Freakonomics proposes no unifying theme, but does have an interesting premise. What can the tools of the rather dry science of economics tell us about the reality of the world?
That is the basis of the work of Steven Levitt, an economist who admits he knows little about money or banking or anything else that economics concerns itself with. One might suspect there are 537 people in Washington, DC, who fit that description to a T, but Levitt is more interested in what the science of economics tells us. And that, with his co-author Stephen J. Dubner, is what he set out to do in Freakonomics, a 2005 book that tackles one of the most dangerous myths in modern society: conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom, posits Levitt, is more conventional than wise. Often times, people look for the simple answer, then are confused as to why reality refuses to cooperate. Levitt says, “The numbers never lie,” but you have to know what questions to ask.
One of the book’s more controversial theories is why the exploding youth crime wave of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s suddenly dropped. Many explanations are given forth. Criminologists who fully vested themselves into apocalyptic predictions of a national crack-driven bloodbath reaching deep into the suburbs back-pedaled and said they were using hype to scare the nation out of its tailspin. Innovative policing methods were credited. So was the booming tech economy of Clinton years. Except for the experts’ doublespeak on their dire warnings, Levitt says these did contribute, but not enough to account for the dramatic drop in the homicide rate. Levitt suggests the data shows that the predicted wave of criminals experts warned of were never born because of Roe Vs. Wade. As many women of limited means, according to Levitt, are also the most likely to have an abortion, many of those women did not have children who would have grown up in the rotten circumstances that drive many teens to become criminals.
Levitt, of course, was called a racist, a sexist, and a whole host of other things by both liberals and conservatives, but Levitt’s never one to back down from a controversial theory.
More interestingly, Levitt, working with a Chicago postgrad student who lived with the Gangster Disciples in Chicago for several years during his graduate studies, tackles the thorny issue of why drug dealers often still live with their mothers. What he found out will not surprise any fan of The Wire or aficionados of all things Mafia. A drug dealing operation is run very much like a major corporation. There is a lot of money to be made, but only for the top management. The street-level dealer makes a wage that compares – rather poorly, in fact – to those earned working the drive-thru at McDonald’s. Street soldiers, those who run the corners and oversee the street-level dealers for the higher ups, make better money. Except for the violence and unlawfulness, it’s actually no different than any franchise restaurant, or so Levitt concludes. But it has an added layer to explain why so many get into the business. Gangsters – the rich ones, anyway – are glamorous, and in glamor professions, there are often more people trying to succeed big than their are positions that lead to that success. So what we have are a bunch of Al Capone wannabes fighting for the precious few slots at the top in a profession that exists outside the law and in the line of fire.
And that is the freakonomics of the illicit drug trade.
But it’s not all serious. Levitt ends the book by examining whether your name affects your life. The short answer comes in the story of Winner and Loser Lane, two brothers whose father probably visited his local gangster franchise for some off-license stress management substances when the boys were born. Winner, obviously, was named to encourage him to succeed. Loser, on the other hand, was the real-life counterpart to Ed McBain’s Meyer Meyer, whose father had a bizarre sense of humor. So what happened?
As you might have guessed, Loser was the more successful brother, a college grad with honors, he became a decorated NYPD detective. Winner’s life suggests a future guest shot on The Jerry Springer Show. Levitt also looked at data culled from the State of California’s database since 1960. There is a definite divide between the races as to which names a child will get when he or she is born. However, it’s not which name you get, but sometimes how it’s spelled. Cindy is likely to be more successful than Syndee. Seriously. How many Carly’s have been CEO’s, elected officials, and respected authors, professors, or scientists? I can name a few off the top of my head. I can’t name a single Carli with an “i” (no doubt with a smiley face for the dot in the i.)
But there are names that will hold one back, and what the parents were thinking defies all rational thought. The most bizarre name Levitt found was for a baby girl named Shateed. Now, you might ask why that name was so bizarre. It’s unusual, most likely black, and kind of pretty.
Well, I spelled it phonetically (having listened to this book on audio). In reality, the name is not quite so pretty, definitely not African in origin, and not exactly on any baby name books. The name is actually spelled S-h-i-t-h-e-a-d.
You can’t make this up.
Which is why Freakonomics is such a fascinating book.