Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In Five Years, We'll All Either Be Learning It In School...or Be Dead By Its Hand

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (2005) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This book was a huge hit back in '05 (#2 on The New York Times bestseller's list), but I'm fairly lazy, so I didn't get around to reading it until I stole it from my friend Andrew up at his parents' cottage and plowed through it in a day over the August long weekend (thanks, buddy!). At its core, Freakonomics, is a loose amalgam of random, intriguing theories put together by the "it" economist of right-the-hell-now, Steven Levitt.

So what does Freakonomics teach us? Glad you asked! Just a sampling: how to catch high school teachers that change their students' answers on standardized tests to earn their performance bonus (look for a strategically improbable string of correct answers later in the test, when kids are rather unlikely to be that accurate); how sumo wrestlers collude (those that are hovering around .500 going into their final bout will barter--successfully--for a win against a stronger opponent in exchange for dumping the next encounter between the two); how a regular joe helped fatally (not for him) undermine the KKK in the 40s (somewhat awesomely: this involves Superman); and the book answers the question of whether or not real estate agents will knowingly sell your house for less than it's worth in order to quickly receive their commission cheque (hint: yes!). Elsewhere, Levitt seeks--with a varying degree of success--to debunk the notion that money plays a major role in elections and provocatively asserts that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is the major (not to mention: well-concealed) reason for the massive drop in the American crime rate, post-1990. More on this last one in a sec.

The weakest section by far is the one on election spending. Levitt is quick to make the point that deep pockets do not guarantee a November win--using Steve Forbes and Ross Perot as examples--something, as near as I can tell, that no one has ever argued. Two sharper/less retarded observations might be:
  1. Perot and Forbes' failures had less do with money being overrated than with the vagaries of the two-party sytem being virtually impossible to overcome. (Also, Perot being batshit crazy likely played a role.)
  2. Having money may not guarantee you a victory, but not having it all but assures your defeat (see: McCain, John...or any of the '08 Dems not named 'Clinton,' 'Obama,' or 'Edwards.')

Even from my pro-choice vantage point, there is something considerably icky (for want of a better term) about the more abortions = less crime formulation. So the theory goes:

  1. Abortions reduce the number of unwanted children born into this world.
  2. Unwanted children, when they turn 16, tend to commit more crimes, on average, than other children.
  3. Abortions became legal in 1973.
  4. The national crime rate, in response to legalized abortion reducing the number of unwanted kids, began to drop in 1990.

And...that's about all there is to it. Admittedly, if you don't buy point #2 (and, I'll confess, I missed that memo altogether), you're not going to like the theory. Now, I can think of a few things wrong with the argument--specifically, a confluence of minor events (a tipping point, as it were), unconvincingly dismissed by the author, seems a more likely answer--but I will acknowledge that it takes huge balls to make it in the first place.

All told, it's a fun and informative read (If you're unable to become the pretentious and pedantic ass at the cocktail party after racing through this book, I would suggest that you get out of the pretentious ass business), but there are a couple of nagging concerns...

The reality is--aside from the fact that the topics piqued Levitt's interest--there is precious little connecting the hierarchy of a crack empire to corrupt sumo wrestling, and even less of a link between the socioeconomic patterns of naming children and outing the Klan. To their credit, the authors do, indeed, go out of there way to point out that their book has no overarching theme. However, this reminds me very much of the Puff Daddy defense from years back. If I may summarize: "It's ok that I shamelessly sample other tracks in my songs because I'm admitting to you, right now, that I shamelessly sample." Well, ok, but it doesn't change the fact that you're still a shameless sampler. Few wannabe authors, I imagine, are trotting out the "my novel, read as a whole, is completely incomprehensible" argument (at least not successfully), so why should this fly here? (Good Lord, did I just reference P. Diddy as a hip-hop mogul? Science Dammit!) As Gregg Easterbrook (and who am I to quibble with TMQ?) observes in his own review of the book: "academic careers may not need unifying themes; books do."

There's also a tendency to set up straw men, such as the authors starting out with the premise that everyone believes drug dealers to be incredibly wealthy and then telling us that, no, in fact, most make less than the average burger jockey at McDonald's, a revelation startling to anyone who has never seen, heard of, discussed, or read about The Wire.

Another occurs when Levitt hypothesizes that maybe, just maybe, the name you're given at birth plays a role in your future earnings and then quickly follows this up with stats that prove just that. While it's fun to analyze the attached appendix (names from the California birth registry over three decades cross-referenced by the average number of years of schooling for the name-giver) is this (a) really worthy of an economist's time or (b) even remotely surprising? No on both counts, I think.

Finally, the subheading describes Levitt as a "rogue economist," and a blurb on the back adds--hilariously--"if Indiana Jones were an economist, he would be Stephen Levitt," to which I must ask: the fuck?? I actually don't even know what that means...would he still be fighting the Nazis? What's even funnier is that, allegedly, in its original run, each chapter began with a brief quote from Dubner (the co-author/possible ghostwriter according to some sources) fawning over Levitt. (Levitt is the "master of the simple, clever solution"; is "genial...and unflappable"; and is a "tender and attentive lover." Somewhat embarassingly, only one of those quotes is fabricated.)

This book, I'm willing to speculate, looks very much like what Levitt's brain would look like if you were able to walk around in it--cluttered, full of bizarre tidbits, wickedly funny at times, somewhat infuriating in other places. Whether that's a good thing or not is debatable.

1 comment:

RT Murphy said...

But Kyle, you see, it's so much easier to seem intellectual and cutting-edge when you don't have a solid thesis that people can scrutinize!