Freakonomics can be a challenging book because of the way that it entertains controversial ideas. When the book was first published in 2005, some readers and reviewers criticized Levitt and Dubner for discussing the possibility that there is an inverse relationship between gun sales and gun violence—an idea that people might find offensive. Others faulted the authors for claiming that the heightening abortion rate of the 1970s and 80s caused the falling crime rates of the 1990s. In the Epilogue to Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner acknowledge that some of their ideas might seem controversial, politically incorrect, or even immoral. However, they insist that economics and morality describe two different worlds: economics describes the world as it is, while morality describes the world as it should be. Understanding this difference is crucial to understanding Freakonomics.
In order to reach unbiased, scientific results, Levitt and Dubner try to limit their own political and moral preconceptions about the world. At times, they consider ideas that would strike some people as offensive, politically radical, or otherwise different from the “conventional wisdom” (see Theme Two). For instance, when considering the idea that people’s racist preconceptions influence the results of job interviews, the authors consider the possibility that an applicant named “DeShawn Williams” would be less likely to get a job interview than another applicant named “Jake Williams,” since “DeShawn” is a stereotypically black name. Even after the authors find that, indeed, an applicant named DeShawn would be less likely to get a job interview, they don’t simply assume that this is because of employers’ racism. Ultimately, the authors don’t accept the conclusion that racism prevents black job applicants from attaining success—a conclusion that conventional wisdom might support—because of insufficient data to support such a conclusion. In general, then, Freakonomics is based on the premise that the best way to study the world “as it is” is to analyze data mathematically, even if mathematical data doesn’t always agree with most people’s beliefs.
Because of their commitment to data analysis, Levitt and Dubner are more comfortable with descriptive than prescriptive thinking. Descriptive analysis is concerned with describing the world as it is (i.e., analyzing and explaining where existing data comes from), whereas prescriptive analysis is concerned with recommending what should be done. In analyzing the crime rate, for example, the authors conclude that the best explanation to describe the data for crime in the United States is that rising abortion rates in the 1970s reduced the number of children who would grow up to commit crimes. Some people found this idea outrageous because they interpreted it to mean that abortions should be used to fight crime (a prescriptive idea). In reality, though, Levitt and Dubner were merely suggesting that abortion was an important influence on the falling crime rates of the 1990s: one of the many descriptive points they make in their book.
In order to be a good economist, Levitt and Dubner argue, one must entertain possibilities that conflict with one’s morality, politics, and religion; Freakonomics tries to train its readers to think in this impartial manner. For example, after their analysis of abortion and the crime rate, Levitt and Dubner offer a long discussion of the relative morality of abortion and murder, in which they hypothesize that human fetuses might be “worth” one one-hundredth of an infant’s life. The passage seems shocking (and even deliberately provocative) in the way it uses numbers to talk about the relative value of human lives. And yet such discussions, off-putting though they might be, are important to the study of human behavior. By using surprising and somewhat provocative examples, the authors arguably encourage readers to think outside the box, rousing people from the “slumber” of politeness and conventional wisdom.
Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking ThemeTracker
Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Quotes in Freakonomics
Consider the folktale of the czar who learned that the most disease-ridden province in his empire was also the province with the most doctors. His solution? He promptly ordered all the doctors shot dead.
The theme of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was the innate honesty of mankind. "How selfish soever man may be supposed," Smith wrote, "there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."
Roughly half of the white women on the site and 80 percent of the white men declared that race didn't matter to them. But the response data tell a different story. The white men who said that race didn't matter sent 90 percent of their e-mail queries to white women. The white women who said race didn’t matter sent about 97 percent of their e-mail queries to white men.
So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald's. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald's organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.
The mayor of a city sees that his citizens celebrate wildly when their team wins the World Series. He is intrigued by this correlation but, like the "Moratorium" author, fails to see the direction in which the correlation runs. So the following year, the mayor decrees that his citizens start celebrating the World Series before the first pitch is ever thrown—an act that, in his confused mind, will ensure a victory.
First, the drop in crime in New York began in 1990. By the end of 1993, the rate of property crime and violent crime, including homicides, had already fallen nearly 20 percent. Rudolph Giuliani, however, did not become mayor … until early 1994.
What appears to be an advantage gained by going to a new school isn’t connected to the new school at all. What this means is that the students—and parents—who choose to opt out tend to be smarter and more academically motivated to begin with. But statistically, they gained no academic benefit by changing schools.
The data reveal that black children who perform poorly in school do so not because they are black but because a black child is more likely to come from a low-income, low-education household. A typical black child and white child from the same socioeconomic background, however, have the same abilities in math and reading upon entering kindergarten.
Until the early l970s, there was a great overlap between black and white names. The typical baby girl born in a black neighborhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice as common among blacks as whites. By 1980 she received a name that was twenty times more common among blacks.
If DeShawn Williams and Jake Williams sent identical resumes to the same employer, Jake Williams would be more likely to get a callback. The implication is that black-sounding names carry an economic penalty. Such studies are tantalizing but severely limited, for they can’t explain why DeShawn didn’t get the call. Was he rejected because the employer is a racist and is convinced that DeShawn Williams is black? Or did he reject him because "DeShawn" sounds like someone from a low-income, low-education family?
Some of these ideas might make you uncomfortable, even unpopular. To claim that legalized abortion resulted in a massive drop in crime will inevitably lead to explosive moral reactions. But the fact of the matter is that Freakonomics-style thinking simply doesn’t traffic in morality. As we suggested near the beginning of this book, if morality represents an ideal world, then economics represents the actual world.
The second child, now twenty-eight years old, is Roland G. Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist studying black underachievement.
The white child also made it to Harvard. But soon after, things went badly for him. His name is Ted Kaczynski.