Freakonomics v. The Undercover Economist

by F.

I recently read Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist back to back and found Freaknomics the better book overall. The Undercover Economist is worth reading, but Levitt and Dubner are just more engaging writers than Harford. The question is, Why?

We all love a surprise and skillful writers are expert at using a surprising fact to pique reader interest. You thought handguns were dangerous? Actually, swimming pools are more dangerous. You thought crack dealers were rich? Actually, as a business, crack dealing sucks. You thought parents mattered? Actually, they don’t make much difference. And so on throughout Freaknomics, as well as much pop science writing (“You thought the world was n years old? No, it’s n-10 gazillion years old”). This device always works. After all, what’s “news?” New information. New information is interesting because it’s surprising and relevant to your life. (Not news: “Today, the sun rose in the east, ascended to it’s zenith and then began to descend to its nadir.”) So Freaknomics has a lot of surprising information in it, which probably partly explains why it is a best-seller.

Then there are characters. Any good story needs a character, usually with a “dramatic need”—something they want. Freaknomics is peppered with good characters, from Levitt himself to a clever bagel vendor in Washington D.C. to Norma McCorvey (the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade). Many of the chapters start with a character, which is almost always compelling, and even if they don’t, in between the chapters we get little snippits of Levitt’s life, drawn from Dubner’s New York Times Magazine profile piece. Levitt is a great character, which is probably why the Times asked Dubner to profile him.

Then there is the writing, which is really easy to digest. This is not only a subjective judgement, though it is that, too. It is supported by the stats on Amazon: the Flesch-Kincaid Index of Freaknomics is 9.1, which means than almost 60% of searchable books on Amazon are harder to read. The sentences are short and crisp, with an average of 14.1 words (again, about 60% of books have longer sentences). Dubner and Levitt avoid big words: the average number of syllables per word is 1.6. And so on. The book is also relatively short for books of its type at around 63,000 words.

Now The Undercover Economist. Subjectively, I found this book less readable. What do the stats say? Well, the Flesch-Kinkead Index number of TUE is 11.4, meaning that only 40% are harder. The book has more multi-syllable words than Freaknomics and has much longer sentences—only about 25% of books searchable on Amazon have longer sentences. This slows the reader way down, particularly because the book has what I would call a British accent. It is written in a self-consciously ruminative style that, I think, is less accessible to the average reader.

What about the characters? There are few to none. Harford plays around with a conceit of being an “undercover economist.” For instance, he goes to one grocery story, buys a basket of goods, then goes to another store and compares prices, “undercover.” That’s a decent device, but it’s not used consistently throughout the book. Better might have been to pose questions for “the undercover economist,” such as, “Why is Cameroon so underdeveloped?” and then send him on a mission to find out the answer. (He sort of does this. Sort of.) This would give us a character with a strong “desire-line,” as they say in Hollywood. The most successful chapters of Harford’s book do this. But it is inconsistently employed.

What about the surprises? There are few. Of course, surprises are relative to the reader’s knowledge. If you thought “fair trade coffee” provided a substantial benefit to the grower, then you will be surprised. (It doesn’t). If you thought institutions didn’t matter to development, then you will be surprised. If you thought China’s market reforms followed the “shock therapy” model, then you will be surprised. But many readers won’t have intuitions about these things. The topics are too exotic, so the able-to-be-suprised audience shrinks. The book is also about 80,000 words, too—fairly long.

Which book is substantively better? Actually, I think I got more out of The Undercover Economist, but the style made it less fun to read. Freaknomics is also not flawless: it is sort of disjoint, hooked together by anecdotes about Levitt, but they are so spare that Levitt doesn’t come alive unless you know about him already. (I’d read other pieces on him and had watched his TED talk, so he was, for me, fully fleshed out.) And Freaknomics uses a device that I’m getting a little tired of: connections between disparate things. This device is most associated with Gladwell, which he uses brilliantly. What do a sumo wrestler, a porn star, and fish stick have in common? What’s the hidden connection between spaghetti and the Voyager space craft? How can the science of running shoes make us better investors? You get the idea. This sort of headline makes the curious almost salivate to know the answer—and we are all curious, especially when sex, money and food are involved. It’s only human.

(Totally irrelevant note to the reader: perceptive readers will have noticed that the organization of this entry is chiastic, although rhetoric purists might dispute that.)