Saturday, November 19, 2005

Book review: Freakonomics

In a recent post on EconLog, Bryan Caplan wrote, "while there are many reasons why economics is the most successful social science, willingness to say what people don't want to hear is near the top." Such a willingness is certainly the chief merit of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt (the eponymous economist--ha!) and Stephen J. Dubner, an admiring journalist. Levitt's work addresses inflammatory issues such as abortion and urban gang culture; his conclusions are refreshing because he disdains ideological influence. His convincing argument that legal abortions have reduced crime rates, for example, will unsettle readers of all political affiliations; the hypothetical lives of aborted fetuses do not fit well into the pro-choice emphasis on pregrant women's control of their bodies, and legal abortion's power to reduce crime more than conventional measures (aside from increasing the number of police) radically upsets some conservative ideas of being "tough on crime." The abortion chapter of Freakonomics fairly begs to be misrepresented for ugly political purposes, as indeed it has been. The political risk of approaching these issues apolitically is cause for admiring the courage of the authors.

It is difficult, however, to avoid the sense that the most sympathetic reader will struggle to admire the authors as much as they appear to admire themselves. "An explanatory note" at the beginning of the book explains Dubner's view that "many economists" speak "English as if it were a fourth or fifth language" and Levitt's sense that the "thinking" of "many journalists" is not "very . . . robust, as an economist might say" (x, ellipsis in original). Happily for us, the note explains, we are reading the work of exceptions to these rules: "Levitt decided that Dubner wasn't a complete idiot. And Dubner found that Levitt wasn't a human slide rule" (x).

The authors' patting of their own backs will put off some readers, but it should not take away from the insights of the book. I mention it because this is not merely a matter of tone: in fact, authorial self-congratulation is the thesis of the book. One of the great marketing triumphs of Freakonomics is the ability of the authors to persuade many readers that the lack of an overarching argument is a feature, not a bug--the explanatory note ends with a philosopher asking about Levitt, "Why does he need to have a unifying theme? Maybe he's going to be one of these people who's so talented he doesn't need one" (2). Or as Malcolm Gladwell puts it on the back cover, "Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America." The same idea is reflected in the title: "freakonomics" is a nonsense word, a term used in the book and even more on the authors' blog to stand roughly for stuff that Levitt has argued or that Levitt and Dubner find interesting. Returning to the book's lack of a unifying theme in an epilogue, Levitt and Dubner do make a claim for a "common thread" of "thinking sensibly about how people behave in the real world," and they suggest that readers "might become more skeptical of conventional wisdom" for having read the book (205).

It is hard to argue with such broad claims, but it is worth pointing out that other books have similarly challenged conventional wisdom in ways that more actively assisted readers with their own investigations. Leaving aside the philosophical heavyweights in the skeptical line--Plato's Socrates and Hume, among many others--consider a few recent examples. When Bill James published his Baseball Abstract, he made claims like Levitt and Dubner's for the value of a general skepticism of conventional wisdom. Though James's works are not unified by theme, they do not take on all of everyday life, and focus on baseball allowed a new kind of analysis to flourish after James's example--and James's unconventional wisdom has taken hold, even as many later analysts have revised the specifics of James's claims. Or when Thomas Gilovich published How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, he not only transformed his readers' understanding of many everyday phenomena, but he also explained the specific mechanisms that caused conventional wisdom to go astray. And Gladwell himself, in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, offered not only a theory of counterintuitive "social epidemics" but also a mechanism of transmission through people called connectors, mavens, and salesmen that offered a widely applicable framework through which to understand other issues.

There is no equivalent framework in Freakonomics. The authors call this a lack of a unifying theme, but lack of thematic unity is a literary defect. The limitations of Freakonomics lie rather in the absence of larger scientific ideas: Levitt's argument about the relationship between legal abortion and crime rates is an argument only about that issue. The arguments of Freakonomics apply so narrowly that, while I do recommend reading the book for its key points--especially chapters three through five, on the economics of drug dealing, abortion and crime rates, and advice given to new parents, respectively--I cannot recommend reading it before the best works of the other authors I have mentioned, from Plato to Gladwell.


Fred Beukema said...

I bought Freakonomics at the Grinnell bookstore when I was in town for reunion last spring. I purchased it on Friday morning and, despite all the reunion festivities, had nevertheless finished the book by the time I left on Sunday afternoon. All of this is to say that I *enjoyed* the book and had fun reading it, especially the middle chapters you cite.

As a reader with a non-economic (and admittedly non-literary) background, I did pull out of the book a broader theme, despite the authors' claims that there was none: given enough data, the tools of economics may be used to explain a wide variety of issues that other social sciences have not adequately explained. And in the process, the utility of economics may be applied to more generally interesting subjects than it usually is.

While I certainly wouldn't put Leavitt and Dubner in the same league as Plato and Hume, the book is a highly enjoyable, quick read that introduced this engineer to a number of unfamiliar economic concepts.

Tim Fox said...

There is no doubt the book contains thought-provoking points, which is different (as Erik notes) from saying that it is a good read. For the latter failing, I blame Dubner. The academy is filled with towering egos and we cannot fault Leavitt for thinking he's doing things no one else does -- if he didn't, I would be concerned. (One gets the sense that at times Leavitt is broadly philosophizing on fieldwork done by others, but I'll leave it to his colleagues to police his attributions.) However, I cannot reconcile the idea of Dubner being a journalist with the way he adoringly gambols and frolics at the feet of his subject, as if Leavitt bestrode all human thought like a Colossus. I prefer my newspapermen in the Mencken mold.

As for the alleged superiority of economics' conceptual tools, that may have some merit. Economics more than the other soft sciences has had the courage to chase down ugly truths because it is unafraid of making its ultimate subjects -- human beings, acting upon their various self-interests -- look foolish, wicked, and vain. Can we truthfully say the same thing about anthro? When I was studying comparative religion we tied ourselves up in knots avoiding descriptions of human behavior that made the human actors sound anything less than noble -- or at least pious. While suspension of judgment was a useful tool to ensure clarity of perception of the behavior, it was not itself an aspirational goal, yet with postmodernism (very late to arrive in the religious studies department) it became one. Other fields claim to be value-neutral. Economics always was.

Nevertheless, economics occasionally produces theories (and I mean "theory" in the science sense rather than humanities sense) that are uncomfortable if true and entirely unworkable as foundations for social policies. A world run by economists would have some very basic absurdities. However, it would be truly refreshing if both political parties adopted the view, formerly prevalent among the Goldwater conservatives but now utterly abandoned on both sides of the aisle, that policies are to be judged by observable good outcomes and not the professed good intentions of the legislators, and that even such virtues as mercy, pity and altruism may break down under a cost-benefit analysis. Economics asks, "Is this good, net of costs?" The other social sciences want to make the conceptual net that catches possible costs smaller and smaller, and the economists are valuable to remind us to account for those hidden costs.