book review

A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
S.D. Levitt and S. J. Dubner
William Morrow, 2005, 242 pages
Reviewed By

I f there were an award for the most overhyped book that has the most fluff and the least actual content, this book would be one of the champions. A friend gave me a copy of this book to read saying, as is printed on the front cover in big orange letters, "Prepare to be dazzled." Ninety minutes later, after finishing the book, I was still waiting for the dazzledness to set in.

First, the writing style. Each chapter contains one or two facts, usually weaved into a story about some fictional person, presumably to make the facts palatable for readers who would be intimidated by too many facts and statistics (that is to say, more than one per chapter). The book also adopts the politically-correct fad of using "she" and "her" as supposedly gender-indeterminate pronouns. Every page, it seems, is crawling with these ear-screeching abuses of the English language, mixed with a form of cutesiness that was just a little annoying.

Next, the content. Mark Twain once said of the Book of Mormon, that if all the instances of "And it came to pass" were taken out, it would have been a pamphlet. If all the fluff were removed from this book, it too could fit in a pamphlet and still have room left for the complete text of Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education, which are evidently two of the authors' favorite works. The facts that are presented are often somewhat banal: testing teachers as well as students gives them an incentive to cheat. Journalists and political activists often lie to make their point. Who woulda thought?

The authors' spin on this and almost every other story is from a left-liberal perspective: in their world, corporate executives steal more than ordinary people, violent racial discrimination is everywhere, and poverty explains almost everything. Their arguments in favor of these premises would be more compelling if the reader's confidence in their judgment were not undermined by their seemingly boundless capacity for misunderstanding the causes of ordinary phenomena.

For example, they speculate for several pages about whether the contestants on the TV show "The Weakest Link" are discriminating against blacks, women, or Hispanics. Finally, frustrated by the complete lack of evidence for any racial or gender discrimination, they conclude that the contestants are, in fact, discriminating against old people. What a letdown that must have been. And yes, there is the usual professed bafflement about how anyone can believe that more than 50% of any population can be above the mean. Evidently this new breed of dazzling crack freakonomists is unfamiliar with the concept of "median". Likewise, their apparent bafflement about the fact that people lie on surveys. Of course people lie--with the exception of these two economists, everyone else is all too familiar with the fact that survey-takers would love to classify you as a racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted pig.

The centerpiece of this book, of course, is its chapter on Levitt and Donohue's controversial 2001 paper claiming that the remarkable decrease in crime rates in America in the past twenty years is due to abortion. Oddly enough, despite the fact that the abortion rate among blacks is three times that of whites (according to the CDC), only here do the authors assiduously avoid any mention of race. Considering the amount of craziness out there on this issue, this omission may be understandable. But why fixate on abortion? There are literally dozens of far more plausible explanations. A few of these are mentioned and somewhat flippantly dismissed. The authors seem to believe they have used their special brand of incisive reasoning to brush aside ideology and discover the shocking truth that the right to kill unborn fetuses by the million has brought about a glorious new age of peace and prosperity to society. In fairness, they do mention that there are a fair number of us who believe that abortion itself is a crime. Would the homicide rate still have decreased if the government hadn't redefined it to be no longer murder if the victim is below a certain age? There are 1.3 million abortions committed every year in this country. If these were included as homicides, as arguably they should be, our homicide rate would jump by about 75-fold.

There are some interesting facts scattered here and there, like the statistic that if you own a swimming pool and a gun, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is. And (as I've been trying to tell people for years) the per-hour risks of death from flying and driving are about equal. But overall, the take-home message from this book is: there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Below that there is economics--and at the very bottom, just above the worms, in the seventh layer of hell, crawling with decaying, rotten maggots, unbegotten and unredeemable slime, where Frenchmen spend their days searching for mushrooms, is something called "freakonomics" which, as far as I can tell, is when economists get tired of facts and rigor and decide to peddle a book full of superficial, politically-charged fluff and pretend that they're revealing the "hidden side of everything."