Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Freakonomics (Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner)

I cannot believe that I'm about to say that I got really excited about a book about economics. I can't remember one single thing about the economics class I took in college except it was taught by a very enthusiastic economist, whose enthusiasm unfortunately did not transfer to his lectures.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything makes economics exciting. And I'm not kidding one single bit. I think this book is great. There are insights in this book that are fascinating (why most drug dealers still live with their mothers) and not always popular (their investigation into the correlation between legalized abortion and the drastic drop in crime). To make economics not only accessible to me but to most of America (this book is still on the New York Times bestseller list), the two Stev(ph)ens combine excellent writing with intriguing ideas.

Among other topics, the Stev(ph)ens describe how the Chicago Public School system caught teachers cheating on their students standardized tests and explore how a violent gang is structured quite similarly to a fast-food franchise. They discuss (over)parenting (it turns out most parents worry about the wrong things) and the importance of a name (citing one father who names one son "Winner" and another "Loser," and the paths they both take in life).

Near the end of the book, they state, "If morality represents an ideal world, then economics represents the actual world." I don't think I would have really understood that statement before reading this book. I can't recommend it enough.

Next book up: Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson.


Pa-in-Law Doug said...

1. Freakonomics: Haven't read the book. I have, however, heard the authors talk about that stat on abortion and lowered crime rates.

That being said, what I keep coming back to is the discussion in the late 70s (before your and newly employed hubbie's time) that the crime rate would inevitably drop later in the century because the number of young males (main perps) was going to drop due to simple demographics.

The cynical discussion at the time was: both political parties would later claim credit for a result that was essentially out of their hands. Demo's will claim credit because of enlightened welfare and social programs; Repub's will claim credit because of toughened criminal laws and sentencing. In fact both parties have done just that.

So... my question: Do the authors tackle the demographics issue or do they just give all the "credit" to abortion and ignore the demographics?

Maybe I should read it, eh?

2. Shadow Divers. Heard this one last year. Gave it 4/5 stars on Audible.com. In fact, I think I wrote a review of it on the site.

This book was to my desire to do deep-sea diving what "Jaws" was to wanting to float around on a surf raft: I would think for a very long time before I did it. The diving danger was omnipresent and lethal. Real people die real deaths in this book. But fascinating group of people ... and they did it for fun ... compulsively.

Jim said...

In answer to the Freakonomics question, here's a basic outline of their approach, quoted from a couple pages in to that chapter:

"...Here, ranked by frequency of mention, are the crime-drop explanations published from 1991 to 2001 in the ten largest-circulation papers in the LexisNexis database:

Explanation (# of Citations)
1. Innovative policing strategies (52)
2. Increased reliance on prisons (47)
3. Changes in crack and other drug markets (33)
4. Aging of the population (32)
5. Tougher gun control laws (32)
6. Strong economy (28)
7. Increased number of police (26)
8. All other explanations (increased use of capital punishment, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and others) (34)

If you are the sort of person who likes guessing games, you may wish to spend the next few moments pondering which of the preceding explanations seem to have merit and which don't. Hint: of the seven major explanations on the list, only three can be shown to have contributed to the drop in crime. The others are, for the most part, figments of someone's imagination, self-interest, or wishful thinking. Further hint: one of the greatest measurable causes of the crime drop does not appear on the list at all, for it didn't receive a single mention."

The last is of course the abortion connection--at which point I confess to not totally understanding the question, since the mechanism by which abortion made its contribution was demographics, so they can't very well give credit to abortion while ignoring demographics. ("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 grow up in poverty; he would also have 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.")

But in any event, while this is the part that's earned them the most notoriety, that's only one out of the six chapters, and the other questions they ask are just as if not more thought provoking (see: "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?").

Pa-in-Law Doug said...

By "demographics" I meant the fact that fewer young men were going to be running around, regardless of abortions. Abortions would have further reduced the head count. But the crime would have dropped whether there were abortions or not.

A thesis that abortions exacerbated that trend (as opposed to being the main cause) would make sense given the data they show of the higher likelihood that the "unborn" would have been born into a high risk [of becoming a criminal] "situation" (poverty; one parent).

Jim said...

Ah. In that case, yes: the Stev(ph)ens do discuss the oft-proposed effect of the more general aging of the population (#4 on their most-cited list), but it's not one of the three they contend contributed along with abortion.

For further details, see the convenient downloads of Audible.com (read by an author, no less!).