weakonomics

Believe it or not, I had never read Freakonomics..! Therefore, when I saw the book on sale for a negligible price in Dehli Airport—great airport by the way!—, I went for it. Having now read a fair chunk of the book (or unfair chunk, see below!) within two days (during my metro rides), I am rather disappointed by the content and thus puzzled by the then-craze about the book. (Andrew just loved it!) Freakonomics is certainly a well-designed product from a salesman perspective and it thus reads pleasantly enough, but I find it remains at too much of a superficial level. In addition, it sometimes sounds as if the authors have a hidden agenda (more later)! (Now, of course, my reaction of the book is completely irrelevant as it comes very late after the publication in 2005. So, reader,  stop here if you do not want to waste time any further!)

“…if the death penalty were assessed to anyone carrying an illegal gun, and if the penalty were actually enforced, gun crimes would surely plunge.” (p.118)

To wit, the way the book is written sounds much more journalistic than academic: the authors take an economic study or paper about an unusual (freakish) topic and weave a nice story around it, always with the intent of showing “conventional wisdom” is wrong. Since this is a general public book, there is no theory behind the story and it all seems to flow from “common sense”: yes, most drug dealers do not earn enough to make a living because the corporate structure of the drug economy is highly hierarchical and as highly biased towards higher levels. The only foray into theory, namely the discussion about factors impacting kids success rate at school, casts doubts about regression and the distinction between causation and correlation is never truly investigated (even though the mantra correlation is not causation is found therein often enough!). Moreover, by resorting to the journalistic trick of making everything very personal (so-and-so went to drug dealer housing projects for six years, so-and-so decided to re-analyse the school records in Chicago, &tc.), the authors actually lower the credentials of their theories. If so-and-so found this effect, maybe there is another or an hundred others so-and-so going the opposite way! But those others are not mentioned as the book retains this flatland and Unitarian perspective… And the conclusions are anti-climactic: when so-and-so gets hold of the ledgers of a crack dealing gang, the description stops at reporting the hierarchical structure of the organisation and the revenues of the different levels. No major theory appears to be tested. At least within the book.

“Given the number of handguns in the United States (…), the probability that a particular gun was used to kill someone that year is 1 in 10,000. The typical gun buyback yields fewer than 1,000 guns—which translates into an expectation of less than one-tenth of one homicide per buyback.” (p.121)

The above quote puzzled me for a while, until I formalised the experiment as an hypergeometric draw of 1000 guns from a population of almost 300 millions guns, out of which more than 10,000 are crime guns. (The probability that a particular gun is used for a crime is then 1 in 30,000.) And the probability to draw at least one of those guns in one buyback is then approximately 0.03. But this seems to miss the other side of the equation, namely the worth of a human life. (Not that I believe that gun buybacks are particularly effective since, as noted by the authors, they mostly attract “heirldom or junk” (p.121).)

A minor disappointment was to stumble upon the conclusion of the book in…its very middle! I first thought I was confused and this was only the conclusion to a section but no, the second half of the book as I bought it was made of extracts from the authors’ column in the New York Time and of their blog, getting close to a swindle in my opinion! Or at least being the unfair chunk mentioned above. I also find annoying (and so does Andrew!) this insistence upon being rogue economists, as advertised on the front cover of the book, as the authors have shown themselves to be very efficient economists by turning the freakonomics idea into a whole business: books, films, videos, lectures, &tc. Nothing to complain about, except for the rogue label. (Note that they should have registered the franchise as well, given the subsequent profusion of -omics books and sites, from the fantastic Freakonometrics blog of my former colleague Arthur Charpentier, to Soccernomics I recently bought for my son…)

One Response to “weakonomics”

  1. The authors contrast the U.S.A. with Switzerland in terms of gun related deaths: however, if we can trust this graph, Switzerland is actually doing much worse than other neighbouring countries. However, there are other graphs on the Net telling an opposite story….

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