When I started reading Freakonomics, the prescribed textbook for my 3rd year B.Com Finance student friend, I was a bit skeptical. As skeptical as I am of much else her course has to offer. I am a Humanities graduate. And as I read, “Morality (I read: Humanities), it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work- whereas economics represents how it actually does work” (p. 11). I felt my skin curl and geared up possible defenses for the Human Sciences.
And there it was in the next sentence: “Economics is above all a science of measurement” (p. 11). I then heard Dr Mehita Iqani’s voice in my head declaring: “Let’s not forget, science is a constructed concept”. So I continued reading sceptically, debating each argument with a humanitarian counter-argument. What could this American economist have to offer to an African Humanities scholar, to African Economics? I am no economist, but I know the US dollar currently costs me R8… something. So surely our economics are to be understood differently to theirs. And then…
I just don’t know very much about the field of economics. I’m not good at math, I don’t know a lot of econometrics, and I also don’t know how to do theory. If you ask me about whether deflation’s good or bad, if you ask me about taxes- I mean, it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything about any of those things (p. viiii).
This is what a “John Bates Clarke Medal, and a stack of (other) awards-winning, Harvard undergrad, MIT PhD Economist” was saying. So I kept reading.
This isn’t a book about economics; it is a book about freakonomics. “Yes, this approach employs the best analytical tools that economics has to offer, but it also allows us to follow whatever freakish curiosities may occur to us. Thus our invented field of study: Freakonomics” (p. 12).
A field of study that I later discovered explores not only economics, but a range of other “freakish curiosities” such as humanity in general: “How humans get what they want” (p. 5). Or are these one and the same thing? Any Marxists in the room? Unlike philosopher-turned-founder of classical economics, Adam Smith, Steven D. Levitt is economist-turned-founder-of-classical philosophy erm… freakonomics. His is a lesson about cheating, corruption and crime: ‘the hidden side of everything’ as the title of the introduction reads [by the way the DA is surging up Jacob Zuma’s past sins now that Malema is kind of out of the picture]. Anyway, the basic premise of arguments made is as follows: “Experts use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda” (p. 12).
Not to repeat previous standings, the book utilizes economics’ measurement tools to analyze and explain ‘well, more interesting topics’. Among these riveting topics are: “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? Where have all the criminals gone? What makes a perfect parent? Would a Roshanda by any other name smell as sweet?”.
Needless to say the book juxtaposes unorthodox similes. For example it correlates the unanticipated drop in crime rates in the US in the 1990s to Norma McCorvey’s (Jane Roe) abortion case in the 1970s. An observation no other ‘expert’ noted. The book also argues that although spending a lot of money on election campaigns may increase a candidate’s chances of winning (by say 1 percent), “the amount of money spent by the candidates hardly matters at all” (p. 9).
In Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt – in collaboration with Stephen J. Dubner – created a masterpiece: funny, witty and finally thought-provoking. The reader is left with a brand new outlook on life and a constant urge to ‘assume nothing and question everything’.
Matshidiso Omega Moagi holds a BA in Media Studies and Industrial Sociology from the University of the Witwatersrand. She graduated from Wits in 2011.