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When To Rob a Bank - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner ****

After a certain amount of disappointment caused by the previous Freaknomics inspired book, Think Like a Freak, I was prepared to find the latest equally disappointing. After all, the authors admit this is just a transcription of parts of their blog. In economics terms, as they point out, this is the equivalent of buying bottled water - paying money for something you can get for free. However they do claim to have culled the best from their blog, so you don't have to, which is a useful service.

Like the huge successful Freakonomics and its successors, the blog is all about taking the tools of economics and statistics and using them in everyday life. Only here the uses are less thought through. Where they might have done a lot of work to get a piece together for one of the main books, here it's usually just a quick thought, without in-depth research attached. However despite this - and arguably sometimes because of this - a good number of the entries are thought provoking, challenging, fun or all three. You'll find everything from a debate with a number of experts on what you should do with $10 in your pocket when passing a drunken beggar and hotdog stall to an idea to 'fix' the UK health service (apparently David Cameron wasn't impressed) and some surprising considerations on what is and isn't good for the environment. Not to mention why most people get the answer totally wrong to 'why has consumption of shrimp gone up'... and, of course, the title question of the book.

Sometimes you do feel that they are just setting out to be provocative without any great reason to be - for example in the items on terrorism. (Though they do underline the important point that most security measures are for show, not to do the job.) Elsewhere, while what they have is an interesting theoretical solution to a problem, it's usually a classic example of economists not understanding psychology. Even though they make several references to behavioural economics, this is mostly classical economics with its undying belief in markets and assumption that we behave as homo economicus. This comes through, for example, in that UK health service 'fix', which is quite logical, but doesn't take any account of the psychology of the British attitude to healthcare free at the point of source.

For me, the biggest problem is the sport section, which I pretty much had to skip. Both participants seem obsessed with sport, and specifically with America's very parochial domestic sports, which to anyone outside of the country are likely to be as dull as all the entries on poker will be to non-gamblers. It was also quite sweet that Levitt and Dubner, for all their efforts at putting logic and numbers to the fore, couldn't overcome the US obsession with guns - so in various entries trying to see how it might be possible to reduce deaths and injuries by firearms, there is no mention of what the rest of the world sees as the blindingly obvious - get rid of the guns. Duh.

Despite the extremely boring sports bit and the gun-blindness, there is plenty to enjoy, so it really wasn't a problem. And if you get to the end and think 'I need more', you can always head over to the blog and get your fill in an all-you-can-eat Freakobuffet. Excellent!


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Review by Brian Clegg

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