Sympathetic Stupid

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Freakonomics: Levitt & Dubner

'A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything'

So I like pop economics, is there anything wrong with that? Slaving through reams of economics jargon and stats doesn't necessarily make academic texts better. What can make them better is the rigour and understanding the author brings.

Well, Freakonomics is the pinnacle of pop economics. While I have issues with the inclusion of gushing media quotes about Steven Levitt, I can't argue that he's not special amongst modern economists. And the writing of Dubner, as a journalist, is clear and gives Levitt room to tell his story.

He does economics in the grand, admirable tradition of Adam Smith. Economics as seen in the media today seems heavily steeped in econometrics; everything is slave to the numbers. Smith started out in logic, moved to philosophy, and just happened to publish on economics.

Levitt originally considered studying psychology. It seems that he's more interested in the motivations than the numbers, though he does use them to back up his arguments. And he takes a conspicuously centrist position on the world, which I find attractive.

The most impressive argument in the book links the decline in US crime through the 90s with the legalising of abortion in Roe vs Wade in 1973. Here's an interesting sentence:

In other words, the very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.

It seems kinda callous to promote abortion purely because it would lower crime; I can imagine Karl Rove using this to convince Dubya (indeed, the Bush Administration did offer Levitt a position working on crime). But his conclusion is eminently sensible:

What the link between abortion and crime does say is this: when the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a position to raise the baby well. If she decides she can't, she often chooses the abortion.

This is pro-choice argument well expressed. Not what you'd expect in an economics book.

And there's lot of other interesting bits. The numbers show that cheating is rife in sumo-wrestling. Real-estate agents get better prices for their own houses. Obsessive parenting can't be shown as beneficial. Drug dealers don't actually make much money. Players on The Weakest Link discriminate in surprising ways.