it were illegal. (Note to selves:
corner the market on Chinese tea, then bribe the government to