Want to know why drug dealers live with their mothers?
Curious to uncover what dishonest schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?
How about discovering the perfect panacea for parenthood?
The answers to all the above and more are found in Freakonomics, a wacky, wicked but wise (grounded in robust research, according to the authors) look at social phenomena like crime rates, the Ku Klux Klan, real estate agents, and more. Revolving around subjects of intense social interest like crime, education, parenting, and racial prejudices, Freakonomics offers four key ideas as follows:
1) Incentives and disincentives are the main ingredients which determine human behaviours.
2) Don’t believe what the others are telling you, as conventional wisdom can be mass folly.
3) Unexpected causes can exert significant effects on seemingly unrelated matters.
4) Information can be an extremely powerful disruptive force (we already know that), especially in the hands of “experts”.
Seiving through mountains of data in American states like Chicago, New York, California and more, Steven D.Levitt and Stephen J.Dubner weave a compelling narrative which uses microeconomic strategies to explain everyday life. Citing history, sociology, criminology, psychology and politics, Levitt the economist and Dubner the journalist detailed how a “rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything”.
Embracing minefield topics in a non didactic and preachy manner, Levitt and Dubner tackled sensitive topics like race, income, education and family background in their intense investigation of the human condition. Real estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan were both painted negatively as groups that employed information asymmetry to their advantage, the business of drug dealing (largely staffed by blacks) was painted as a poorly paid profession (hence many still live with their mothers), and cheating amongst white collar employees, Japanese sumo wrestlers and teachers were often attributed to how incentives were dished out.
Quoting a US Department of Education’s monumental study called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), the authors also debunked common myths about parenting. According to the ECLS, the eight factors that correlate most highly to school test scores were related to who the kids parents were (high education, high socio-economic background, mother 30 or older at the birth of first child, involvement in the PTA, child has many books at home) as opposed to what they did (move to better neighbourhood, bring the kid to museums, spanking, television viewing, or reading to one’s kids). In other words, during the early years of a child, nature (which purportedly exerts 50% influence on personality) triumphed over nurture (the other 50%).
Perhaps the most remarkable and blood chilling story in the controversial compendium is that of how the true cause of the remarkable dip in crime in the United States was due to abortion. Citing how the federal legalisation of abortion in the US in the early 1970s resulted in plummeting violent crime in the 1990s, the authors propose that the additional kids who would have been born if abortion remained illegal are more likely to be criminals in their late teens.
By allowing would-be mothers in trying circumstances – teenagers, unwed mothers, as well as alcohol and drug abusing women – the right to choose abortion, the American authorities have inadvertently averted youths with a higher propensity to commit crime from being born. While this approach is rife with moral questions, the authors stated clearly that they do not take any high ground in their approach.
In summary, Freakonomics is a wonderful intellectual romp which overturns what you often thought of as the gospel truth – often in the most delightful way. I’m certainly looking forward to reading the authors’ part two called Superfreakonomics. Meanwhile, do follow the Freakonomics blog if you’d like to be posted on the “hidden side of everything”.