Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Freakonomics: A Rouge Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

By Steven Levitt (economist) & Stephen Dubner (writer)

What is this book all about? It's just an economist looking at how some incentives make people do certain (unintended) things.

The Chapters in the book are:
1. What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? The answer is cheating...high stakes tests make teachers cheat, and sumo wrestlers fix certain matches that don't matter.

2. How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents? The answer is the information they have and how they use it to their advantage. Apparently, Real-Estate agents sell their own homes for more than they sell their clients homes. As my home is currently for sale, I'd like to elaborate on this. Apparently, the words they use when writing the ads for their own homes and different than the ads they write when they are selling my home. Here are 5 terms that correlate with higher sales price (none of which were used in the ad for my house):
Here are 5 terms that correlate with a lower sales price:
Spacious (this is in the ad for my house, it's true, but that doesn't mean anything)
! (there is an exclamation point in my ad)
Great Neighborhood (and yes, I do live in a great neighborhood, but I guess you only advertise that fact when you have nothing good to say about the house)
So, I enjoyed this a lot and I think I am going to rewrite the ad on my house to be more specific (all the good terms are very specific). Here's my proposed ad:
Great Quad with Maple trees (I think the mention of maple=good had more to do with cabintery but my cabinets are oak so we'll use Maple elsewhere) out front on tree-lined street. Kitchen would look great with Corian counters or granite, but we have laminate in a state-of-the art custom kitchen (circa 1970). A real gourmet could serve dinner in the cavernous dining room. Polo ponies could romp in the oversized family room. School system is top-notch, so bring your brood to this uncommonly good house.
What do you think?

3. Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? The answer most of them make about minimum wage selling drugs. Only the highest-ranking gang members are getting rich. It looks the same as your typical corporation with your officers raking in the bucks and your lowly grunts making a few bucks an hour.

4. Where have all the criminals gone? The authors posit that those children of the last generation most likely to commit crimes (i.e. those of teenage mothers with no education, little money, unstable living arrangements, who don't want this kid anyway) were aborted, so those most likely to be criminals were not born, hence a reduction in crime. It's a provacative theory to be sure, but it seems at least partially plausible (which makes you wonder what will happen in a country like Guatemala where all abortion...including to save the mother's life has been outlawed).

5. What makes a perfect parent? The authors say it is who you are not what you do. On some levels this makes me feel better. For example, if Chuckles eats the french fry, he is not doomed to a life of making the fries, but at the same time, it makes you feel a little helpless since most of what you do really doesn't matter. Some of the things most strongly correlated with higher test scores later on are:
Having highly educated parents (a checkmark for Chuckles)
Having high socioeconomic status (check)
Being born to a mother who was at least thirty (nope, but one of the strong things about this was being settled and wanting the baby, so maybe half a checkmark there)
Being of appropriate birth weight (not low birthweight/premature) (Check at 8 lbs 3 oz)
Having parents who speak English at home (check)
Not being adopted (apparently, the effects of the biological mother are strong and in broad terms a woman who is unable to care for a baby often has fewer resources for prenatal care, etc...certainly not always true but over large numbers of women and babies, being adopted has been shown to correlate negatively with test scores later...good news is adopted children catch up by the time they leave college) (check to Chuckles)
Having parents involved in the PTA (this is TBA)
Having many books in the home (ohhh, yes, Clifford, I am looking right at your Pumpkin Patch Puppy) (check)
So, Chuckles is probably in pretty good standing without me even lifting a finger. That's good. But, what about my breastfeeding and reading Goodnight Moon and keeping him away from TV (all of which were found to have no correlation to 4th grade test scores)?

6. Perfect Parenting, Part II; or: Would a Roshanda by any other name smell as sweet?
This chapter was about socioeconomic status, race, and education levels of the parents and what they name their kids. It was telling. They looked at birth certificate data from California and compared names. So here are some examples. "Whitest" means it was a name picked by many white people and virtually no black people and so on...
"Whitest" girl names: Molly, Claire, Emily, Madeline, Emma, Abigail, Jenna, Heather, Carly
"Blackest" girl names: Imani, Ebony, Shanice, Aaliyah, Nia, Precious, Jada, Tierra, Jazmine, Raven
"Whitest" Boy names: Jake, Cody, Luke, Jack, Scott, Logan, Cole, Garrett, Dylan, Hunter
"Blackest" Boy names: DeShawn, DeAndre, Marquis, Darnell, Terrell, Trevon, Dominique

Common Names for Poor White People: Ashley, Brittany, Amber, Megan, Taylor, Sarah, Emily, Heather, Elizabeth, Hannah
Common Names for Rich White People: Katherine, Madison, Lauren

I found this fascinating. We all agonize a little over what to name our child and apparently, we go in trends. The names that are popular among the rich today are the names that will be popular among the poor in 5 years or so. It all runs in cycles.
Oh, and Angel is the most common name given to a baby girl born to a mother who has not finished high school. Followed by Heaven and Misty and Destiny (and Destinee).
The 13th most common boys' name for a boy born to a mother who has not finished high school is Micheal. That's right. It's Michael, but spelled wrong. Also common to moms who have not finished high school is naming their boys nicknames like Bobby, JOey, Ricky, Steve, and Tony instead of Robert, Joseph, Richard, Steven, and Anothony.

I don't think the name you give your child reflects his or her ultimate destiny (or destinee as they say now), but it is indicative of who you are, and as the last chapter shows, who you are (not what you do) helps shape your child's future. Fascinating, really. Useful, not so much.

So, the book...very easy to read, fascniating, not for the faint of heart though. The ideas are provacative and some people will be offended, truly. So, check the book out of the library and give it a read. It was very interesting and it will make me look for the hidden motives of people and how the incentives we set up make people act in certain ways, but I'm not the easily offended type (at all), so abortion=crime prevention does not upset me. Also, the fact that my real estate agent and I are not exactly on the same team is good info to have.

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