Freakonomics - A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything | Chapter 17 of 33 - Part: 1 of 8

Author: Steven D. Levitt | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 737713 Views | Add a Review

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From the Freakonomics Blog

The following excerpts are inevitably pockmarked with incomplete thoughts (at the very least), since blog writing is by nature more impetuous, more colloquial, even more random than what one would write in a book or a newspaper. But hopefully such casual discourse provides its own sort of value. The excerpts here have been slightly edited, mostly to compensate for the fact that, unlike a website, a book that is printed on paper, cannot (yet) allow you to click here to read further. The excerpts are divided into four categories:

  1. Ruminations on Freakonomics itself, and its aftermath
  2. A continuation of the abortion/crime discussion presented in Freakonomics
  3. Random reflections on random subjects, most of them related to Freakonomics in some loose way—in the way, perhaps, that “kosher style” food isn’t quite kosher but also isn’t shrimp
  4. Rants and raves of a more personal nature

These postings represent perhaps 3 percent of what we’ve written on our blog since it began, and we haven’t included any readers’ comments, which are often far more involved (and entertaining) than our own posts. The entire blog can be found at www.freakonomics.com/ blog/.

Another major difference between the blog and our book is that all but the first two excerpts that follow were written by one of us, not both of us, and are accordingly notated with a signoff of either “SDL” (Levitt) or “SJD” (Dubner).

1. ON FREAKONOMICS ITSELF

A brief compendium of thoughts about how the book was written, published, and received.

“Unleashing Our Baby”

Every parent thinks he has the most beautiful baby in the world. Evolution, it seems, has molded our brains so that if you stare at your own baby’s face day after day after day, it starts to look beautiful. When other people’s children have food clotted on their faces, it looks disgusting; with your own kid, it’s somehow endearing.

Well, we’ve been staring at the Freakonomics manuscript so much that it now looks beautiful to us—warts, clotted food, and all. So we started to think that maybe some people would actually want to read it, and after reading it, might even want to express their opinions about it. Thus, the birth of this website. We hope it’s a happy (or at least happily contentious) home for some time to come.

—SDL & SJD (March 30, 2005)

“Does Freakonomics Suck?”

Our publisher has been busily promoting and selling Freakonomics—which, of course, is its job, and which we, not surprisingly, applaud. When something good happens—a nice review in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, or an upcoming appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—the publisher assiduously spreads the word. But we think it’s worth considering some alternative views. That, after all, is the spirit of Freakonomics—examining the data, whatever it may be, and following it through, wherever that may lead. So here are some people who think that Freakonomics is, in part or in sum, a big fat stink bomb:

Felix Salmon, a journalist and blogger, wrote a lengthy and exasperated review calling Freakonomics “a series of disjointed chapters” in which “Levitt and Dubner like to get holier-than-thou” and “lap up the conventional wisdom” Steve Sailer, who has vigorously argued against the link between Roe v. Wade and falling crime (a Google search of “Sailer” and “Freakonomics” will turn up a wide variety of comments); a Newsday review (Apr. 24, 2005), by Scott McLemee, which chided the book’s “style of evasive lucidity” a review in Time magazine (May 2, 2005), by Amanda Ripley, who writes that the “unfortunately titled Freakonomics” has “no unifying theory which is a shame.” In fairness to ourselves, we should note that both the Time and Newsday reviews were largely positive. But we should also note that one well-known American writer of non-fiction, when sent an early copy of Freakonomics for a blurb, refused to endorse it on the grounds that “the one thing missing from the section on crime is a sense of humility.”

Do these comments make us unhappy? On a personal level, sure. But on a Freakonomics level, no. Years ago, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz opened a kosher deli in Harvard Square, which came under protest on various grounds. Dershowitz, known as much for his embrace of free speech as his legal acumen, said—and here we are paraphrasing loosely at best—that nothing was more precious to him than the right of people to protest his deli.

So please don’t take our word that Freakonomics is a good book. Don’t believe the good reviews either. Feel free to make up your own mind—you can poke around a good bit here, on this very website. Maybe you will decide that Freakonomics is, after all, a piece of trash. We cherish your right to think so.

—SDL & SJD (April 26, 2005)

“A Freakonomics Roundtable”

There has been a lot written about Freakonomics, but in terms of thoughtfulness, nothing matches the collection of essays assembled at the blog Crooked Timber (http://crookedtimber.org/2005/05/23/ steven-levitt-seminar-introduction/). There you will find five discussions of Freakonomics done by academics from a range of disciplines, along with my response to these essays.

I’ve also cut and pasted my response here, which basically makes sense even if you haven’t read the original essays.

Let’s start with the title. Freakonomics. We debated endlessly over the title. From a naming perspective, the difficulty with this book is that it doesn’t have a theme. We thought about a question title (“What Do Sumo Wrestlers and Schoolteachers Have in Common?”), some non-threatening titles (“The Hidden Side of Everything” or “Ain’t Necessarily So”), and some loopy titles (“E-Ray Vision,” with the “E” standing for economics).

In the end, though, Freakonomics became the obvious choice, for reasons anchored in the contrast between my own research on first names and that of others. Let’s just assume that my research is right and it is really true that a name on a résumé does matter for getting a job callback, but not for long-term life outcomes. This probably implies that names matter a little for first impressions, but then quickly get swept aside in importance once we gain some familiarity. When’s the last time you thought to yourself, Oprah is a ridiculous name, I certainly won’t watch her show? Or, The Beatles…what a ridiculous name for a band. No one would ever buy their records.

In naming a book, you need something attention-grabbing to cut through the clutter of the thousands of competing books, but as shocking as Freakonomics sounds the first time you hear it, by the twentieth time it becomes familiar, like Oprah. My guess is that the Crooked Timber commenters were already softening their hatred for the title by the time they finished writing. And a year from now, they may even forget that they ever hated the title. At least, that is what happened with our publisher, which initially dismissed the title out of hand, only allowed it at the eleventh hour, and now are telling us we need to sign up with them for a second book because no one else can market our books as well as they do. And if there is a second book, we have a title in mind that is so outrageous it will have to be loved.

So how about the absence of a unifying theme in the book? My own hunch, borne out by the public response to this book, is that nobody really cares about or even wants a unifying theme in a book. Everyone is just afraid not to have one, since almost all books do. (In this respect, I think unifying themes in books are a lot like campaign spending: all candidates feel compelled to spend a lot of money for fear of the disastrous consequences that could result if they take a chance and don’t spend, spend, spend.) But when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s incredible books, I don’t care about the theme, I just love his stories. His books top the charts because he has really good taste and he is the best storyteller going. For me, and others I talk to, the unifying themes sometimes get in the way of his stories which are individually so amazingly interesting. Books of short stories, similarly, have no unifying theme. I certainly don’t feel cheated by that either. More valuable than anything else I or Dubner ever does, perhaps, would be to make the world safe for books that have great stories but no unifying theme.

All of the Crooked Timber commentaries spent some time discussing where I fit into economics and the social sciences more broadly. If I got to make three wishes, perhaps one of them would be that I might turn into a truly interdisciplinary social scientist who uses data to inform human behavior in ways that both shed light on and draw upon not only economics, but sociology, political science, and psychology as well. But let’s be realistic. I’m having trouble even mastering the tools of my own discipline. If you ask my students whether I know calculus, they will say “not very well.” I’m not proud of that fact, but I am a realist. If you ask the really great economic thinkers like Gary Becker or Kevin Murphy how often I’m right when I try to apply Chicago price theory, they will simply tell you that I am showing a lot of improvement, because they are kind. The only things I’m good at, really and honestly, are asking questions that people seem to find interesting, and figuring out how to trick data into answering those questions. I will never be even a passable sociologist, political scientist, or psychologist. But that is okay. I think the thing that gets a lot of economists into trouble is the false belief that they can be good at everything.

A few years back, when I was on sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, I gave a talk to the other fellows on my research. Some in the audience were indignant, asking why I called myself an economist given what I did. They said I was really a sociologist. One only had to look at the horror on the faces of the sociologists in the room to see that I wasn’t a sociologist either. But by starting from the position that I don’t know much, I am open-minded enough to co-author with an ethnographer (Sudhir Venkatesh), an econometrician ( Jack Porter), a political scientist (Tim Groseclose), and now a journalist (Stephen Dubner). And maybe, in addition to making it safe in the future for someone to publish a book without a theme, I will make it easier for academics from all social sciences to follow the sort of “adisciplinary” (as opposed to interdisciplinary) path I’m on.

Next, there is the question of incentives. In the same way that “utility maximization” can be turned into a tautology, the commenters point out that our use of the term “incentives” is moving in that direction as well. By widening incentives, as we did in Freakonomics, to encompass not only financial but also social and moral incentives, we have covered just about everything. Still, I think there isn’t really another choice. To focus just on financial incentives would obviously be misguided. On the flip side, for me—and I think this is the thing that makes me an economist ultimately—I just can’t get away from the idea that people are active decision makers trying to get what they want in a reasonably sophisticated fashion. The most real sense in which I think incentives are the unifying theme of my research (even in cases where they aren’t obviously present, as in the abortion-crime stuff ) is that whenever I try to answer a question, I put myself in the shoes of the actors and I ask myself, “What would I do if I were in that situation?” I am the kind of person who is always trying to concoct some scheme to beat the system or avoid getting scammed, so I presume the people I’m studying are thinking the same way. So when I think about legalized abortion, I think it sounds like a really sick form of insurance policy against an unwanted pregnancy. When I see that one sumo wrestler has more to gain from a win than the other foregoes by losing, I figure they’ll make a deal. When I think about real-estate agents, I’m constantly paranoid they are trying to screw me.

I am the first to admit that if all economists were like me, the field would probably be a disaster. But the fact that other economists more or less like me in spite of this fact tells me that there is plenty more room for rogue economists in the profession.

—SDL (May 23, 2005)

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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