Sunday, August 23, 2015

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner look into the unexpected relationships between aspects of our society in their book Freakonomics. They not particularly interested in the things you might expect economists to write about such as business, markets or investment. Instead, they look at cheating, crime, expertise and parenting.

There is no particular theme of the book, except possibly that common explanations and expectations are often off the mark. Levitt and Dubner are skeptical of conventional wisdom and expertise. They are interested in data and what questions can properly be put to that data.

They sometimes come to conclusions that some might find disturbing or troubling. For instance, they trace the drop in crime rates in the 1990s to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Many of the women who had abortions in the wake of Roe vs. Wade were poor, had low education, or very young. All of these traits in the parents tend to produce worse outcomes for children, including a higher likelihood of committing crime. As the first post-Roe cohort of children reached their teen years in the 1990s, there were fewer who had been raised in those conditions that may have pushed them into crime, and therefore fewer budding criminals and a decline in crime rates.

Reading this made me think of the arguments of eugenicists. They believed that a host of social ills, including crime, could be mitigated by keeping the unfit people from reproducing. To the eugenicists, unfit was essentially equivalent to nonwhite, though it also extended to the feebleminded (a disease a eugenically-minded psychiatrist or psychologist might have found in any poor, uneducated person). The eugenicists saw intelligence, criminality, poverty and host of other features as fixed and hereditary. Limiting the reproduction of the unfit through abortion or sterilization would reduce and eventually eliminate poverty and crime.

Of course, Levitt and Dubner are not eugenicists. Nor do they propose abortion as means to reduce crime. Crime does not have its roots in race or intelligence. It is strongly tied to poverty and low education. Charles Dickens chilling portrayed Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol, and they are still a threat to all of us.

Each chapter reveals an interesting twist on some subject, though few are as potentially charged as that on crime. In another chapter, the authors show that crime does not pay, except for those at the top, on unlike in a corporation. In spite of faddish thoughts on the issue, parents matter, though maybe not in the ways we’d like to think.

My previous reading has inclined me to focus on the darkest part of the book, but the overall tone is conversational and light, though the authors are not flippant about serous subjects. They are not technical either. Their use of statistics is straightforward. They do not delve deep into theory, though they focus much on the central theory of economics that people respond to incentives.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Levitt, Steven D., & Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005.