Friday, November 16, 2007

Books: Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

This book, like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, has a way of reverse-hypothesizing and hand-picking vignettes to come to surprising conclusions, but doing so in such a blithe, reader-friendly tone that most readers don't notice, thereby propelling the book the top of the New York Times' Best Sellers List.

That sounds awfully vindictive, like I hated the darned thing, which isn't true at all. However, this, along with The Tipping Point, are probably the only two non-fiction books I've read in the past few years, and I find much to be lacking in this kind of populist intellectualism.

That sounds awfully snobbish, as if I'd rather be reading Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze and Michele Foucault, and while I did subject myself to reading all of those men's books in college and grad school, I hated every moment of it, and did my best to ensure that my academic writing was straightforward and conversational.

But like intelligent conversation (don't judge me by my blog!), without exclamation marks (again, don't judge me by my blog). I hated the way Levitt and Dubner hopped from vignette to vignette in pursuit of illustrating. . . what? Was there a thesis somewhere? Did I miss it? The only thing they seemed to intend to prove is that economics are fun and surprising. And it wasn't even that fun. Or surprising.

For example: one conclusion they come to is that the radical drop in crime in the mid-1990s was not due to an aging population, a change in the market for crack, or Mayor Giuliani, like so many people might assume. In fact, the drop directly correlates with the legalization of abortion an appropriate number of years ago to cause a sudden drop in the number of baby thugs coming to full young thug-hood. (Thug-dom being a direct consequence of being born to a parent (most often a single mother) who doesn't want you, and therefore does a bad job raising you). This is shocking, because abortion is shocking (I don't know why, but apparently it is), but it's also kind of a "duh" conclusion. Of course unwanted, poorly-parented, have-nothing children are going to become thugs.

A friend of mine who had also read this book said that he appreciated the way the authors concluded that economics are separate from moral judgements. This at first seemed like a good enough reason to write a book (i.e., who cares if abortion is not supported by the Catholic Church; it cuts down on crime). And yet, the more I thought about it, the more that, too, seemed a "duh" conclusion; after all, all sciences (of which economics is one) are (or at least ought to be) moral-free. So then, other than the fascinating cover art, in which a green apple is sliced open to reveal the juicy flesh of an orange inside, this book really wasn't all that special.

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