is a breezy pop economics book that has become something of a phenomenon at the moment, landing
on bestseller lists, getting extensively excerpted in publications like Slate and even
spawning an ongoing feature in the New York Times Magazine. That magazine gave rise to
the book in the first place by assigning author Stephen Dubner to interview eventual co-author
Steven Levitt, an economist who takes interesting questions and uses the tools of economics to try
to answer them. The book is a grab-bag of these questions and their proposed answers, with chapters
asking why the crime rate in the US suddenly fell in the mid-1990s, where popular baby names come
from, why crack dealers live with their mothers if they're making so much money that they're
willing to risk their lives for it, and many others.
The opening of the book cautions that there will be no overarching theme, but there sort of
is, and it is: if you have a question like the above, the way to get the answer, the real
answer, is to examine the data. Just sitting in your armchair and thinking about what it
feels like the answer must be is no way to proceed. I agree. I cannot count the number
of times I've happened upon an online argument about taxes or crime or demographics or something
only to find that the discussion's been going on for an hour without anyone hopping over to Google
to get some actual statistics to back up his claims. On the comics newsgroup I read there was
recently a thread in which someone declared that if only Marvel Comics would lower its prices to,
say, $2/issue, it would surely see its sales skyrocket because $2 is an impulse buy but $3 isn't
and so therefore people would end up buying more comics at the lower price point. Others jumped
in to say that this wasn't the case — that Marvel had actually tried lowering prices several
times, and not only did sales not go up, they went down. They produced sales figures from various
times in the '90s and '00s that the experiment had been tried. One could argue about the reason
the numbers were what they were, though it seemed to be a combination of, on the one hand, retailers'
reluctance to carry less profitable items that take up the same amount of shelf space as more
profitable ones, and on the other, a feeling among customers that, regardless of reviews, cheaper
comics must be of lower quality than more expensive ones. But whatever the reason, the data were
clear: not only is demand for comics fairly inelastic, but once a price point is established
as a new standard, backing down from that price point is counterproductive. Nevertheless, the
guy wouldn't relent. He Just Knew how people behaved and was sure his suggestion would pay off
big time. The same way that Aristotle Just Knew that women have fewer teeth than men, I guess.
Some of Freakonomics deals with cases that just happen to have been tailor-made for the
economist: school districts with extensive test score records, bagel salesmen who carefully document
their revenues, that sort of thing. Other chapters tell the tales of adventurous researchers who
went out and acquired the missing information: many people were against the Ku Klux Klan, for
instance, but it wasn't until Stetson Kennedy infiltrated it that the way the KKK operated became
common knowledge. Another chapter is about a grad student who became a sort of embedded correspondent
in a Chicago crack gang, providing an inside look at how such an outfit conducts its affairs.
There is a chapter that takes parenting as a subject and separates factors that statistically do
correlate with test scores from those that don't. Again, the message seems to be: don't just sit
in a chair and imagine how a crack gang might work, or what seem like the important
factors in raising an academically successful child. Go get the data and analyze it.
The most interesting chapter to me was the final one, about names — what they say about
one's socioeconomic status, which ones become popular and why. I love names. Mainly I just find
naming trends fascinating as a cultural phenomenon, but I also tend to have several stories of
different sorts in development at any given time, and they're all full to bursting with characters,
all of whom need names. Correction: all of whom need perfect names. I don't just pick them
out of the phone book — to me a name has to reflect the basic essence of the character. I
spend more time thinking about the names than thinking about the plots. (This is the part where
you say, "Yeah, we can tell.")
Freakonomics tells some stories about parents who put little thought into their children's
names — kids named after acronyms found at the hospital, kids whose names are misspelled
versions of the half-remembered names of sitcom actresses. I've reached the age that a lot of
people I know are having kids, and I haven't been able to help but note that most of them have
been picking the trendiest of trendy names. A friend or one of Jennifer's relatives or someone
will announce the name of his or her newborn, and I'll think, "And you might as well get the
kid used to using your last initial now, because there are going to be eight other kids with the
same name in every class the kid takes from kindergarten on." Where's the creativity?, I'll
scoff to myself. How can you spend nine months or more trying to settle on a name for a child
and then pick the same one as everyone else on your block?
But then I have to remember my own story. Fifteen years ago I was picking a name for a character
and I wanted that name to connote "innocent girl with a sense of wonder who has nothing in common
with her age-mates." (This character's personality changed over the course of the writing process,
but that was the initial concept.) So I needed a name that wasn't trendy at all, preferably one
that didn't belong to anyone I'd ever met. But I also didn't want to pick something that was
actually weird, as that might suggest a hippieish or sci-fi streak I didn't want. I wanted a name
that people would recognize but which was no longer used, something without a generational identity.
(A lot of parents have the same thought, but they don't reach far enough back and end up choosing
names like "Emma" that connote "nursing home.") And finally, I needed it to be a name I absolutely
loved, one I would be happy giving to my own child — though of course the names I actually
did have in mind for my own children were off limits.
This left basically two choices. One was Abigail, which would have been perfect, except it was
just a little too close to my sister's name. So I determined that Abigail would be her middle
name. That left only one option as her first name, and I was pleased, for it was perfect. I
would name her Molly.
And so it was that I ended up picking two names, neither of which belonged to any human being
I had ever met — and which were among the most common names given to American girls in
the year I selected them. Those girls are now in high school. I seldom teach a class these
days that doesn't have a Molly or an Abby in it. (Freakonomics adds an extra observation:
Molly is #1, and Abigail #9, on the list of the twenty "whitest" girl names given in the state
of California. I fear I shall never be "down" with the "street" as the kids say.)
One last thing — Freakonomics provides a list of names sorted by the amount of
education in years attained by that child's mother. On the boys' side, the low end of the
scale is dominated by diminuitives: Ricky, Joey, Jessie, Jimmy, Billy, Bobby, Johnny, Larry...
none of them averages a mother with a high school diploma. The notes at the end of the book
provide a longer list, and combing through it, I found a freakish outlier: several points
below the second lowest on the list, a name given by mothers who, on average, didn't even
make it out of the ninth grade. That name? Jesus.
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