Freakonomics

Freakonomics, n.: the practice of paying twenty six bucks to read a regurgitated magazine article.

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harpers,* once wrote that he made it a practice to read only books that were at least three years old. Ordinarily I can’t abide the tone of patrician handwringing that Lapham sets, but his reading rule is a good one. Let time sift out the fads.

Thanks to gifts and the tempting library at work, I’ve been gorging on new books lately. Hardbacks, even, although paperbacks are friendlier and more portable. The Wisdom of Crowds, Blink, Mind Wide Open–if they were talking about it at Manhattan cocktail parties two months ago, I’m reading it. But the latest, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, is sending me back to the used bookstores.

James Surowiecki and Malcolm Gladwell are both fine writers who take other peoples’ ideas and make them own through elegant synthesis. Gladwell does it so well it’s hard to spot his glibness, unless you catch an earlier, more thorough examination of one of his subjects. (I’m thinking, for example, of This American Life’s radio essay on John Gottman, the marriage researcher Gladwell also describes in Blink.)

Steven Levitt has an interesting mind, or as his pal Gladwell blurbs it, “the most interesting mind in America…Prepare to be dazzled.” Unlike a journalist, he has the chops to back up intriguing ideas with original research. _Freakonomics_ got started when his co-author, Stephen Dubner, wrote a profile of his work in the New York Times Magazine. I’ve learned a new term for Dubner’s role in the book, which feels like a magazine article stretched thin: this is feaguing. Feague, verb: to ginger a horse’s fundament; to make him lively and carry his tail well. Dubner’s Sunday-supplement prose is beyond annoying when he uses it to oversell ideas that are good in their own right.
(Steven Levitt: “Mr. Publisher, I look for interesting, non-intuitive causes for everyday stuff–a rise or fall in crime rate, say, or what defines a good parent.”
Stephen Dubner, panting: “We’re going to call it FREAKONOMICS! Because he’s a freakin’ genius.”)

Each chapter is introduced by a chunk from the original article. Dubner leaves no fundament ungingered in suggesting the godlike powers of this economist. “Levitt is everywhere and nowhere…” Who would think to pose these questions, Dubner wonders. But they don’t seem so far-fetched, at least the ones that haven’t been rewritten after the fact, like “What do sumo wrestlers and schoolteachers have in common?” Why do people cheat? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? What does your name do to your prospects, and is it causal or correlative? Nothing roguish there. Teachers have long noticed that kids with certain names do worse academically than others–my mother dreaded the annual crop John Pauls in her classroom for years after the Pope’s visit. What makes a good parent–another chapter–has hardly lacked for study. Again, it’s Levitt’s achievement to find and examine statistical evidence for new conclusions. He debunks happily and thoroughly, but his co-author is so busy gasping at the politically incorrect conclusions that he fails to explain why the questions matter.

At least in the childraising chapter they acknowledge their debt to Judith Rich Harris’s extraordinary book, The Nurture Assumption. I’ve bugged most parents I know for their reactions, but few want to read it. They imagine from the title and blurb that it sets out to diminish the parents’ role entirely, which is not a thought that helps you through the two am feed. That’s not its aim, but it does take issue with the narrow definition of nurture as something that parents, and only parents, actively do to children. The real distinction, she reminds us, is between genetics and environment, and active parental nurture is just one part of a child’s environment. The goal of a child is not to be a successful adult, but to be a successful child. By school age, peer-group nurture influences more than parental care–unless you count steering the peer group choice as part of the parents’ role.

Another book more worthwhile than the bestseller list is John Allen Paulos’s outstanding Innumeracy, which should be read by every poet, journalist, and media consumer. We might live in a different world if everyone had a basic grasp of the numbers that fly so carelessly–and we might tone down the Freakonomic mysticism around those few who use them competently to examine the world around us.

As for me, my allowance of New York Man Pundits is spent for the year. It’s hard to have an original thought when your head is full of cocktail party memes.

3 thoughts on “Freakonomics”

  1. I *loved* Blink. I’m looking at everything differently since I read it. Something I’d love to understand: did you ever do the Irish Times Crosaire puzzle? I was totally addicted (it’s still my dream to win the live competition they have every year.) The clues are generally puzzles, unlike American crossword clues, which are more of a general-knowledge test. And sometimes, you intuitively leap to what appears to be a very non-intuitive answer. And then have to work backwards to figure out why it’s correct. I wonder about the processes behind that.

    I like reading about your new life.

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  2. Eoin–ooh, thanks for letting me know. These new Google ads are giving me endless entertainment; what a random take on the content they provide.

    Riona–I could never solve the Crosaires (I’m not very good at puzzles) but they seemed much more entertaining than the workaday American puzzles. It kind of reminds me of the way I spell words aloud–if I shut my eyes and don’t think about it, I can reel it off, as if I were reading a mental image of the word, but if I think about it conventionally, I stumble.

    I did like Blink, and I like most of what he writes, but I think his style is dangerously seductive and I worry about the half-baked versions of his already light studies that now float around.

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