📚️ Book Notes: Freakonomics
It felt like individual blog posts, which can be compressed to a tenth of their size.
Here are my notes from Freakonomics:
1. How did Roe v. Wade help trigger, a generation later, the greatest crime drop in recorded history?
As far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal. Not even close. Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade—poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get—were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade, these children weren’t being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet.
It wasn’t gun control or a strong economy or new police strategies that finally blunted the American crime wave. It was, among other factors, the reality that the pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk.
Now, as the crime-drop experts (the former crime doomsayers) spun their theories to the media, how many times did they cite legalized abortion as a cause?
2. In a medical study, it turned out that obstetricians in areas with declining birth rates are much more likely to perform cesarean-section deliveries than obstetricians in growing areas—suggesting that, when business is tough, doctors try to ring up more expensive procedures.
It is one thing to muse about experts’ abusing their position and another to prove it. The best way to do so would be to measure how an expert treats you versus how he performs the same service for himself. Unfortunately a surgeon doesn’t operate on himself. Nor is his medical file a matter of public record; neither is an auto mechanic’s repair log for his own car.
Real-estate sales, however, are a matter of public record. And real-estate agents often do sell their own homes. A recent set of data covering the sale of nearly 100,000 houses in suburban Chicago shows that more than 3,000 of those houses were owned by the agents themselves.
Before plunging into the data, it helps to ask a question: what is the real-estate agent’s incentive when she is selling her own home? Simple: to make the best deal possible. Presumably this is also your incentive when you are selling your home. And so your incentive and the real-estate agent’s incentive would seem to be nicely aligned. Her commission, after all, is based on the sale price.
But as incentives go, commissions are tricky. First of all, a 6 percent real-estate commission is typically split between the seller’s agent and the buyer’s. Each agent then kicks back roughly half of her take to the agency. Which means that only 1.5 percent of the purchase price goes directly into your agent’s pocket.
So on the sale of your $300,000 house, her personal take of the $18,000 commission is $4,500. Still not bad, you say. But what if the house was actually worth more than $300,000? What if, with a little more effort and patience and a few more newspaper ads, she could have sold it for $310,000? After the commission, that puts an additional $9,400 in your pocket. But the agent’s additional share—her personal 1.5 percent of the extra $10,000—is a mere $150. If you earn $9,400 while she earns only $150, maybe your incentives aren’t aligned after all. (Especially when she’s the one paying for the ads and doing all the work.) Is the agent willing to put out all that extra time, money, and energy for just $150?
There’s one way to find out: measure the difference between the sales data for houses that belong to real-estate agents themselves and the houses they sold on behalf of clients. Using the data from the sales of those 100,000 Chicago homes, and controlling for any number of variables—location, age and quality of the house, aesthetics, whether or not the property was an investment, and so on—it turns out that a real-estate agent keeps her own home on the market an average of ten days longer and sells it for an extra 3-plus percent, or $10,000 on a $300,000 house. When she sells her own house, an agent holds out for the best offer; when she sells yours, she encourages you to take the first decent offer that comes along. Like a stockbroker churning commissions, she wants to make deals and make them fast. Why not? Her share of a better offer—$150—is too puny an incentive to encourage her to do otherwise.
3. What was wrong with the incentive at the Israeli day-care centers?
You have probably already guessed that the $3 fine was simply too small. For that price, a parent with one child could afford to be late every day and only pay an extra $60 each month—just one-sixth of the base fee. As babysitting goes, that’s pretty cheap. What if the fine had been set at $100 instead of $3? That would have likely put an end to the late pickups, though it would have also engendered plenty of ill will. (Any incentive is inherently a trade-off; the trick is to balance the extremes.)
But there was another problem with the day-care center fine. It substituted an economic incentive (the $3 penalty) for a moral incentive (the guilt that parents were supposed to feel when they came late). For just a few dollars each day, parents could buy off their guilt. Furthermore, the small size of the fine sent a signal to the parents that late pickups weren’t such a big problem. If the day-care center suffers only $3 worth of pain for each late pickup, why bother to cut short your tennis game? Indeed, when the economists eliminated the $3 fine in the seventeenth week of their study, the number of late-arriving parents didn’t change. Now they could arrive late, pay no fine, and feel no guilt.
Such is the strange and powerful nature of incentives. A slight tweak can produce drastic and often unforeseen results. Thomas Jefferson noted this while reflecting on the tiny incentive that led to the Boston Tea Party and, in turn, the American Revolution: “So inscrutable is the arrangement of causes and consequences in this world that a two-penny duty on tea, unjustly imposed in a sequestered part of it, changes the condition of all its inhabitants.”
In the 1970s, researchers conducted a study that, like the Israeli day-care study, pitted a moral incentive against an economic incentive. In this case, they wanted to learn about the motivation behind blood donations. Their discovery: when people are given a small stipend for donating blood rather than simply being praised for their altruism, they tend to donate less blood. The stipend turned a noble act of charity into a painful way to make a few dollars, and it wasn’t worth it.
What if the blood donors had been offered an incentive of $50, or $500, or $5,000? Surely the number of donors would have changed dramatically.
But something else would have changed dramatically as well, for every incentive has its dark side. If a pint of blood were suddenly worth $5,000, you can be sure that plenty of people would take note. They might literally steal blood at knifepoint. They might pass off pig blood as their own. They might circumvent donation limits by using fake IDs. Whatever the incentive, whatever the situation, dishonest people will try to gain an advantage by whatever means necessary.
4. Who cheats?
Well, just about anyone, if the stakes are right. You might say to yourself, I don’t cheat, regardless of the stakes. And then you might remember the time you cheated on, say, a board game. Last week. Or the golf ball you nudged out of its bad lie. Or the time you really wanted a bagel in the office break room but couldn’t come up with the dollar you were supposed to drop in the coffee can. And then took the bagel anyway. And told yourself you’d pay double the next time. And didn’t.
For every clever person who goes to the trouble of creating an incentive scheme, there is an army of people, clever and otherwise, who will inevitably spend even more time trying to beat it. Cheating may or may not be human nature, but it is certainly a prominent feature in just about every human endeavor. Cheating is a primordial economic act: getting more for less. So it isn’t just the boldface names—inside-trading CEOs and pill-popping ballplayers and perk-abusing politicians—who cheat. It is the waitress who pockets her tips instead of pooling them. It is the Wal-Mart payroll manager who goes into the computer and shaves his employees’ hours to make his own performance look better. It is the third grader who, worried about not making it to the fourth grade, copies test answers from the kid sitting next to him.
5. What larger truths do these lynching figures suggest? What does it mean that lynchings were relatively rare and that they fell precipitously over time, even in the face of a boom in Klan membership?
The most compelling explanation is that all those early lynchings worked. White racists—whether or not they belonged to the Ku Klux Klan—had through their actions and their rhetoric developed a strong incentive scheme that was terribly clear and terribly frightening. If a black person violated the accepted code of behavior, whether by talking back to a bus driver or daring to try to vote, he knew he might well be punished, perhaps by death.
So it may be that by the mid-1940s, when Stetson Kennedy was trying to bust up the Klan, it didn’t really need to use as much violence. Many blacks, having long been told to behave like second-class citizens—or else—simply obliged. One or two lynchings went a long way toward inducing docility among even a large group of people, for people respond strongly to strong incentives. And there are few incentives more powerful than the fear of random violence—which, in essence, is why terrorism is so effective.
6. Advertising too is a brilliant tool for creating conventional wisdom. Listerine, for instance, was invented in the nineteenth century as a powerful surgical antiseptic. It was later sold, in distilled form, as a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. But it wasn’t a runaway success until the 1920s, when it was pitched as a solution for “chronic halitosis”—a then obscure medical term for bad breath. Listerine’s new ads featured forlorn young women and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate’s rotten breath. “Can I be happy with him in spite of that?” one maiden asked herself. Until that time, bad breath was not conventionally considered such a catastrophe. But Listerine changed that. As the advertising scholar James B. Twitchell writes, “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis.” In just seven years, the company’s revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million.
7. So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald’s. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald’s organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.
The gang that Venkatesh had fallen in with was one of about a hundred branches—franchises, really—of a larger Black Disciples organization. J. T., the college-educated leader of his franchise, reported to a central leadership of about twenty men that was called, without irony, the board of directors. (At the same time that white suburbanites were studiously mimicking black rappers’ ghetto culture, black ghetto criminals were studiously mimicking the suburbanites’ dads’ corp-think.) J. T. paid the board of directors nearly 20 percent of his revenues for the right to sell crack in a designated twelve-square-block area. The rest of the money was his to distribute as he saw fit.
Three officers reported directly to J. T.: an enforcer (who ensured the gang members’ safety), a treasurer (who watched over the gang’s liquid assets), and a runner (who transported large quantities of drugs and money to and from the supplier). Beneath the officers were the street-level salesmen known as foot soldiers. The goal of a foot soldier was to someday become an officer. J. T. had anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five foot soldiers on his payroll at any given time, depending on the time of year (autumn was the best crack-selling season; summer and Christmastime were slow) and the size of the gang’s territory (which doubled at one point when the Black Disciples engineered a hostile takeover of a rival gang’s turf). At the very bottom of J. T.’s organization were as many as two hundred members known as the rank and file. They were not employees at all. They did, however, pay dues to the gang—some for protection from rival gangs, others for the chance to eventually earn a job as a foot soldier.
8. J. T. paid his employees $9,500, a combined monthly salary that was only $1,000 more than his own official salary. J. T.’s hourly wage was $66. His three officers, meanwhile, each took home $700 a month, which works out to about $7 an hour. And the foot soldiers earned just $3.30 an hour, less than the minimum wage. So the answer to the original question—if drug dealers make so much money, why are they still living with their mothers?—is that, except for the top cats, they don’t make much money. They had no choice but to live with their mothers. For every big earner, there were hundreds more just scraping along. The top 120 men in the Black Disciples gang represented just 2.2 percent of the full-fledged gang membership but took home well more than half the money.
In other words, a crack gang works pretty much like the standard capitalist enterprise: you have to be near the top of the pyramid to make a big wage. Notwithstanding the leadership’s rhetoric about the family nature of the business, the gang’s wages are about as skewed as wages in corporate America. A foot soldier had plenty in common with a McDonald’s burger flipper or a Wal-Mart shelf stocker. In fact, most of J. T.’s foot soldiers also held minimum-wage jobs in the legitimate sector to supplement their skimpy illicit earnings. The leader of another crack gang once told Venkatesh that he could easily afford to pay his foot soldiers more, but it wouldn’t be prudent. “You got all these niggers below you who want your job, you dig?” he said. “So, you know, you try to take care of them, but you know, you also have to show them you the boss. You always have to get yours first, or else you really ain’t no leader. If you start taking losses, they see you as weak and shit.”
9. The most radical shift of late in the conventional wisdom on parenting has been provoked by one simple question: how much do parents really matter?
Clearly, bad parenting matters a great deal. As the link between abortion and crime makes clear, unwanted children—who are disproportionately subject to neglect and abuse—have worse outcomes than children who were eagerly welcomed by their parents. But how much can those eager parents actually accomplish for their children’s sake?
This question represents a crescendo of decades’ worth of research. A long line of studies, including research into twins who were separated at birth, had already concluded that genes alone are responsible for perhaps 50 percent of a child’s personality and abilities.
So if nature accounts for half of a child’s destiny, what accounts for the other half? Surely it must be the nurturing—the Baby Mozart tapes, the church sermons, the museum trips, the French lessons, the bargaining and hugging and quarreling and punishing that, in toto, constitute the act of parenting. But how then to explain another famous study, the Colorado Adoption Project, which followed the lives of 245 babies put up for adoption and found virtually no correlation between the child’s personality traits and those of his adopted parents? Or the other studies showing that a child’s character wasn’t much affected whether or not he was sent to day care, whether he had one parent or two, whether his mother worked or didn’t, whether he had two mommies or two daddies or one of each?
These nature-nurture discrepancies were addressed in a 1998 book by a little-known textbook author named Judith Rich Harris. The Nurture Assumption was in effect an attack on obsessive parenting, a book so provocative that it required two subtitles: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do and Parents Matter Less than You Think and Peers Matter More. Harris argued, albeit gently, that parents are wrong to think they contribute so mightily to their child’s personality. This belief, she wrote, was a “cultural myth.” Harris argued that the top-down influence of parents is overwhelmed by the grassroots effect of peer pressure, the blunt force applied each day by friends and schoolmates.
10. In a paper called “The Economics of ‘Acting White,’” the young black Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. argues that some black students “have tremendous disincentives to invest in particular behaviors (i.e., education, ballet, etc.) due to the fact that they may be deemed a person who is trying to act like a white person (a.k.a. ‘selling-out’). Such a label, in some neighborhoods, can carry penalties that range from being deemed a social outcast, to being beaten or killed.” Fryer cites the recollections of a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known then as Lew Alcindor, who had just entered the fourth grade in a new school and discovered that he was a better reader than even the seventh graders: “When the kids found this out, I became a target….It was my first time away from home, my first experiencein an all-black situation, and I found myself being punished for everything I’d ever been taught was right. I got all A’s and was hated for it; I spoke correctly and was called a punk. I had to learn a new language simply to be able to deal with the threats. I had good manners and was a good little boy and paid for it with my hide.”
11. Let’s say that we want to ask the ECLS data a fundamental question about parenting and education: does having a lot of books in your home lead your child to do well in school? Regression analysis can’t quite answer that question, but it can answer a subtly different one: does a child with a lot of books in his home tend to do better than a child with no books? The difference between the first and second questions is the difference between causality (question 1) and correlation (question 2). A regression analysis can demonstrate correlation, but it doesn’t prove cause. After all, there are several ways in which two variables can be correlated. X can cause Y; Y can cause X; or it may be that some other factor is causing both X and Y. A regression alone can’t tell you whether it snows because it’s cold, whether it’s cold because it snows, or if the two just happen to go together.
The ECLS data do show, for instance, that a child with a lot of books in his home tends to test higher than a child with no books. So those factors are correlated, and that’s nice to know. But higher test scores are correlated with many other factors as well. If you simply measure children with a lot of books against children with no books, the answer may not be very meaningful. Perhaps the number of books in a child’s home merely indicates how much money his parents make. What we really want to do is measure two children who are alike in every way except one—in this case, the number of books in their homes—and see if that one factor makes a difference in their school performance.
It should be said that regression analysis is more art than science. (In this regard, it has a great deal in common with parenting itself.) But a skilled practitioner can use it to tell how meaningful a correlation is—and maybe even tell whether that correlation does indicate a causal relationship.
12. So what does all this have to say about the importance of parents in general? Consider again the eight ECLS factors that are correlated with school test scores:
The child has highly educated parents.
The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status.
The child’s mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth.
The child had low birthweight.
The child’s parents speak English in the home.
The child is adopted.
The child’s parents are involved in the PTA.
The child has many books in his home.
And the eight factors that are not:
The child’s family is intact.
The child’s parents recently moved into a better neighborhood.
The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.
The child attended Head Start.
The child’s parents regularly take him to museums.
The child is regularly spanked.
The child frequently watches television.
The child’s parents read to him nearly every day.
To overgeneralize a bit, the first list describes things that parents are; the second list describes 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 much matter whether a child is trotted off to museums or spanked or sent to Head Start or frequently read to or plopped in front of the television.
For parents—and parenting experts—who are obsessed with child-rearing technique, this may be sobering news. The reality is that technique looks to be highly overrated.
But this is not to say that parents don’t matter. Plainly they matter a great deal. Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late. Most of the things that matter were decided long ago—who you are, whom you married, what kind of life you lead. If you are smart, hardworking, well educated, well paid, and married to someone equally fortunate, then your children are more likely to succeed. (Nor does it hurt, in all likelihood, to be honest, thoughtful, loving, and curious about the world.) But it isn’t so much a matter of what you do as a parent; it’s who you are. In this regard, an overbearing parent is a lot like a political candidate who believes that money wins elections—whereas in truth, all the money in the world can’t get a candidate elected if the voters don’t like him to start with.
13. A great many black names today are unique to blacks. More than 40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among the names of every baby, white and black, born that year in California. (There were also 228 babies named Unique during the 1990s alone, and 1 each of Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee.) Even among very popular black names, there is little overlap with whites. Of the 626 baby girls named Deja in the 1990s, 591 were black. Of the 454 girls named Precious, 431 were black. Of the 318 Shanices, 310 were black.
What kind of parent is most likely to give a child such a distinctively black name? The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a distinctively black name herself. In Fryer’s view, giving a child a superblack name is a black parent’s signal of solidarity with the community. “If I start naming my kid Madison,” he says, “you might think, ‘Oh, you want to go live across the railroad tracks, don’t you?’” If black kids who study calculus and ballet are thought to be “acting white,” Fryer says, then mothers who call their babies Shanice are simply “acting black.”
The California study shows that many white parents send as strong a signal in the opposite direction. More than 40 percent of the white babies are given names that are at least four times more common among whites. Consider Connor and Cody, Emily and Abigail. In one recent ten-year stretch, each of these names was given to at least two thousand babies in California—fewer than 2 percent of them black.
If you liked the above content, I'd definitely recommend reading the whole book. 💯
Until We Meet Again...