Freedomnomics: A rebuttal to Freakonomics

I read Freakonomics when it was first published. I thought it was generally interesting. But I was recently surprised to see another economist, John Lott, felt the need to write a book, Freedomnomics, to rebut Levitt’s work. Mainly because I didn’t recall any political agenda to Levitt’s book. Okay, he did say that legalized abortion may have caused a reduction in the crime rate (this was one of his positions that got a lot of attention when the book was published) but he also wrote that owning a gun is statistically much safer then owning a swimming pool and that selling drugs earns less than minimum wage for most dealers - so he’s not pushing some liberal agenda. And I don’t recall anything he wrote that argued against the free market.

I haven’t read Lott’s book. If anyone has can they outline what his positions are that he feels rebut Levitt’s? According to the book jacket, Lott’s positions include:

*How the free market creates incentives for people to behave honestly
*How political campaign restrictions keep incumbents in power
*Why legalized abortion leads to family breakdown, which creates more crime
*Why affirmative action in police departments leads to higher crime rates
*How women’s suffrage led to a massive increase in the size of government
*Why women become more conservative when they get married and more liberal when they get divorced
*How secret ballots reduce voter participation
*Why state-owned companies and government agencies are much more likely to engage in unfair predation than are private firms
*Why the controversial assertions made in the trendy book Freakonomics are almost entirely wrong

Some of these seem more like political positions rather than economic ones. But Levitt showed how economic factors could affect things that were not usually considered as economic issues, so I have no problem with Lott doing the same.

Haven’t read Lott’s new book, but I have to agree that Freakonomics did not have an obvious agenda. I kept looking for one, but in the end I had to conclude that Levitt simply went where the numbers took him Sometimes a conclusion favored a traditional conservative political philosophy, and sometimes a liberal one, and sometimes really had nothing to do with ideology at all.

So I’m not sure why it needs a conservative ‘rebuttal’. My guess is that Lott just thinks that hanging his hook on that book will get him more sales since it was so popular.

This is the first I’ve heard of Freedomnomics, so I can’t comment on it other than saying it’s a selection of the Conservative Book Club and that the reviews on Amazon do call it explicitly a conservative rebuttal of Freakonomics.

I did read Freakonomics, though. And I’ve read a good number of other recent similar books *by * economists who try to explain social and political behaviors via economic theory.

Most of them are terrible. They’re terrible in many ways. Freakonomics, for example, was particularly badly written. Not necessarily in the sentence sense, but in the basic way the economic lessons were translated by the co-author for the public. One of the worst examples was the swimming pool analogy, in fact. When I read it I practically threw the book across the room because for the comparison to make sense it had to be be done with per capita statistics rather than by raw numbers. They knew this to be true because they did it that way on the very next page for a different example.

Most of their examples reeked of oversimplification. You cannot do one study on a complex issue and then state that the issue has been explained. They do the equivalent on almost every page.

And I’ll bet large amounts of money that Lott does pretty much the same thing. I’ve seen the argument that the secret ballot reduced participation before. It boils down to the theory that people needed to come out to vote for their side to show that they needed to demonstrate to the political machines that they were doing their part and so could partake of the spoils. With a secret ballot there was no way to check on this and so people didn’t have to show up. Simple economic changes in society have better explanatory power. It’s a “Just So” story, not a economic theory.

The only one of all the books on everyday economics I thought worked is The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor–and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! by Tim Harford. He doesn’t make sweeping claims about society. He just explains why having a Starbucks on every corner is actually a good economic model and suchlike.

It’s when the economists try to redo political science and sociology in their image that they fail miserably.

According to a review I read. there’s another recent book by economists that essentially advocates turning the government over to a panel of economists. In the entire review I never saw a mention of the old joke that if you ask 12 economists you’ll get 13 opinions.

And if you read 12 of these explain the world books by economists you’ll get 13 explanations.

I wouldn’t give you the price of a book for any of them. I’ve learned my lesson.

I’ve noticed that a certain breed of American conservative feels a need to judge *everything *by political/partisan lens. I’ve seen this in science (climate change, evolution) and in popular arts (the 40 Year-Old-Virgin is alternately a wholesome conservative work because the titular character gets married first, or a bankrupt liberal work for suggesting that a 40-Year-Old-Virgin is something odd to begin with; Transformers is a conservative work because there are sympathetic military characters). Perhaps this syndrome has spread to economic works as well.

For those of us who haven’t read the book I was curious what his reasoning behind this would be.

This is a personal thing between Lott and Levitt. In Freakinomics, Levitt attacked Lott’s research about gun ownership and crime, suggested that Lott may have made up some of his research, and said that other researchers couldn’t replicate Lott’s results. Levitt also, in a private e-mail to another economist who asked him about Lott’s work in a peer reviewed journal, said that Lott paid the publishers of the journal in exchange to not review his work, and only put in articles that supported him.

So, Lott sued Levitt for defimation, and I think it’s the animus between the two of them, rather than any liberal bias in the book, that led Lott to write his book.

Levitt’s not the only one to accuse Lott of making shit up, and that part of the defamation suit was tossed out.

Lott has still, in my opinion, failed to satisfactorily account for the survey that he claimed to have conducted for More Guns, Less Crime. there is simply no evidence that it exists.

James Lindgren, a law professor who was also heavily critical of Michael Bellesiles’ book Arming America, had this to say about Lott’s “survey”:

I’ve seen all of those points argued in columns by George Will. It kind of sounds like Lott is just cribbing and adding graphs and tables. If you’re going to read a polemic, you might as well read someone with

The thing about Harford is, he actually is a lasseiz-faire economist. He’s just not willing to torture his numbers into saying something more than they do.

I always thought hte true point of Freakonomics was not necessarily to add some color through an economics lens to a particular issue. It always seemed to me that it was attmept to get people to think about issues in general in a, possibly, less intuitive way, that maybe economists do. I went to grad school in economics and know for a fact (like Steve Landsburg, who I have had many conversations with) is that there is a breed of economists who revel in thinking about issues from skewed angles, not necessarily for political reasons, or even necessarily because they are right, but simply to try and force an economists perspecitve onto things.

I wasn’t aware of any past history between Levitt and Lott.


I put this in the same catagory as Conservapedia and that awfully entertaining ( and I do mean awfully) Fox attempt at doing the Daily show for conservatives.

It seems to be all the rage now to rebut the percieved “liberal bias” that permeates the country. It’s all part and parcel of the “culture of victimhood” that the GOP throws around. It will sell a few copies to party loyalists, and that will be the end of it. Dubious research be damned, the far right just want to hear what makes them happy.

I’m with Exapno on pretty much everything he said about Leavitt and Harford.
Interestingly, there was just a discussion of ‘pools vs. guns dangerousness’ comparison, and what kinds of data would actually be useful, over at Bruce Schneier’s security blog

The problem I’ve found with economists is that they work with models. And models are simplified from reality with extraneous details eliminated. Which isn’t a problem unless the eliminated details were more important than the factors that were left in.

For example, an economist studied the issue of baseball fans in NYC might decide to model it like this: “Assume both baseball teams are equally popular. Yankee Stadium is in the Bronx and Shea Stadium is in Queens therefore transportation time to Yankee Stadium is less than that to Shea Stadium for the majority of NYC’s population. Therefore most baseball fans in NYC will make the rational choice and be Yankees fans.” The problem is that by focusing on the minor issue of distance to the stadium, the economist has ignored factors like team image, family preferences, player popularity, and success records - all of which far outweigh the one factor he considered. So even if his conclusion is correct and there are more Yankees fans than Mets fans, the same model might fail in Chicago.