Redefining the modern world

Journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt reveal how their partnership produced an unlikely bestseller.

By DAVID WISEMAN
May 24, 2006 09:37
freakonomics 88 298

freakonomics 88 298. (photo credit: )

 
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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner HarperCollins 242pp., $25.95 In recent years, it seems as though one needs something dramatic to get a book to the top of the bestseller list - something like chasing murderers across Europe, cracking ancient codes or following a young orphan through witchcraft school. You couldn't do it with something as mind-numbingly dry as economics... or could you? Stephen Dubner is no miracle worker, but he accomplished just that. Co-author of Freakonomics, Dubner is an economics professor at the University of Chicago who, together with research economist Steven Levitt, managed to turn mundane facts into bestselling prose. Freakonomics unlocks the apparent mysteries of everyday life - such as why the violent crime rate fell so much when abortion became legalized, why drug-dealers operate similarly to McDonalds and what the real key is to good parenting. The writing team set out to explore the hidden side of just about everything and show that economics at its root is the study of incentives - how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing. The writing team first crossed paths when Dubner was commissioned to write a profile piece on Levitt for The New York Times Magazine. "It was the most fun I'd ever had writing an article," Dubner recalls. "I was deeply intrigued with Levitt's research. That said, I thought maybe five people would read the article. A 5,000-word piece on a research economist published in the dead of summer?" For Levitt, who had been interviewed countless times before, Dubner also stood out. "This New York Times reporter comes and has read every paper I have ever written, as well as everything ever written about me. Thirty-six hours of questions later and he was still going. I had never met anyone like him," Levitt told The Jerusalem Post. Not until the interview drew to a close did the tables turn. "It was only in the last 15 minutes that we spoke about him," Levitt says. "Afterward, we parted ways, and had no intention of speaking again." Despite the undesirable timing and the topic, Dubner's story struck a chord with readers. The public were hungry for more and Dubner and Levitt began to consider reuniting in an attempt to revive some of their magic. Some suggested that Dubner write a book on Levitt and his work. Others proposed that Levitt should write it himself. It was Dubner's agent, however, who put the two together. Levitt wasn't convinced at first. "It sounded preposterous and risky," he admits in retrospect. Dubner wasn't entirely sold on the idea either. "I hadn't even spoken to Levitt since the article was published; we were hardly friends, much less partners. I was slightly reluctant to cross the line from journalist to collaborator. But I thought it over, and we decided to work together. Since then, we have become good friends." The two are so close, in fact, that Levitt's wife refers to her husband's co-author as "his girlfriend." A year after the book's initial publication, the pair now speak to each other at least once a day, and Dubner has no greater admirer than his co-writer. "The piece he did on me really captured my essence. He is incredibly talented, has a rare skill, and makes the most of it. The skill is being a tremendous worker and a great observer of people. They open up to him. Plus he was able to synthesize 36 hours of material into something interesting to read." Levitt also admires Dubner for his ability to get away with "wearing a seersucker suit while being interviewed by Diane Sawyer." No one, though, was expecting Freakonomics to succeed as it did. "We were hoping it would do well," Levitt recalls. Not only did it fly off the shelves, but the book has carved out new careers for its authors. Dubner and Levitt now have a monthly column in The New York Times, a blog, guest-speaking bookings and lectures, possibly a board game and of course, plans for their next book. FOR THOSE who know Dubner, his success is no surprise. Inspired by his father, who was a newspaperman, Dubner began writing at an early age and showed tremendous proficiency for it right from the start. After graduating from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where he left writing for a brief flirtation with music, Dubner moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia, where he harbored ambitions of becoming a sports writer. "I began working in sports doing freelance pieces of the New York Knicks and Yankees. The more I did it, the more I didn't like the dynamic of it." Dubner could have gotten a job as a staff writer at Sports Illustrated but is glad he didn't take it. "I have been privileged in that I have for the most part had the ability to write about what I want to. I place writing in a category alongside prayer and sex. Doing it without the utmost intention quickly devalues it." Freelance opportunities beckoned and Dubner began writing at New York magazine for the first half of the '90s. After slowly climbing the ladder, he was noticed by editors at The New York Times Magazine and became a story editor there. It seems Dubner was born to write rather than edit, and his first cover story for the magazine was entitled "Choosing My Religion." The piece revolved around Dubner's discovery that his Catholic parents were both converted Jews. Dubner traveled to Poland to see the shtetl of his grandparents‚ and in uncovering the past, found his future. "My wife and kids are Jewish and we live the regular Jewish Upper West Side life," he reveals. Dubner's siblings aren't Jewish but "there is no friction," he says. "We worked it all out." The story evolved into a book which was called Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family. Dubner's second book, Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper, focused on Dubner's attempts to meet his boyhood hero, former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris. Neither of his two books set the publishing world on fire, but the success of Freakonomics has given the writer a second wind. What else does Dubner hope to write about? "I would love to do a book with Bill Clinton. His brain is truly incredible. I would also like to do a book on Pirkei Avot and how it applies to modern life," he says. Given the incredible sales that followed his book's publication, few topics will be off limits for Dubner. "The success of Freakonomics has been wonderful, but utterly exhausting. I sometimes long for the days when I had little to do except go to my quiet little studio every day and think, research and write. That said, I'm extremely grateful for what happened with this book. It will enable me to keep working on a variety of hand-chosen projects for years to come, including some pet writing and research subjects that no one in his right mind would have ever funded." As for the eagerly awaited sequel: "We were able to write Freakonomics in just under a year because we were mostly working with research that was already done over the course of 15 years. The next book we write will be harder, but, we are convinced, it will also be better, because we really know what we're doing now."

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