Tuesday, October 31, 2006

ENGL302: Critical Review of Freakonomics

Freakonomics, co-written by economist Steven D. Levitt and author Stephen J. Dubner, aims "to explore the hidden side of ... everything" (Levitt and Dubner, 14), without the need for a "unifying theme" (205). Each chapter starts with a quote from a 2003 New York Times article that Dubner wrote about Levitt, and proceeds to ask a question and employ statistics and economics to try and reach a conclusion. Economics is the social science that discusses how personal choices and market forces allocate our scarce resources; it can be discussed positively, meaning how things are, and normatively, meaning how things should be.

Each chapter is filled with memorable questions about everyday life that are wrapped up into allegories. A tale about the Ku Klux Klan shows us that knowledge is power. Statistics and regression prove that "perfect" parents come from who you are, not what you do. Chapter 3 begins with a very well stated anecdote about so-called experts and the manufacturing of statistics. Mitch Snyder, an advocate for the homeless during the 1980s, continually invented facts because he didn't want journalists to walk away empty handed. His numbers never added up: that there were 3 million homeless people in the United States (1 in 100 people), and 45 homeless people died every second (1.4 billion a year) (90). It continues that experts may be self-serving to the point of deceit, but journalists need experts just as badly. Together, journalists and experts become the architects of conventional wisdom (91). This segues nicely into an observation about advertising, where scholar James B. Twichell is quoted as saying, "Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis." Before Listerine's ad, which showed young men and women disgusted by their mate's bad breath, halitosis was not considered a big deal.

The most compelling chapter in the book poses the question, "Where have all the criminals gone?" which uses the rise and fall of Communism in Romania to make its point. Romania outlawed abortion in 1966 and even instituted a celibacy tax for woman who failed to get pregnant. The birth rate more than doubled in 1967, and compared to children born a year earlier these children would be worse off in every measurable way (118). Steven and Stephen take our hand and walk us to the conclusion that the drastic reduction in crime during the 1990s came not from better policing, an aging population, or capital punishment; it came from the legalization of abortion in 1973.

Though the reader is told throughout the book that Levitt's work has no unifying theme, nowhere is that better illustrated than the second chapter. The first part of the chapter emphasizes that knowledge is power, and uses the fall of the Ku Klux Klan, the insurance industry, casket and car sales, and the power of the Internet as examples. Hanging on to the idea of information awareness, the chapter diverges to online dating and discrimination on The Weakest Link. Where the first half of the chapter showed that those in the know had an advantage, the second half simply meandered through statistics as though the publisher had said, "No book deal until you have 242 pages!"

"Drug Dealers Living with Their Moms" is probably the best-written chapter in the book. Sudhir Venkatesh was a graduate student at the University of Chicago who, in the process of doing research for his graduate advisor, happened upon a drug gang and was taken in by their leader. He was allowed to observe their operations and eventually came upon their detailed financial records. Not knowing what to do with this information, Sudhir later shared these financial records with Levitt who helped analyze them. They found that this drug gang ran like most American corporations, and each gang operated like a franchise. While the wages of most dealers were comparable to a McDonald's employee, they had a 1 in 4 chance of being killed. The most dangerous job in the US, a timber cutter, had a 1 in 200 chance of accidental death on the job (104). The conclusion was that people don't take a job dealing drugs to make minimum wage and risk dying, they take a job dealing drugs with the hope that they'll work their way up the chain where the big money is.

What sets Levitt apart from most pundits is his distaste for politics and spin; he simply reaches a conclusion and tells it like it is. Not being a storyteller himself, Levitt leaves that task in Dubner's literary hands. I found Dubner's writing style distracting however; he tends uses parenthesis after making a point to editorialize or think aloud. On parenting: "The first is that neither of us professes to be a parenting expert (although between us we do have six children under the age of five)." (156). On regression analysis: "It should be said that regression analysis is more art than science (In this regard, it has a great deal in common with parenting itself)." (163) On baby names: "By 1980 she received a name that was twenty times more common among blacks. (Boys' names moved in the same direction but less aggressively -- probably because parents of all races are less adventurous with boys' names than girls').)" (183) I felt two-thirds of my time reading this book was spent inside Dubner's head. The editorial clarifications should have been weaved into the story, footnotes should have been used, and Dubner's opinions should have been left in his head.

Despite a handful of faults, this book is an interesting and quick read. These two facts make it easy to see why the book has been a best seller for so long, and why it graces the coffee tables of so many homes. Whether or not you agree with Levitt's conclusions, the impartiality of the data might just erode your convictions until only Freakeconomics remain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am constantly in awe the literary power you exude. This is WONDERFULLY written. Absolutely fabulous.

When will you write about kitties though?