Sunday, 21 March 2010

Scrooge vs Freak

I've recently read two popular books on economics. Maybe it's better said they were two books on popular economics. At least one had a certain whiff of this latter, but both were most definitely popular.

As far as I can tell, the first of the two, Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt, (it was actually written by a journalist
Stephen J. Dubner, but the science behind it is Levitt's only), was much, much more popular, or at least talked about. It is also see why. It mostly tackles issues that have high emotional content (abortion, parenting, drugs, and so on), and turns them on their head as the way we understand their inner workings go.

It is well written, and I have no doubt factually and scientifically correct. There's quite a few ah! moments in it. It really does seem that some important issues are usually seen from the perspective that is most likely wrong. An example: recent fall in crime in the US has more to do with less children being born in bad conditions as a direct result of abortion being legalised after Roe vs Wade.

Precious sentence does absolutely no justice to the issue, so do find a book and read for yourself. It is, all in all, a compelling and interesting reading, even if you may not necessarily like, or agree with it.

The other one Scroogenomics, by Joel Waldogel (interesting how he does not seem to "deserve" a Wikipedia page), also treats a subject that is so commonplace we all (and that means, not just the economists) think we know all there is to know about it: gift giving, and especially at that frenzied date which is Christmas (or equivalent ones for other religions, or even atheists).

This book, not unlike Freakonomics, turns a closely held belief, the one that gift giving, or at least the spending and a boost to economy it is supposed to give, increases the net value in a society. Again, I am nowhere nearly good enough to be able to convey this to you, so again, go get the book and read it (or at least borrow it from your friendly local library).

But this post is not so much about the topics covered by either of the books (i.e. it is not a real review of either one), and nor it is going to discuss whether the conclusions, or even the raw data, behind them are correct (I believe they are, both of them). What I wanted to point out about them is their relative value to the society. I want to ask two questions of the books, and see what kind of answer I get.

The first question is a fairly simple one, and both books fare quite well on the answer to it. yes, what is written in both is a good, useful, even if unnerving look at the state of our society. You may not like what you read in them, but you'll probably have to admit it is correct, and calls for some change in how we go about making the world a better place.

The second question derives directly from the first, or more accurately it concerns the answer we got. Here it is:

Having so nicely told us how the world may not be quite as it seems, and more worryingly, quite as the bunch of people we elect or employ to run it for us think, will you be so kind to at least give us a rough pointer towards how to to things differently? How to do them better, now we know where are perceptions went wrong?

Unfortunately, only one book actually gives a good, solid answer to this, and that book is Scroogenomics. Freakonomics, on the other hand throughout its pages maintains something of an approach that I keep thinking of as "entertainment", and that only because I want to refrain from using the term "sensationalist".

It is to be known that I actually agree with pretty much every bit of analysis it offers. It is also to be known that throughout it (or at least throughout the final two thirds of it) I was having to fight the feeling of being cheated. And I don't mean cheated by whoever failed to see things as they probably really are, i.e. as they are described in the book. Oh, no.

I was feeling cheated by being told all these clever analyses, and denied as much as a word about how the author thinks they could be put to use to right at least some of the wrongs he ferrets out. I really, really struggled to get to the last page, and on every single one of those pages I was denied the most important thing one expects such book to provide.

It is all well and good pointing out what doesn't work well. It is, of course, even better explaining exactly why it doesn't work well. But having so cleverly figured out these things, why not at least try and make at least a little attempt at offering an alternative?

In Freakonomics, I actually I think I know why. It is quite obvious that the book came from (or was later massaged into) a series of newspaper or magazine articles. This means it had quite a lot of exposure, and the views of the author (not authors, I don't subscribe to acknowledging ghost writers) will be seen, and commented upon by great many people. Much more, in fact, than there are readers of most book, and especially the ones on economics, popular or not. Being so exposed also means that you will be guaranteed to antagonise, anger, even enrage, quite a lot of people. What this means in the final analysis is that there may be a large backlash (the book covers topics that would anger a huge swathe of population). A large backlash will probably mean less sales, given how controversial the book is. So why do it then? Let's just poke a lot of people in the eye (there are a lot of people who actually like being poked in the eye, i.e. enraged by something), but let's stop short of antagonising them fully by telling them how they could change (the ones poked hardest tend to be the ones most in need of changing). End result? A cute little book, telling a few inconvenient truths, but stopping short of really trying to offer a way out. And that is what poked
me in the eye. But I'm in the distinct minority, so it doesn't really matter. Or does it.

Now, the other book I told you about, Scroogenomics, actually, and on pretty much every page, follows its unexpected and unpleasant analyses by at least some ideas about how the world might be different, maybe better, if we did things differently. I firmly believe that any book, any human effort, which goes to the trouble of finding out, and pointing out, how things are not as good as they may be, has to also offer an alternative, and brave both the public outrage, and the risk of getting it wrong.

It seem that the latter may also be a big part of Freakonomics not following this model. In the first part the author spend quite a lot of time chastising the criminologists and others who made wrong analyses, and offered wrong remedies for the rising, or at least high, crime rates. What's the chance the author wanted to avoid giving advice, and hence in a way making predictions, and then being found to be wrong? With analyses he was on a much firmer ground. After all, the numbers do not lie, provided you look at them with an honest eye.

So, in my imaginary battle of Scrooge vs Freak, the Scrooge wins, hands down. Not unlike in real fiction (I love that: "real fiction"). At the end of his story, the Scrooge sees the world as it really is, and changes - for the better. Freaks, on the other hand tend to stay freaks. Well, there's sometimes the possibility of corrective surgery, and I guess that may be what Freakonomics could do with.

I will freely admit I did not (yet) read Superfreakonomics. Maybe it's better. Once I read it (and I will, eventually) I will make sure I come back here and tell you what I found. I have no problem with people, Scrooges and others, getting better. It is only to be hoped for.

After all, we all know that the leopard can change its shorts...