July 6, 2006

David Bernstein vs. Freakonomics

I thought David Bernstein had an extremely lame post over at Volokh Conspiracy on Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics. His basic criticism is not of the book (which I have not read), but rather the research it showcases (much of which I have read). Bernstein essentially just says that he had already heard anecdotes or news stories that would have led him to find the same conclusions as Levitt:

Sure, Leavitt deserves a lot of credit for using the tools of economics and statistics to get hard(er) data on these matters, and for trying to answer interesting real-world questions instead of retreating into the typical academic economist's world of math. But the plaudits he's received for having such an incredibly original and creative mind strike me as excessive, as very little in the book seemed especially new or original.
Uhhh...So lets review a couple of the things Levitt finds: legalization of abortion has been the most powerful variable responsible for the huge drops in crime, the vast majority of drug dealers make very little money--less than minimum wage, Sumo wrestling is corrupt, teachers cheat on testing (the one topic Bernstein was impressed about, I guess he never thought teachers would respond to incentives), swimming pools are more dangerous than guns, etc. Now a couple of those strike me as admittedly run of the mill (if your run of the mill is defined by papers in top economics journals), but the rest are huge, the first two especially. Bernstein claims that he knew that abortion affected crime because a conservative friend once told him so. Hmm...that is very rigorous isn't it. Friends tell me lots of things, but modern microeconomics has a hell of a lot more tools to tell me whether those things hold any weight. Not only has Levitt used those tools to look at things others haven't thought of (unless you are David Bernstein who figured it all out years ago and just choose not to write anything about it), but in doing so has found that the things your friends often tell you are just plain wrong. Now maybe Bernstein has friends that are a lot smarter than mine, or maybe Bernstein is just jealous that there is a discipline out there that has more to rely on then the collection of many anecdotes.