Keeping one eye on the kids at the other end of the living room to check that fighting wasn’t about to break out again, I used the other to read a couple of chapters of by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics, picked up in a charity shop for 50p ages ago and fortuitously knocked off the bookshelf by my two year old in an earlier boisterous tussle over a teddy bear. It’s written in an anodyne US news magazine style but the main originator of the book (Levitt) is a serious academic economist, who tries – no doubt deliberately courting controversy as well as indulging an offbeat intellectual curiosity – to apply economics based logics (of incentives) to everyday aspects microeconomic aspects of every day life and crime and criminality. So we get the not very enormous revelation that estate agents incentives are not perfectly aligned with those sellers (they seek achieve rapid series of sub-optimal sales not absolute price maximization in each individual sale) – something I along with several million other people had worked out already – but there are more interesting things. The organization and economics of illegal drugs gangs echoes those of conventional corporations with ‘senior management’ creaming off the big bucks associated with the bling-bling image of crack dealers, while ordinary foot soldiers earn a dangerous minimum wage and so have to live with their mothers. Spiralling US crime was cut off in 1990s not by zero tolerance policing or economic growth but (says Levitt) the delayed feed through of the legalization of abortion across the US after Wade vs. Roe case: low income, deprived single mothers tended to have more terminations than other groups thus preventing the birth of children statistically more likely to become the criminal superpredators of the future.
Despite my scepticism (or was that jealousy?) of Levitt an over hyped bestselling pop-academic, I could help admiring some of the undoubted freewheeling iconoclasm. Was there I wondered some way of doing for political science what he had done for economics? At first sight, perhaps not. Economics as a discipline has more unified assumptions about rationality and incentives that political science/studies which embraces sub-disciplines as diverse as game theory and discourse analysis. On the other hand, part of the Levitt method is just to ask odd and iconoclastic questions based on quirks of daily life and some of approach (as far as I could work out from the superficial slickness of the Newsweek style prose) – such as the elimination of conventional explanations regarding the 1990s fall in crime – uses a straight comparative method based on the experience of different US cities.
As various Amazon reviewers point out it’s not really economics, or at best ‘tabloid economics’. But could there, should there be a tabloid political science. Freak-o-politics anyone?