I come not to bury Freakonomics,
but to praise it.
The new book
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side
of Everything by celebrated University of
Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and ace journalist
Stephen J. Dubner is a publishing sensation. As I write,
it ranks #2 on Amazon.com`s bestseller list, trailing
only the upcoming
Harry Potter novel.
The two worst things about
Freakonomics are its painfully embarrassing title
and its most-hyped component: Levitt`s theory that
legalizing abortion from 1970 to 1973 caused half of the
crime drop in the 1990s, because it culled fetuses
more likely to become lawbreakers 17 years later.
But, from the VDARE.COM point of view,
there are some surprisingly good things in it.
The Wall Street Journal`s
website trumpeted Levitt`s book, saying
"Meet the economist who figured out that legal abortion
was behind dropping crime rates" (by Steven E.
Landsburg, April 13 2005). And John Tierney devoted his
second effort as a
New York Times op-ed columnist to
describing how Levitt and his abortion theory
crushed New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell,
The Tipping Point, in a debate over the cause of
the crime decline in New York City.
Oh yeah? I arranged for Levitt to
debate me in Slate.com way back in 1999. I pointed
out, to his surprise, that the first generation born
after legalization instead went on the biggest teen
murder spree in American history.
This year, no doubt prudently,
Levitt refused his publicist`s recommendation that we
resume our debate.
I`m not going to carry on that
controversy in this article because I`ve already had my
say on Levitt`s abortion-cut-crime theory in my "Pre-emptive
Executions?" essay in The American
Conservative and on my
iSteve.com blog (here).
Instead, I`m magnanimously going to
show how Freakonomics is nevertheless a valuable
book—because Levitt cautiously presses the envelope
in terms of what you are
allowed to say in American mainstream discourse
IQ and race.
Freakonomics is constantly
being compared to Malcolm Gladwell`s latest bestseller
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
reviewed in January). But in fact Levitt`s book is
far more interesting.
If Gladwell were to write about how
to make a fortune on the
stock market, his formulaic approach would no doubt
start by taking a piece of ancient advice that everybody
has heard, but that nobody (including Gladwell) has any
idea how to
execute consistently, such as: Buy low, sell
Then Gladwell would dream up a new
buzzphrase that means the same thing but uses that
trendiest element in grammar, the present participle—as
in his recent mantras "The Tipping Point" and
"Thin-Slicing”. Buy low, sell high could be
Gladwellized into Investing Down, Divesting Up ©™®
Gladwell would pad his book with
inspiring but contradictory anecdotes about people who
got rich following this amazing strategy. Finally, he
would cash in big by giving speeches at
$40k a pop on how you too should employ the power of
Investing Down, Divesting Up ©™®.
In contrast, Levitt is actually
interested in explaining how bits and pieces of the
world work even if the topic possesses no obvious appeal
on the sales convention circuit. Freakonomics is
not a great book because it`s too scattershot, breezily
covering a random selection of conundrums. Yet Levitt`s
casual but broad interests in daily life make it,
despite his quantitative bent, an easy read.
Adam Smith, but unlike many economists who are
doctrinaire free marketeers, Levitt trusts capitalism
more than capitalists.
For example, he points out that you
shouldn`t rely upon the real estate salesperson you hire
to sell your home for the best price. Realtors make more
money by churning through sales quickly, so they
consistently underprice their
clients` homes and
badger their clients into selling too early.
Levitt studied 100,000 home sales
in Chicago and found that when selling their own homes,
real estate agents held out on average for ten days more
than their clients did and, all else being equal in
terms of the quality of the house, got over three
percent more for it, or $10,000 on a $300,000 home.
This is a useful but not terribly
astounding finding. Indeed, the only thing remarkable
about his realtor research is that, apparently, no
economist ever published a study of this obvious
phenomenon before Levitt.
In contrast, my wife, who majored
in economics but is not a professional economist,
pointed this out to me many years ago. It was why she
decided to sell our condo herself. She obtained
significantly more than our naive neighbors got for
their identical units—even before they handed a three
percent commission over to their realtors.
Similarly, Freakonomics is
full of Levitt`s studies showing other things I already
knew but enjoyed seeing publicized.
Another example: public school
teachers who are supposed to administer high stakes
tests to their own students will often cheat. (If the
No Child Left Behind Act isn`t going to be turned
utter joke by
fraud, we will need an independent national testing
Despite his claims to be a
"rogue economist," Levitt is actually viewed as the
coming superstar by his profession. In
2003, the American Economics Association awarded him
its John Bates Clark Medal as the outstanding economist
Perhaps the most important topic
Levitt could study in the future is: What ails the
economics profession that Levitt is considered a
revolutionary in 2005 for doing research his elders
should have done decades ago?
Which leads us to race and IQ. Like
anyone with a healthy curiosity about life, Levitt can`t
avoid butting into these two most career-threatening
Economists have traditionally been
terrified of them—particularly when they show up
together, as they so often do.
Three years ago I showed Levitt`s
mentor, the Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker, the
key scatter plot in Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen`s
IQ and the Wealth of Nations. This graph
demonstrates that the
correlation between average national IQ in
81 countries and per capita GDP is a startlingly
strong r = 0.73.
I presumed that a famous expert on "human capital"
would be interested in what is likely the most important
finding in his field`s history. But I didn`t truly know
what "fear and loathing" was until I saw the
expression on Dr. Becker`s face when alerted to this
unwelcome information. (Click
for Peter Brimelow and Leslie Spencer`s
experience with Becker).
Lynn and Vanhanen`s book remains almost unmentioned
by professional economists.
Likewise, Gladwell has become more
politically correct about race as the amount of
corporate speaking money he could lose from a "gaffe"
mounts. To see how brave Gladwell once was, check out
1997 article in which he not only makes the same
gender differences that Harvard president Larry
Summers was savaged for making last January, but also…applies
that heretical reasoning to black-white genetic
Levitt isn`t as bold as Gladwell
was in the 1990s, but he`s less craven than Gladwell is
today. It`s instructive to watch Levitt dance up to the
edge of trouble, then pull back.
1999 version of the abortion-cut-crime argument, a
Harvard Quarterly Journal of Economics paper by
Levitt and John J. Donohue, [PDF]
was rather blunt about how they believed increasing
abortion through legalization could supposedly cut crime
by aborting more black fetuses:
"Teenagers, unmarried women and African Americans are
all substantially more likely to seek abortions.
Children born to these mothers tend to be at higher risk
for committing crime 17 years or so down the road, so
abortion may reduce subsequent criminality through this
Freakonomics, however, has
been scoured of Levitt`s original linkage to race. Now,
Levitt attributes the entire impact of abortion on crime
to reducing "unwantedness." (For why legalizing
abortion did not cut "unwantedness," see
But in other chapters of
Freakonomics, Levitt, being a
quantitatively-oriented guy, finds himself backing
Nature over Nurture much of the time.
In the chapter "What Makes a
Perfect Parent?" Levitt-Dubner write:
is strongly hereditary… Studies have shown that a
child`s academic abilities are far more influenced by
the IQs of his biological parents than the IQs of his
Levitt and a young black Harvard
economist named Roland G. Fryer (check out Dubner`s
NY Times Magazine
personal genetic background) pored over the results
of a big government effort called the
Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the home life
and school test performance of 20,000 children.
Unfortunately, this enormously
expensive study seems to have intentionally failed to
obtain the most obviously relevant data: the parents` IQ
Still, Levitt came to the
conclusion that Nature matters more than Nurture in
raising smart kids. He found that the parental factors
that have an impact on kids` academic test scores are
"things that parents are." Factors that don`t
make a difference "describe things that parents do."
"Parents who are well educated, successful, and healthy
tend to have children who test well in school; but it
doesn`t seem to matter much whether a child is trotted
off to museums or spanked or sent to
Head Start or frequently read to or plopped in front
In other words, "Kids, choose
your parents wisely." (For an analysis of what
parents can influence, such as culture and peers,
see my review "The
Nature of Nurture" of Judith Rich Harris`s
The Nurture Assumption, a book that greatly
These are fairly brave, but not
forbidden, truths to tell these days. It`s still okay to
say "IQ is strongly hereditary" … as long as you
don`t mention that when discussing the 15 point
white and African-American average IQs. When talking
about the race gap, you are supposed to assume that some
"X" factor causes the one standard deviation
difference between the races … Or, better yet, never
mention IQ and race in the same paragraph.
Perhaps that`s why Levitt
contradictorily attributes the test score gap
between black and white five-year-olds entering
kindergarten to various environmental differences
that—when he is not specifically discussing
Levitt-Dubner go on to blame the widening of the racial
test score gap as children mature on the fact that black
kids attend worse schools.
Yet the authors` description of
what makes schools attended by blacks bad verges on
self-parody—almost a nudge-nudge-wink-wink to alert the
reader while avoiding a politically-incorrect gaffe that
could get them roasted like poor
how are black schools bad? Not, interestingly, in the
ways that schools are traditionally measured. In terms
of class size, teachers` education, and
computer-to-student ratio, the schools attended by
blacks and whites are similar.
schools offer an environment that is simply not
conducive to learning."
You`d have to be awfully naïve not
to notice that Levitt and Dubner are signaling that the
essential reason schools that have lots of blacks
students tend to be bad is because they …have lots of
In yet another chapter, however,
Levitt and Dubner show some explicit courage about
race—perhaps even more than is empirically warranted.
a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?"
they consider those super-black names that black mothers
started giving their babies during the
Black Pride era:
typical baby girl born in a black neighborhood in 1970
was given a name that was twice as common among blacks
than among whites. By 1980 she received a name that was
twenty times more common among blacks."
Levitt and Dubner show strikingly
little sympathy toward blacks who have a harder time
called in for a job interview because, as shown by
"audit studies", employers are dubious of
DeShawns and Darnells.
The authors scoff:
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?"
Sure, as the authors imply, a boy
named DeShawn may indeed be, on average, more likely to
goldbrick or to rip off his employer than a boy named,
"Dov" (the male name with the most educated
parents according to the book).
Following their Naturist
inclinations, Levitt and Dubner conclude:
that`s why, on average, a boy named Jake [the
whitest common male name] will tend to earn more
money and get more education than a boy named DeShawn. A
DeShawn is more likely to have been handicapped by a
low-income, low-education, single-parent background. His
name is an indicator—not a cause—of his outcome. Just as
a child with no books in his home isn`t likely to test
well in school, a boy named DeShawn isn`t likely to do
as well in life."
There aren`t too many people who
make me sound like a diversity-sensitive
multi-cultist, but sometimes Levitt is one of them! The
authors could at least have a little compassion for the
poor kid. DeShawn didn`t ask to be given his name.
And I must
point out that a
new study by economist
David Figlio calls into question Levitt`s
assumption that DeShawns aren`t hurt by prejudice. Figlio cleverly looked at siblings, and found that the
ones with the blacker names tended to get rated more
poorly by their schoolteachers even when their test
scores were the same.
In summary, Freakonomics is
hardly a perfect book. But its huge success may expand,
modestly, the perimeter of what is respectable to write
about race and IQ here in the land of the free and the
home of the brave.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and