The authors begin by telling us right off the bat that, in their eyes, economics is an entirely material science postulating only material motivations for human behavior.
If morality represents how people would like the world to work, then economics shows how it actually does work.
Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. And understanding them — or, often, ferreting them out — is the key to solving just about any riddle from violent crime to sports cheating to on-line dating.
Levitt is the economist here (Dubner just the journalist who helped him write the book) and he is a tenured professor at the University of Chicago. His basic method is to look for an apparent contradiction in data and then seek other correlations that would seem to “explain” these data. Unfortunately, human behavior is not something that lends itself to repeatable experiment, people often lie about their motivations, and Levitt himself is colored with a secular bourgeois bias, so many of his “startling conclusions” are not merely counter-intuitive, but demonstrably false.
Let’s start with Chapter Five, “What Makes a Good Parent.” Levitt asserts that it is what the parents are, not what they do, that makes a difference in children's lives. He gives paired examples of things that do and do not make a statistical difference in the success of children at school. Let’s look at a few examples:
Matters: The Child has highly educated parents.
Doesn’t: The child’s family is intact.
An intact family doesn’t matter? Where on earth did he get these figures? My experience is entirely contrary to that! For instance, my daughter Pumpkin attended the most highly selective high school in Chicago (the International Baccalaureate Program at Lincoln Park High) and over the years I met at least thirty or forty of her friends in this program. Most of them, probably nine out of ten, came from intact families and all of them regularly saw both of their parents. I don't need to tell you that this is well above the average.
Ah, that’s anecdotal you say. Well, how about some statistics? How about the fact that a boy who grows up in a home without a father is five times more likely to become a juvenile offender. Or the fact that a child is twenty times more likely to be sexually abused by a step-father than by their natural father. I haven’t got figures on the educational performance of children from broken homes, but every statistic that I have seen shows a demonstrable adverse effect.
Matters: The child’s mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth.
Doesn’t: The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.
This is the old “day-care is just as good” myth and we can demolish it statistically by a simple reflection that “child’s mother didn’t work” includes both mothers who stayed at home because they wanted to and ghetto mothers who were unemployable. Remember, this represents an average and for every college educated mother who neglected a profitable career to nurture her child, there was probably a teen-age drop-out mom who raised her kid on welfare and television. It is also a statistical fact that college and graduate educated women have the smallest number of kids and are the least likely to “interrupt their careers” to take care of their children. Unfortunately, the kids with the best chance in school (educated mother, prosperous home, family work ethic) are also the least likely to have the benefit of a full-time mom.
And remember those kids from Lincoln Park I.B.? All of them had stay-at-home moms. Not just some, not just most, everyone of them!
Matters: The child’s parents speak English in the home.
Doesn’t: The child’s parents regularly take him to museums.
Matters: The child has many books in his home.
Doesn’t: The child’s parents read to him nearly every day.
Oh? And how do they know that parents take the child to museums and read to him regularly? I’m certain this is a matter of self reporting and we all know how to answer questions like that. Why, if someone were to ask you if you washed your hands every time you went to the lavatory — well, you know the “right” answer to that, don’t you?
Back in the sixties it was found that if you asked someone if they were racially prejudiced, they would almost always answer no. But if you asked that same person if any of his neighbors were racist you were certain to be told about the fellow next door who was a bigot.
Try this experiment: go to a museum and see who's there. It is overwhelmingly white and Asian families, with well behaved children, who are cleaner, better dressed, and more articulate than the yahoos spending Sunday afternoon at amusements like Navy Pier or shopping malls. Want to double the bet? Go to a museum on Super Bowl Sunday — it’s about 80% Asian! Fact: the people you see in museums are exactly the sort of people whose children we would expect to excel in school.
Ah, but books in the home! Either they’re there or they’re not. An interviewer in the home can see instantly and it’s also not the sort of thing one thinks to lie about.
Do any of these cases seem to prove that children succeed because of who their parents are (educated, prosperous, late marrying), rather than what they do (discipline, good habits, attentive)? If we wanted to see if being a good parent counted, then why don’t we study cases of children who came from economically disadvantaged families and rose to bourgeois achievement. I’ll bet they had parents who did all of those things that Levitt says don’t matter!
Of course, Levitt’s most controversial assertion is that the otherwise inexplicable drop in crime statistics beginning around 1990 are traceable to the legalization of abortion in 1973. It is his contention that since large numbers of “unwanted children” were disposed of before they were born the numbers of potential criminals were reduced enough in the early 1990’s to affect crime rates.
I will concede that I have no idea of why crime rates fell in the 1990’s, and Levitt pretty well demolishes the conventional reasons given (innovative policing, tougher gun laws, capital punishment, etc.), but once again I think looking at other statistics will discount Levitt’s thesis.
If the effect of legal abortion were to get rid of “unwanted babies” then we should see this reflected in lower rates of bastardy and child abuse and smaller families among the impoverished.
As far as I know, none of this has happened. The principle social effects of abortion that I am aware of are a precipitate drop in fertility among educated women and the disappearance of adoptable white babies. Bastardy, one of the problems abortion was meant to solve, has, of course, gone up.
Anyway — about I year ago, I had a chance to phone in to Milt Rosenberg’s radio show and ask Dr. Levitt if the things that we would expect to follow directly from the expunging of “unwanted babies” had actually happened. Were rates of bastardy and child abuse lower? Had impoverished families refrained from having children they could not afford? He didn’t know. So I then asked if it wasn’t a stretch to attribute an indirect consequence to legal abortion without examining the direct result? He answered that his conclusions “had proven controversial.” Wow! Now there’s a non-answer for you.
Well anyway, after finishing the book I began to sniff around to see if there were any actual statistical conclusions about the abortion/crime matter, and indeed there are. Steve Sailer has found that exactly the reverse correlation exists! In his essay "The Freakonomics Fiasco in Perspective" he shows that the murder rate spiked just as the children of the high abortion rate late seventies were entering young adulthood. Furthermore, Christopher Foote, a senior economist at the Boston Fed, and Christopher Goetz, a research assistant, say the research behind Levitt's conclusion is faulty.
So how does this tie in with the struggle to live a good Catholic life?
It is yet another warning not to be taken in by secular propagandists who dress up their claims as being “scientific.” While I don’t claim to have disproved Dr. Levitt’s claims, I believe that I have shown that his underlying secular, bourgeois bias has definitely colored his conclusions to the extent that they can no longer be called “scientific.” Saint Augstine insists, in De Genesi ad litteram, that science and faith must be reconciled and so it is our task, not to disprove science, but to remove the secular bias from truly objective inquiry.