I haven’t read Freakonomics, but I understand that the basic point is that economic thinking will lead to new ways of viewing existing data. Seems harmless enough, but recently the authors seem to be moving into new and controversial areas. I have to wonder if they’re planning a book on applying economic thinking to sociopolitical trends: if so, I would like to encourage them now to reconsider before they get into deeper and more dangerous waters.
Here are two examples of why they should be careful, both from the blog they do on the New York Times site:
This one made badgerbag nearly apoplectic with fury … and I can see why:
There are some bad adolescent behaviors that whites do more than blacks (like drinking and smoking), and there are other bad adolescent behaviors that blacks do more than whites (watching TV, fighting, getting sexually transmitted diseases). Mixed-race kids manage to be as bad as whites on the white behaviors and as bad as blacks on the black behaviors. Mixed-race kids act out in almost every way measured in the data set.
Don’t you just love that broad assumption about “bad behaviors” (like watching TV, such a bad behavior that I’m sure the Freakonomics gentlemen never do it themselves)? Click through from the blog to the paper, and you’ll find that they’re using a 1920s (!) sociological hypothesis known as “the marginal man.” They say that it has been challenged; a quick Google search seems to indicate that it hasn’t just been challenged, it’s been systematically debunked for more than 75 years.
In keeping with the “freakonomics” theory, they then use a data set of 90,000 students in grades 7-12. They make serious efforts to identify the mixed-race children, admitting freely that this is a difficult task. They conclude that 0.3% of the people studied were mixed race, which would be 270. At this point, I start disliking their sample as well as their 90-year-old hypothesis. Also, the blog only talks about “black/white” mixed-race kids, which leaves out any Asians, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, etc., probably making the number even smaller.
Then, as you saw above, they define “bad behaviors,” run some impressive looking mathematics, and come out with Words of Warning.
I say, don’t believe a word of it. Just to confirm my sense that this is junk, the first paper I found on the topic is a 2003 paper which concludes that mixed-race children are not more depressed than single-race children. The Freakonomics paper cites this researcher (David Harris), but not this paper, and leads us to believe that he is in their camp regarding the sad plight of mixed-race kids, which is not true.
I wouldn’t have blogged it, however, if they hadn’t followed up this week with this:
The mayor of Mount Isa — an isolated town in Queensland, Australia — was vilified for making the following statement:
“May I suggest that if there are five blokes to every girl, we should find out where there are beauty-disadvantaged women and ask them to proceed to Mount Isa.”
He is simply recognizing that in the dating/marriage markets, looks are one of the commodities traded; there is substantial evidence suggesting that uglier women marry men with less human capital — men who earn less.
Asking ugly women to come to Mount Isa is just the mayor’s attempt to get them to where their scarcity might allow them to mitigate their “disadvantage” and benefit from the surplus of single men. Gains from trade make sense to this economist, although the mayor’s statement is somewhat crude.
Just for grins, let’s take this one apart. You have to start by believing the evolutionary psychology theory that women marry for economic gain and men marry for ability to bear children. We’ve written about that before. The freakonomics guys, however, don’t seem to have the slightest interest in questioning it. Again, not surprising: many western white men don’t seem to question theories that leave them at the top of the heap.
Even if we let them off the hook for swallowing evolutionary psychology whole, it’s a bit hard to defend either the mayor or his defenders. If a lack of women is a problem in Mount Isa, and if the men who live there want to solve it (and if they’re right that they can convince “unattractive” women to marry them), why don’t the men go on women-foraging expeditions and see what they can bring home? Why ask women to come somewhere on speculation, when you can send your trade goods out into the world and see what they bring? You don’t see economists saying, “Oh, your town is poor in coal? Why don’t you ask coal-mine owners to send you some of their less high-grade coal to see if you want to buy it?”
If, as I profoundly do not believe, marriage is about trade goods, then at least let’s operate from the assumption that each person in a marriage is an equally tradable object. Give me one good reason why any woman, regardless what she thinks of her own attractiveness, should go check out a town full of men their own mayor clearly doesn’t think very highly of. She might as well stay at home, check out financially unattractive men in her own neighborhood (I bet there are some), and spare herself the travel. I didn’t notice the mayor offering to pay anyone’s expenses.
So, Freakonomics bloggers, stick to the Olympics, the price of pizza, and the nature of economic debates. We’ll all be happier.