Monday, July 31, 2006


I don’t see what the big deal is. This is supposed to be the ubercreative economist, asking brilliant questions and using powerful economic tools to reveal surprising things about the everyday world. But what Levitt does is the same thing Bill James and a dozen other sabermetricians do with baseball statistics. Historians like David Hackett Fischer do the same thing when they compares mortality tables, church membership rolls, and population demographics in colonial America. Sociologists and psychologists look for interesting proxy data or representative samples to answer their interesting questions about how people really think and act.

Levitt’s examples are particularly varied, and he seems to bite off large trunks of the truth at the first pass, suggesting that he is especially good at this. But there’s nothing new here. The book is interesting, and it will give you new perspectives on events around you, but a #1 NYTimes bestseller? How did that happen? Arnold Kling over at TCSDaily put up warning signals about this, and even gave a nice counterexample of an angle that Levitt overlooked and didn’t measure in his Freakonomic takedown of real estate agents abusing their inside information for their own benefit instead of yours. Similar slips occur throughout the book. On page 138, in discussing what causes criminality, Levitt assures us that single-parent families are a strong predictor; but by page 167, the intact family is claimed to have no effect on school success.

Well, sure, if you want to make a case that criminality and school success are unrelated, I suppose you could start from there. But in a discussion about what makes a perfect parent, you can’t just switch and say “We’re only going to measure kids’ test scores,” because most parents consider keeping their children away from criminal behavior to be an important part of upbringing.

Perhaps I have a slight resentment because I recently made observations about onomastics (that’s, uh, naming, thank you very much) and no one is citing me in best sellers, but is it really difficult to notice that boys’ names became girls’ names, but not the other way ‘round? I’ve been aware of it for almost four decades. I can’t be the only one. Whole chapters were devoted to onomastics in one of my college linguistics texts, and much of what Levitt reports breathlessly seems obvious to me. The names that rich people give their children become the names that middle class and then poor people give their children 10-20 years later. Especially true for girls. Ooh wow.

So how does Levitt get the rep as the Golden Boy of Economics, and send his book to millions of nightstands across America? I speculate:
1. Levitt and Dubner address some very sexy questions that people want to know the answers to – crime, abortion, gun control, school cheating, getting ripped off, racial bias.
2. They address them well. Not flawlessly, but interestingly, with soundish reasoning and good writing.
3. It includes fancy economics ideas like moral incentives and factor analysis, so you’ll know you’re reading a book by a certified smart person. And if you already knew about those things, then Levitt and Dubner reassure you how smart you really are, by referring to them like professional secrets.
4. Most writing by economists is really, really boring, so this looks like an easy way for the dilettante reader to break into the field.

Let me elaborate on that last one a bit. I took an anthropology class my senior year to fulfill a requirement, and learned a great deal about Meso-American economies. That’s about Olmecs, and Toltecs, and the improvement in maize (and that’s about all I remember thirty years later). For a final paper, I compared changes in pottery designs of several cultures. The central idea was that designs became more ornate in civilizations as they grew in strength, but became stylized before they reached the peak of their power. Stylization was thus revealed as something of a predictor that a civilization was reaching its peak. My data was so good that I must have selected it conveniently. Then I tried to relate the principle to (then) modern American culture, trying to detect if we were about to implode like Mayans.

Having been trained in English and Theater departments, let me assure you that this was a C+ paper. I was in no danger of flunking out, I didn’t need the grade, and a whirlwind 12 hour entering-the-library-to-finished-product paper was just fine for me. The paper got an A+. The professor read it out loud to the class as an example of what he was looking for. He asked if he could keep it to pass out to future classes. He encouraged me to consider graduate school in anthropology. Took my breath away. I could make no sense of this.

It was about two days later that I remembered how utterly deadly the style of writing in anthropology is. My writing skills, above-average but nothing world-beating, shone like Cortez’s helmet in the anthropology department. This effect is what is happening in Freakonomics. People want to know something about economics, but anything longer than 1000 words puts them to sleep. Levitt has gotten around that with cool topics, and Dubner seals the deal with snappy prose.

Recommendation: You will probably like this book just fine, and learn some interesting things. But if your hidden goal is to be able to find economics that is endurable to read, go over to Tech Central Station, or buy PJ O’Rourke’s Eat The Rich.


bs king said...

I chalk it up to the American proclivity towards high level mediocrity. The New Yorker did a fascinating article about 2 years ago on the trend of parents enrolling their children in more and more after school programs to make them more "well rounded" and better college applicants, while at the same time programs for children who were actually certifiably genius level in any specific area were being cut. They concluded that Americans were on average getting smarter, but also getting more afraid of those people who were REALLY smart. That's why books on psuedo-intellectual topics that pander to midlevel IQs do so well. You can appear smart without actually fearing that you're interacting with someone who can legitimately look down on you. It's the same tendency that caused people to make theological statements based on the Da Vinci Code, medical statements based on Greys Anatomy, and sociological statements based on Desperate Housewives. Then again, I'm still convinced I'll find the secret of life in old Smurfs episodes, and that communism was just a red herring, so I suppose there's a grain of salt there.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Smurfs. Gad, I've been contemplating "McHale's Navy" for years for the same thing. No wonder I haven't found it. Thanks for the tip.