Democrats & Liberals Archives

Some Lessons from Freakonomics

Just wanted to share some provocative claims from the bestselling book Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The authors do a good job of alternately pleasing and offending just about everybody.

Claim #1: A swimming pool is MUCH more likely to kill a child than a gun.

Right-wing spin: Stop giving me grief for supposedly endangering my children by having a gun in the house.

Left-wing spin: John Edwards and friends are right -- swimming pools are dangerous. The trial lawyers have saved lives by encouraging pool owners to build fences, etc., or not have one in the first place.

Claim #2: The drop in crime in the 1990's was due to the legalization of abortion in 1973.

Left-wing spin: Women who get abortions know they cannot provide a good home.

Right-wing spin: As the authors point out, you have to abort a lot of fetuses to prevent one adult from being murdered.

Unhappy left-wing observation: The demographic effects of Roe vs. Wade probably also have something to do with the current strength of the GOP.

Claim #3: Teachers often help their students cheat on standardized tests.

Left-wing spin: High-stakes testing just encourages dishonesty.

Right-wing spin: Public school teachers don't have their students' interests at heart.

Claim #4: Drug dealing pays less than the minimum wage. (Interesting anecdote: Drug dealers in Chicago are jealous of the custodians at The University of Chicago.)

Left-wing spin: Inner city youth could be turned from the dark side with offers of even menial jobs.

Right-wing spin: Violent young "superpredators" will sell their soul for a pittance.

This is just a taste of what you will find in the book. It is an enjoyable read, but I can't offer unconditional praise. The authors have an annoying habit of pretending that every question in the social sciences can be answered by a single definitive study (usually co-authored by one Steven D. Levitt). In reality, no single study can rule out alternative explanations of the results (that's why I use the word "claim" above). Also, Levitt, the economist of the pair, is the second-most* shameless self-promoter I have ever read. Chapters are interleaved with italicized testimonials to his alleged genius. Finally, a lot of the stories, such as a fascinating yarn about Superman and the KKK, have little to do with economics. A more honest, if less catchy, title would be Freakosocialsciences. In the final analysis, though, it is a great read.

*Stephen Wolfram gets first prize by a long shot. He spends a big chunk of A New Kind of Science trying to crown himself the successor to Newton.

Posted by Woody Mena at January 22, 2006 1:25 PM
Comments
Comment #115677

It is a good book, but I disagree with your interpretation on point #4.

As I read it, the poor kids are attracted to drugs because it is like a tournament. Most of them end up with almost nothing, and some of them end up dead, but the one guy in 1000 who makes it, makes it really big and gets very high status. It is similar to the legal, but also bad paying pursuit of sports and entrainment.

The idea is that some people are really bad at understanding the odds. It is the same reason that the lottery is a stupidity tax. This would be the right wing spin. It would probably aslo be the left wing spin.

Posted by: Jack at January 22, 2006 4:40 PM
Comment #115690

Tragically both sides of Claim #3 are equally and absolutely correct. Teachers spend most of their time teaching the test questions because they are told in absolute terms by their administrators that they personally and their school’s futures are dependent upon delivering the required test scores by whatever method necesary period. The right answer is all that is important rather than understanding the question. As a result, critical and creative thinking has been abandoned as a non-productive exercise. It has been replaced by the purely rote ability to memorize and parrot back the answers to the questions on the test as the only legitimate educational goal. Nothing else is important. The gross ignorance of the American people’s understanding of what a Constitutional Republican Democracy requires is proof positive of the failure of this current test lunacy. It is no wonder that we are now an intellectually illiterate 5th world Country. Unless and until this educational philosopy is changed, America will contine to slide deeper into the abyss of illiteracy and inconsequentuality.

Posted by: Richard at January 22, 2006 5:34 PM
Comment #115691

Tragically both sides of Claim #3 are equally and absolutely correct. Teachers spend most of their time teaching the test questions because they are told in absolute terms by their administrators that they personally and their school’s futures are dependent upon delivering the required test scores by whatever method necesary period. The right answer is all that is important rather than understanding the question. As a result, critical and creative thinking has been abandoned as a non-productive exercise. It has been replaced by the purely rote ability to memorize and parrot back the answers to the questions on the test as the only legitimate educational goal. Nothing else is important. The gross ignorance of the American people’s understanding of what a Constitutional Republican Democracy requires is proof positive of the failure of this current test lunacy. It is no wonder that we are now an intellectually illiterate 5th world Country. Unless and until this educational philosopy is changed, America will contine to slide deeper into the abyss of illiteracy and inconsequentuality.

Posted by: Richard at January 22, 2006 5:34 PM
Comment #115694

Jack,

It is true that the authors emphasize the “tournament” aspect of drug dealing, with a high payoff for making it to the top (as long as you manage to stay out of jail).

My interpretation (to be honest I don’t have the book handy) was that participants have at least some idea that it is a lousy deal but don’t see alternatives. If they had a more conventional route to economic stability than many/most of them would take it.

Posted by: Woody Mena at January 22, 2006 5:55 PM
Comment #115697

Woody

I fear we encourage the failure. I recall my middle class friends telling me that of course ghetto kids don’t work at McDonald’s since it pays only “chump change” (yes they use that term to try to look cool). I worked at McDonald’s and took the chump change. That is how you build up to success.

The poor pick up the rhetoric of the general society. We should be saying that someone who works at McDonalds is a better person than one who sells drugs and say so without equivication.

Posted by: Jack at January 22, 2006 6:04 PM
Comment #115833

IS claim #1 true?

Posted by: kctim at January 23, 2006 9:49 AM
Comment #115836

kctim,

I don’t claim any expertise on the matter, but they give pretty convincing data.

Posted by: Woody Mena at January 23, 2006 9:58 AM
Comment #115845

Ok Woody.
I was just curious if a swimming pool is much more likely to kill a child than a gun or not.
I dont care about the spin, its useless.
I was just wanting the facts.
Should be an interesting read. Thx.

Posted by: kctim at January 23, 2006 10:20 AM
Comment #115994

A couple of things:

I was just curious if a swimming pool is much more likely to kill a child than a gun or not.

I’ve seen this reported elsewhere - the data is pretty clear. While it may seem counterintuitive at first, it actually is pretty much a no brainer:

1) an infant or very young child can easily fall into a pool and drown. A child of the same age is unlikely to even be able to fire a gun.

2) It is far easier to hide and secure a gun than a pool. Think about how often you’ve been at someone’s home and seen their guns just laying around loaded. Now think about how many times you’ve seen a swimming pool that was not as secured as it should be to completely prevent access by children without parental supervision.

3) Nearly all children are attracted to swimming pools and will use them when given an opportunity. I don’t think that nearly as many children are tempted by guns.

4) Parents very often allow their children to use pools with “faux supervision” (I scooped a 3 year-old from the bottom of a pool this summer - frightened but unharmed - while her parents and a bunch of other adults sat nearby - each thinking that someone else was watching). I doubt the same is true for guns.

I have more to say, but I’ll split it into separate posts for readability.

Posted by: adverbal at January 23, 2006 9:09 PM
Comment #116349

adverbal,

Yes, exactly. It is not that pools are inherently more dangerous than guns, but that children are encouraged to play in pools and are (usually) kept away from guns.

Posted by: Woody Mena at January 24, 2006 4:38 PM
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