Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

27.7.05

What I've been reading

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
242 pages, 2005, HarperCollins Publishers/William Morrow

I first heard about this book on The Daily Show a few months ago and became intrigued by it. I bought it not long after and decided to break my alphabetical-by-author reading jag I'm on to read it, because, like the last book I read, it seemed pretty relevant and immediate. I am now back on my alphabetical thing. Don't fret.

Levitt is the economist and Dubner is the reporter. Levitt claims he doesn't know how to write, so Dubner helped him out. The ideas, I would assume, are Levitt's - he's gone rogue! If you've heard of this book, it is probably because of the section dealing with abortion - we'll get to that. However, the whole book is worth a read, and it's pretty quick to read. It took me about four days to finish it, and that was when my parents were here. So do yourself a favor and pick it up.

I don't know enough about economics to know if Levitt is really on the ball or not with his conclusions. He claims that he doesn't have an overarching theme, but that's not really true. His theme is: challenge the conventional wisdom. He points out that John Kenneth Galbraith coined the phrase "conventional wisdom," and that he didn't mean it as a compliment.¹ Galbraith claimed conventional wisdom is convenient and comforting, but not necessarily true. Therefore, we must challenge the conventional wisdom to find the truth, even if it bothers us. This is something people don't like to do (I know I don't), and it's interesting to see it expressed in a book about economics.

Levitt and Dubner break the book down into a series of questions about life. They look at cheating among teachers and sumo wrestlers; the culture of fear that allows experts to rule our lives (experts like real estate agents, although they manage to tie things into the Ku Klux Klan as well); why drug dealers live with their moms; why abortion prevents crime; what makes a good parent; and if names of children matter in their professions. Again, I don't know enough to argue with his conclusions. Take the abortion issue, the most controversial argument in the book. He looks at the drop in crime in New York during the 1990s, which "conventional wisdom" says is because of Rudolph Guiliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, and their efforts to stamp out small crime, which will show that even small crime won't be tolerated. It sounds good, but Levitt shows that it's crap. Crime fell 20 percent from 1990 to 1993, and Guiliani didn't become mayor until 1994. Other cities didn't try Guiliani and Bratton's innovative techniques, and their crime rate fell pretty much the same way.² Levitt points out that New York hired a lot more police officers in the 1990s, and this is the only factor that was recognized by the media as leading to a crime drop. Levitt points out that in Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed abortion in 1966. Kids born after 1966 were much more likely to be criminals. He links this to the post-1973 American landscape. He makes the case that a woman who wants to have an abortion usually has a good reason for it - she is too poor, she is single, she is an alcoholic or a drug addict. As Levitt points out:

"What sort of woman was most likely to take advantage of Roe v. Wade? Very often she was unmarried or in her teens or poor, and sometimes all three. What sort of future might her child have had? One study has shown that the typical child who went unborn in the earliest years of legalized abortion would have been 50 percent more likely than average to live in poverty; he would have also been 60 percent more likely to grow up with just one parent. These two factors - childhood poverty and a single-parent household - are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future. Growing up in a single-parent home roughly doubles a child's propensity to commit crime. So does having a teenage mother. Another study has shown that low maternal education is the single most powerful factor leading to criminality."³

He asks if there is any link between abortion and the fall in crime rate. He looks at states that legalized abortion prior to Roe v. Wade, all of which experienced a crime drop before the rest of the country. He also looks at the states that had the highest abortion rate, and yes, their crime rate fell more than the rest of the country. He has other correlations too, but I won't go into them here.

This is not to say that Levitt wants more abortions. He never tells us if he's pro-choice or pro-life. That's not his point. None of these arguments that he makes are couched in moral terms - he explicitly makes the point that he isn't interested in making moral arguments. What he is doing is asking questions about behavior that no one else has asked. The interesting thing about this book is that Levitt asks these questions and tries to find out the answers and what they mean. He wants to challenge what people say in the media and how policy is determined. Unfortunately, with a lot of stuff, government policy gets determined because of what people believe, even if they believe with no scientific backing to it. Levitt explains that many people have made up figures just to pursue their own agenda, and that, he says, is asinine. We need to discover if there really is truth behind what people say, and we need to ask tough questions. You may not agree with Levitt, but that's not the point. The point is we need to think more. That's not such a bad thing, is it?

This is a provocative book, and I recommend it highly. It might piss you off, it might not, but it will stimulate your brain. Stimulation = Good!

¹ Page 89. I love footnotes!
² Pages 129-130. Footnotes rule!
³ Pages 138-139. That's right, another footnote!

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've also read this-this is an excellent book.

27/7/05 5:22 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

I came up with my own "Freakonomics" theory, Greg.

http://goodmorninghouston.blogspot.com/2005/05/how-abortion-helped-bush-win-in-2004.html

27/7/05 9:16 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I have heard of Messrs. Levitt Dubner's Freakonomics and I am curious to read it. I have read their relatively new column in the New York Times Magazine, though, and I have found it quite interesting. Do not be aghast that I would read such a left-leaning publication as the New York Times. I also read the Wall Street Journal.

28/7/05 7:32 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Thomas - I remember that post. Very interesting. I read in the paper yesterday that if Roe v. Wade goes away, it might be worse for Republicans, since the state legislatures would vote to make it legal. Interesting ...

Matthew - don't be ashamed! You should pick up The Daily Worker as well!

28/7/05 7:34 AM  
Blogger Nik said...

I enjoyed this too, although it suffered a bit from not really having a "unifying theory" as the authors themselves admit other than "think different." I kind of compared it to Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," which was a similar book but a bit more cohesive - and also highly recommended

29/7/05 3:06 PM  

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