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Why the Ordinary Is Anything But
Alasdair Palmer will never look at a swimming pool, a bagel—or a statistic—in the same way again
June 26, 2005
By Alasdair Palmer

THIS BOOK is a brilliant, provocative investigation into motives: what they are, how they can be changed, and how they affect what people do. It is also a deceptively easy read: its style is so light, its tone so sunny and humorous, that it is hard to realise the extent to which the arguments in Freakonomics attack some of our most basic assumptions about the way people, and society, work.

There are a lot of surprises: Steven D. Levitt, a prodigiously productive economist at Chicago University, and his co-author Stephen J. Dubner, a journalist from the New York Times, note, for example, that swimmingpools are much more dangerous to children than guns. In the United States, 175 children under 10 get shot and killed each yearroughly one child is killed for every million gunswhereas around 550 children under 10 drown in their mom and dad's pool every year, which works out to roughly one drowned child for 11,000 homes with a pool (there are a lot of residential swimming pools in the US).

Money doesn't buy victory in US elections either. Levitt has discovered that a winning candidate can cut his spending by half and find his vote drops by only one per cent, whereas a loser can double itand also find his vote only goes up by one per cent. Rich people who try to buy their way to power generally fail, as the political career of Thomas Golisano shows: Golisano has spent more than $93 million trying to become Governor of New York, but he has never got more than 14 per cent of the vote. All the money in the world won't get you elected if the voters don't like you anyway. And the $1 billion spent in the US during the last presidential election campaign is equal to the amount Americans spend annually on... chewing gum.

Then there is the finding (perhaps this isn't a surprise) that top executives are less honest than ordinary office workers: a man who operated an "honesty system" for bagels, delivering them to offices and then leaving it up to those workers who took one to pay for it, found that the people who were most liable to cheat were the top executives with the highest salaries.

Advocates of the death penalty will be shocked by Levitt and Dubner's evidence that it has had no deterrent effect on the murder rate in the US. They explain this very simply: not enough people are executed, even in America, for the death penalty to produce any change in the behaviour of anyone contemplating murder. In the US as a whole, only two per cent of criminals waiting on death row can expect to be executed in any given year (it makes death row a lot safer than being a crack dealer in Chicago, where the risk of death is more than three times as high). Some states have reinstituted capital punishment and then not executed anyone. New York state, for instance, brought back capital punishment, with much political and media fanfare, in 1995. But since then, not a single criminal has been executed.

Levitt and Dubner conclude that the death penalty in the US is "an empty threat... no reasonable criminal should be deterred by it". They leave open the disturbing possibility that, if the US courts did start killing people at a much higher rate, it would have an effect on reducing crime. In discussing the failure of America's meagre controls on purchasing guns to have any effect at all on the penetration of gun ownership, the authors note that "If the death penalty were assessed to anyone carrying an illegal gun, and if the penalty were actually enforced, gun crimes would surely plunge." The authors do not say whether or not they think this would be a sensible policy.

Levittand the arguments are almost all his: Dubner is his amanuensis—insists that increased rates of imprisonment do reduce crime. He says the figures make that conclusion irresistible: the late 1960s, when American politicians started to send far fewer people to jail, were, as he puts it "a great time to be a criminal". Criminals were smart enough to work out that they faced dramatically reduced risks of punishment. The result was a crime boom, which was not tackled until politicians decided that prison was effective after all. Today, four times as many Americans are in prison as were incarcerated in 1972. Having risen inexorably until the early 1990s, crime in America is now at the level it was in the late 1950s.

Increased use of prison is one part of the explanation for America's spectacular, and enviable, fall in crime. So is the increase in police numbers. Levitt, however, doesn't think that more prisons and more police officers can be the whole explanation for the halving of America's rate of violent crime. The search for a further factor brings Levitt to his most controversial thesis: his suggestion that perhaps one third of the fall in crime is attributable to the legalisation of abortion in America in 1970.

He claims that the women who had abortions in the two decades after the Supreme Court made it illegal for any US state to ban the procedure were predominantly poor and unmarried. They were, he says, precisely the kind of woman most likely to give birth to a child who would grow up into being a criminal. The aborting of millions of foetuses being carried by such women meant, in effect, that millions of potential criminals were eliminated. Levitt is careful to stress he is not advocating abortion as a way of cutting the crime rate. He insists that "even for someone who considers a foetus to be worth only one-hundreth of a human being, the trade-off between higher abortion and lower crime is, by an economist's reckoning, terribly inefficient"—which will probably not be much comfort to those who feel (and he quotes them) that abortion is a crime "worse than slavery, worse than the Holocaust".

Levitt deliberately does not confront moral and political issues in this book. He insists that facts and causal explanations are morally neutral, and he is only trying to find out the truth, not to tell people what to do with it. Logically, he may be right. But I think we can be certain that his insistence that most educational attainment is down not to schooling but to genetic inheritance, for instance, or that the way to reduce crime is to lock up more criminals, will not do anything to support traditional left-wing approaches to social problems.

Still, the fact that Freakonomics isn't a political or moral harangue only forces you to think harder about its conclusions: it is much more difficult to dismiss them as morally or politically biased when you don't know what the authors' biases are. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Wherever you read it—on the beach, at home, on a train or in an office—you will be stimulated, provoked and entertained. Of how many books can that be said?


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