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