Freakonomics

Last semester, I was confused into thinking that I needed an elective to fulfil my course requirements. I chose Macroeconomics 101 because of two reasons: (1) The only other courses that fitted my schedule were Social Work and Chinese Religions, neither of which interested me in the least, and (2) Economics has a reputation as a subject any self-respecting intellectual must have some acquaintance with. And I wanted to be a self-respecting intellectual. Thankfully, towards the end of the add-drop period, I found out that I did not, in fact, need to take an elective and I could have my Thursday afternoons off instead.

But the desire to be a self-respecting intellectual continued to nag the edges of my consciousness. It grew especially loud whenever my debating partner essentially had to ironman1 economics motions, even though I was the extension speaker2. So I put Freakonomics on my to-read list, thinking its generally positive reception from laymen readers and the How to Fossilise Your Hamster-tone would make it a useful starting point.

However, contrary to my high expectations, I finished Freakonomics this afternoon with very mixed feelings. While I can understand why it has been lauded as ‘refreshing’ and ‘unconventional’, ‘groundbreaking’ is a bit excessive. On the book’s Goodreads page, the top question asks why the average rating could possibly be below four. The user goes on to call the book ‘pure genius’ and dismiss readers who gave it low ratings as ‘people [who] do not understand the basics of economics’. Needless to say, I disagree. In fact, I suspect the low raters to be more familiar with economics, or at least subjects requiring similar critical and analytical skills. Too often, I struggled to find the crucial intermediate steps between Levitt’s bold hypotheses and conclusions. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources (the outdated baby car seat study from Chapter 5 being a notable example). And the explanations were generally too simplistic to be convincing or evaluable.

In Chapter 1, the title question was overworked and misleading – akin to a sensationalist headline more suited to the Daily Mail. If the only commonality between the two entirely different professions is cheating, then really, a more appropriate question would have been: “what do most people have in common?” After all, even the authors themselves agree that it is something everyone does, to varying degrees and frequencies. And the title of Chapter 3 implies that poor drug dealers is somehow deeply shocking. Surely, the average informed reader knows that the vast majority of dealers earn barely enough to survive, let alone live among the top 1%? But I digress.

Levitt’s presumptuous tone is most apparent in the final two chapters; although he admitted that his data cannot conclusively answer how much parents matter, he was still unpalatably dismissive. In pointing out, say, museum visits by ‘obsessive’ parents as having no correlation to their children’s early test results (and hence no impact on the children’s dispositions – a ridiculous leap in their logic), the authors were missing the point. I doubt parents organise these supplementary cultural outings to boost their children’s arithmetic or reading comprehension. And an appreciation of the history and wonders of our world can hardly be quantified in an elementary school exam. Similarly, regular spanking may not have a discernible influence on early test scores, but that does not automatically negate the potential effects on the child’s emotional well-being and perspective on violence.

Or in Chapter 6, where Levitt happily determined that names carry no weight at all. Look, Loser is now a high-ranking detective! And Winner, his brother, is a convicted criminal. This proves my point! Would it have been too far-fetched to entertain the possibility that a name like ‘Loser’ could have instilled a defiant determination to succeed? Sure, giving a child a ‘high-end’ name will not catapult him into the educated and upper classes. But Levitt’s black-and-white claim was feebly supported, at best. Likewise, he argued that the most important factor in the sudden drop in crime was the legalisation of abortion. Yet he also recognised that at least three other factors were largely responsible too. How was he so sure that abortion was the biggest contributor? His deductions (beyond superficial appeals to intuitive logic) were never made clear. Besides, the abortion argument was based on many assumptions (for one, that most poor, uneducated pregnant women would always choose abortions), which were not identified or substantiated either. Levitt would have to do much more to give his argument a solid foundation.

Alas, it seems I am no closer to becoming a self-respecting intellectual. Nevertheless, I concede that Freakonomics was engaging and easy to grasp (hence my generous rating). I especially liked the epilogue, Two Paths to Harvard, which I think wrapped up the book in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way. I would, however, highly encourage reading it critically, and more as a stimulus than a thorough manual on how things work.

Rating: 3/5


1In Parliamentary debating, teams compete in pairs. Usually, each member speaks once. If a debater drops out, the remaining debater can make both speeches for the team. He/she is now an ironman. Of course, in the instances mentioned above, Ty (my partner) did not actually ironman. But since he came up with all our points and told me what to say, he essentially did.

2In each team, one person is usually the first/extension speaker and the other the second speaker/whip (unless something drastic happens and they switch roles). The first/extension speaker always gives the bulk of the case (the most important arguments).

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