Friday, August 14, 2009

Freakonomics - A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Review by Bill Doughty
I would not recommend Freakonomics to anyone who knows exactly how the world works. Don't read it if you already have the answers to all of life's questions. It's not for people who are easily offended, either. However, for the rest of us, read on...

(Freakonomics at sea)

Written by a completely out-of-the-box economist named Steven Levitt, with help from New York writer Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics challenges conventional wisdom and assumptions on both sides of all fences.

key points:

"Knowing what to measure and how to measure is the key to understanding modern life," and "if morality represents the ideal, then economics represents the actual world."

Through measurements and analysis, and without being moralistic, Levitt spends most of the book presenting evidence of dishonesty in the actual world - cheating by Japanese sumo wrestlers, Chicago school teachers, day care parents, online daters, funeral directors, and bagel buyers, among others.
His conclusions are based on facts, metrics, and other data, and they are compelling.

The bad news: Many people will lie, cheat, and abuse power.

The good news: With the right incentives, the vast majority of people are, and remain, honest.

So what are the right incentives?

What do you think?

teases the reader to formulate his or her own opinion, but provides ways to step up and see over the fence.

Challenging conventional wisdom and superstition, this book promotes critical thinking. Take, for instance, the issues of abortion and gun control and their relevance to crime. Without making any outwardly moral judgments, Freakonomics explores these and other red-hot issues like the death penalty, crack cocaine, discrimination and the role of parents in raising children.
Some chapters may make you laugh, shake your head, or read passages aloud to your friends and family. A friend of mine couldn't resist writing arguments in the margins of his dog-eared copy.

Here are a few things you can discover in Freakonomics:

You'll see evidence that drug-dealing gangs have a similar business structure and hierarchy as McDonald's.

You'll learn that the Ku Klux Klan was a largely ineffectual group by the late 1950s, undermined by a children's television show.

You'll read the story of Robert Lane and two of his sons - one he named Winner and the other Loser. Which young man did well in life? How important is the name your parents gave you?

You'll see whether having lots of books in the home contributes to success later in life - which is intriguing information for supporters of the Navy's Professional Reading Program.

delves into the science of "cause and effect," "correlation," "nature and/or nurture," "fear," and the power of incentives in influencing behavior.

The three "basic flavors" of incentives according to Levitt are economic, social and moral. They are often most effective when combined such as in the U.S. anti-smoking campaign.

But, as asked earlier, what are the "right," most effective incentives in life?

Though not stated outright in the book, here’s what Freakonomics suggests: You can incentivize honesty, hard work, and good will by trusting in people, listening to them, and showing them love.

It’s that simple and that profound.

You don’t have to agree with all of the conclusions in Freakonomics in order to appreciate the authors’ courage in raising controversial questions, challenging assumptions and opening a dialog about critical, skeptical thinking.

Freakonomics is one of many great reads at the Navy Professional Reading Program. You can learn more about the program here.

For a cool Freakonomics essay by Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell click here.

To follow the Twitter-like Freakonomics blog at The New York Times, click here.

Special thanks to Roxanne Darling and Nathan Kam for use of their photos from an August 2009 embarkation to USS Nimitz. Roxanne left a really nice comment after the July 12 interview post with Prof. Jackson. I hope you'll scroll down and take a look.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What Warriors Read -- to Learn, for Escape?

By Bill Doughty

Catching up this week, after the interview with Professor Jackson, manager of the Navy Professional Reading Program. I want to highlight comments received by two Sailors a while back that I didn’t want to get “lost in the sauce”...

“Christine,” a public affairs officer, and CAPT Hansen, officer in charge of Navy embedded training teams, posted these comments to my review of The Kite Runner in May. In a few words they say so much -- about religion, father-son relationships, diverse viewpoints and book recommendations for families when loved ones are deployed -- above all, putting things in context:

I don't know if these are universal, but before I left, people recommended "Lone Survivor," which is Marcus Luttrell's account of the battle that killed the rest of his Seal team in the mountains of Afghanistan. Also recommended were A Thousand Splendid Suns and Three Cups of Tea. I'll confess that I've only gotten to Lone Survivor myself (I read The Kite Runner awhile back), but the others are on my list.

I'm a huge reader -- my Kindle is my prized possession here, right behind my laptop. I don't watch a lot of television, and I haven't even looked at the 300gb of movies I brought with me. Instead, I read a lot of fluff -- pure escapist nonsense. Some of it with more literary merit than others. I do like to read the books that I learn something from, but it's also important to have the fun reads.

Your comment wrapped up Kite Runner like the crib notes of a good book report. I like the way that you tied up the analogies for me. The book was riveting for me on two personal paths - spiritual and relational. It was interesting to reflect on my adherence to and divergence from my religious beliefs. Seeing the son attempting to be himself and please his father, whom he respected immensely brought me to reflecting on my relationship with my father, growing up, and my relationship with my son.

The Thousand Splendid Suns is even more poignant regarding the place of women in Afghan society.

Both books are must reads to get prepared for a deployment here. The service member must remember though that people are individuals. Although there is societal adherence to Islam, there is some variation as to how conforming people are just as in the U.S. people profess one religion or another, but live varying degrees of it.

Three Cups of Tea is recommended for those deploying too. It is much more positive than the other books mentioned here. Spouses and loved ones remaining behind should read Three Cups so that they have something positive to contemplate in the absence of their service member.

Dennis M. Hansen

Other perspectives...

From Tikrit, Iraq a friend wrote to me that folks he knows are reading escapist books like Twilight and Clash of Kings. He said in an email, “We just read the books people send us.” Graphic novels are a hit with some of the Americans serving there. Speaking of Twilight, I heard on a podcast last week that, with the U.S. economy in a downturn, romance novels are back in vogue.

Like Christine said, fun reads are important too.

Back at my office in Hawaii, my colleagues and I sometimes talk about books around the watercooler, where a co-worker suggested reading Lionel Trilling. I checked out Trilling’s Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning and found a fascinating thinker. Trilling’s decades-old essays were well worth dusting off and examining. He dissects T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Mark Twain and Hemingway, among many others.

Mark Twain could help readers escape and learn... Was he America’s greatest writer?