Freakonomics was incredibly popular when it came out in 2005, but I chose not to read it. Why? Well, I tend to be a contrarian – avoiding things lots people like just because they’re popular. It’s not a particularly mature attitude, but it does have some justification. My personal rut is non-fiction about late tsarist and Soviet Russia; if other people don’t find that fascinating, why should I trust their preferences? Of course, the whole point of this experiment is to get me to knock that off and it turns out that’s a good thing – I really enjoyed this book (though I’m still dreading the day I catch a Harry Potter or Twilight reader when I need a new book).
I have only taken one econ class, macroeconomics, in my freshman year of college. I got an A but couldn’t figure out why, so I decided econ was not for me. In my day job, I deal with economics and statistics far more than I ever would have expected, so I’ve been forced to become mathematically literate. It helps that my mother is a statistician, so I absorbed some important concepts growing up (and had a nightshirt that said “I’m Statistically Significant!”). That said, the math discussed in Freakonomics isn’t too challenging and the tough parts are hidden from view. You can understand a regression analysis without getting all the gory details.
I think the appeal of Freakonomics, besides setting straight urban legends about baby names, is the promise of a rational world. One of the premises of liberal political theory is that we can understand the causes of phenomena and use our understanding to improve outcomes. The most dramatic demonstration of and challenge to that premise is Dubner and Levitt’s discussion of the causes of crime. They dismantle the received wisdom that community policing, Crimestat and Giuliani caused crime rates to drop, arguing that a major cause of that decline was the legalization of abortion a generation earlier. Therefore, goes the argument, fewer children were born into adverse circumstances and grew up to be criminals. It’s an incendiary argument, no matter where you fall on the “choice” spectrum, but also a persuasive demonstration of the new perspectives economics and social statistics can offer to public debates (both on crime and abortion) that for too long have been bastions of truisms and articles of faith rather than real analysis of outcomes.
Hopeful, right? But that book came out four years ago, millions of people read it, and look at our current political discourse on healthcare. Surely, with so many countries with so many models, there must be real analysis out there (I’m sure there are entire libraries), but the analysis can’t affect outcomes unless the people who loved this book are prepared to engage in this analysis in “real life” and not just as a diverting read. Maybe I’m asking too much of the book, which is a winner on its own merits, but I do believe Dubner and Levitt hoped to achieve more.