Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Freakonomics

With Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and NY Times writer Stephen Dubner have accomplished something that I have long thought impossible: writing a book based on economics that is fun to read. But, of course, that may be because the book is relatively light on economic theory and could be more properly called a sociology book except for the authors' main point that life revolves around "self-interest."

Most of us, if we wonder at all about the trends and behavior that we see around us, rely on "conventional wisdom" to explain why things happen as they do. Levitt points out that, not too shockingly, conventional wisdom is often wrong and that it should always be questioned before being accepted as fact. Along the way he provides the data to back up and prove his case concerning several interesting questions about which he believes that conventional wisdom has drawn the wrong conclusions. Some of Levitt's assertions are not politically correct ones to speak out loud and his work has been criticized by some readers more for the very conclusions he's reached than for any lack of evidence with which he builds his case.

For instance, conventional wisdom tells us that the huge drop in the violent crime rate that we witnessed in the nineties was the result of many big city mayors placing more and more policemen on the streets, policemen who were armed with a "zero tolerance" policy and with other new and innovative crime fighting techniques. Not so, says Steven Levitt. He believes that there is one reason, and only one, that the crime rate dropped as it did: Roe vs. Wade. Simply put, the legalization of abortion guaranteed that huge numbers of unwanted children were not born in the seventies and eighties, the very children who were most likely to grow into the violent criminals of the nineties and beyond. Fewer criminals on the streets, according to Levitt, translated into a lower violent crime rate.

How much do parents really matter when it comes to raising children who will do well in school? Is it important to surround a young child with books, to read to that child every night, to limit his television time and spend his summers bringing him to museums and zoos? If you're like me, you will likely say that all of those things help create a good student, a child that will grow into a productive adult with a good future. If you're Steven Levitt, on the other hand, you will say that none of those things have anything much to do with the kind of grades that your child can be expected to earn in school. Levitt argues that there are only two types of parental attributes: things that parents ARE and things that parents DO. Parents are either bright or they are not, and they come from families that have passed on the same genes to them that they are passing on to their own children. It is that basic genetically provided ability that determines the school marks that a child will receive. What these parents ARE, smart or not smart, is the determinate factor. What they DO by supplying books and an atmosphere that encourages good learning habits is not nearly as important to the children. Levitt, in fact, argues that books, museum trips, etc., are just outward indicators that the parents are bright and that they enjoy learning themselves, not tools that can turn an average child into a brainy one.

Freakonomics also has entertaining chapters based on questions that tend to make the reader pay attention to the details that provide the answers. What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? Which is more dangerous, a swimming pool or a gun? What do real estate agents and the Klan have in common?

If those questions make you curious, Freakonomics is worth your time. I'm still mulling over some of the answers provided by Levitt, not sure that I agree with all of them, but his conclusions have definitely made me think and look at the world from a different point-of-view than the one I had before reading the book. I've always been more a cynic than not, so it was fun for me to find a book that so cleverly and effectively debunks "conventional wisdom."

Rated at: 3.5

11 comments:

  1. Interesting theories, especially the correlation between genetics and learning. I'm not as competitive as others in the family. Maybe I didn't get the brainy genes? Could I use this excuse?:-)I think learning depends on tons of factors. Exciting teachers, environment, proeper sleep, etc.

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  2. I didn't explain it real well, egg, but what he's saying is that the innate ability to learn or to be "smart" is a bred trait and not a nurtured one. All things being equal, if a person is not born with the ability to be a good student, even all the proper tools and motivation will not turn him into one. He's basically saying that all those Mozart baby tapes are useless because it's already too late to change a baby's brain.

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  3. It's an interesting viewpoint, but I would be curious as to whether or not he has considered the impact of different learning styles. Our educational system is based heavily on text based learning. Those who learn better through other means get short-shrift. It's an old argument in education though -- nature vs. nurture.

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  4. Jill, I don't recall him mentioning different learning styles.

    He did say, however, that children born with average IQs to parents who believe highly in the value of education achieve a lot more than children born with the same IQs into families who don't value education. They learn the right work habits and are given the tools to get them through college etc, despite not being any more physically capable than those who fail to make it that far.

    Much of his argument focused on their abilities as measured soon after they start school...figuring that it had been all up to parents until that point and that the differences attributable to parenting could be measured then.

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  5. I've had Freakanomics on my TBR for about two years now. I do believe that for my next quick read, I'll have to get to this book ASAP.

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  6. I think you'll have fun with it...let us know what you think when you're done. I'm still trying to decide about the validity of some of his conclusions.

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  7. I enjoyed this book a lot. It was a light, quick read, and it created a lot of discussion in my book group. Some people found his research spurious, while other accepted it wholeheartedly. I thought the section with baby names was weird, but interesting.

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  8. I can sure understand how this one would cause a split of opinion in a book group. That was pretty much my reaction...I buy some of his conclusions almost without question and others leave me scratching my head the more that I think about them. But it was certainly a fun book and I'm glad that I read it.

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  9. Hey Sam, you might be interested in checking this book out: "Freedomnomics" by John R. Lott, Jr., Ph.D. It bills itself as the "rebuttal to 'Freakonomics.'" I haven't read, so I can't vouch for it, but it might be good for a counterpoint.

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  10. Thanks, Annie, that's a new title to me. I'll see if I can find it and, if it's written in a readable style, I'll take a look at it to see what the author has to say. It should be interesting to see how he rebuts Freakonomics.

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