My reading list of late has ranged from The Kite Runner, to P. D. James mysteries, to Team of Rivals on Lincoln's administration. Business-related books rarely make it on my list, and the last book on economics I cracked was for a course in undergrad. So why did I persist to the last page? This book delivers on the hype.
Economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner produced a fast-paced, page-turning treatise on a subject few would normally consider entertaining. Freakonomics has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 46 weeks and counting, selling steadily at number six on Amazon.com, and was published in The Chronicle for Higher Education's Fall list of what's being read on college campuses.But more than entertainment, Freakonomics achieves its stated goal: "What this book is about is stripping a layer or two from the surface of modern life and seeing what is happening underneath."
Through a series of provocative, and sometimes unseemly questions, the economist and the journalist approach a number of topics: "What Do School teachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?," "How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real Estate Agents?," and my personal favorite, "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" While reviews have ranged from pegging this book as a promotion of both liberal and conservative agendas, the truth lies somewhere in between. It lies in what they call "the hidden side of everything."
The underlying world view is presented up front: "Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life"; "The conventional wisdom is often wrong"; "Dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes"; "Experts…use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda"; and "Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world less so."
The economist makes it clear he believes there are three "kinds of incentives: social, moral, and financial. From there he goes on to say that "Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work-whereas economics represents how it actually does work. Economics is above all a science of measurement."
Yet despite all the warnings, I think the authors fell into some of the same traps they exhort readers to avoid. Some of the correlations look to be based on very small data pools. While it's amusing – and possibly true – to think that most drug dealers would make more working at McDonald's, it's hard to see how this can be derived conclusively from one mid-level, college-educated, Chicago drug dealer's accounting book of his foot soldiers sales and earnings.
In the area of debunking field expertise, realtors and child-safety experts take a pretty hard hit. Frankly, I'm happy to use experts in fields other than my own. Just as I don't want to spend time baking my own bread, sewing my own clothes, or fixing my car, I was happy to have a realtor do the time-consuming research needed when I bought my home. Sure, we could all put in the hours needed to handle a number of tasks, but because I rely on experts in other fields, I have time to entertain, read, participate in Church life, reach out to neighbors, spend time with friends and family, etc. And because people rely on my expertise, I have a job that let's me do the things I love and in turn frees them up to do what they know and love.
One of the hardest hitting, and possibly most-misunderstood chapters judging by reviews on Amazon's web site, is the one on the correlation between the enactment of legalized abortion through Roe v. Wade in 1973 to the decline in crime, particularly in urban areas, in the 1990s, when presumably these children would have come of age. The data provided in the book does not address differences in abortion rates in urban versus suburban areas, nor between ethnic groups. There is an unspoken leap that Roe v. Wade resulted in the prevention of the birth of stereotypically crime-prone urban adolescent males. And while the economist is quick to point out that abortion is not a statistically effective way to reduce crime, no matter where you fall on the issue, the staggering number of abortions in the United States is heartbreaking.
As a Christian reading this book it was hard not to see the evidence of our total depravity and opportunities for spiritual discussions. Whether it was selling bagels at the office, dealing drugs in the 'hood, or Sumo wrestling, people invariably lie, cheat, and steal. The statistics offer entry points for discussion as to why that is so. And of course, that is where the hope of the gospel comes in.
So while you may not agree with all of the conclusions, when you're done reading this book, you'll think differently about numbers. And that really was the point.