Year of the Economist

Freakonomics, economic hit men, undercover economists. This ain’t Adam Smith.

Even practitioners of the dismal science themselves didn’t see this one coming


Last January, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, about America’s behind-the-balance-sheet empire building, hit the New York Times best-seller list. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything was next, debuting at number five and leading to a Times column for its authors, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. By September, MTV had paired cover girl Angelina Jolie with Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, sending them to film a documentary on Kenya’s economy.

Hit men? Rogues? Hollywood starlets? Last we knew, the only models economists hooked up with were in Excel spreadsheets. So upon receiving a copy of The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich are Rich, the Poor Are Poor–and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!, yet another splashy economics-meets-pop-culture tome due out this month, we looked up its author, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford. “What on earth is going on?” we asked.

Harford confirmed: Economics for the masses is hot. Early on, he says, he faced resistance from his publisher, Oxford University Press. “They were uncomfortable with a book that had ‘economist’ in the title,” he says. But “the idea of the economist as a detective hero suddenly became easy to sell once Freakonomics climbed the best-seller lists.”

Meanwhile, Levitt and Dubner have spun their tales of rigged sumo matches and inner-city crack dealers everywhere from CNN to The Charlie Rose Show to The 700 Club. ABC just signed the pair to a one-year deal for recurring spots on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and Nightline, including backing for their own documentaries.

Suzanne Gluck, Levitt and Dubner’s agent, says Freakonomics hasn’t just inspired other numbers books. “People are pitching everything from ‘The Medical Freakonomics’ to ‘The Freakonomics of Parenting,’ ” she says. “They’re using freakonomics as a code word for unconventional wisdom.”

Conventional wisdom says there’s more to come. Dubner says, “We’re working on another book: ‘Superfreakonomics.’ ”


What’s the secret?

“It’s just math.”