Tuesday, June 07, 2005


I managed to polish off Freakonomics on the first leg from Dulles to Paris. Count me unimpressed. For all of the hype that this book has gotten, it’s really too simple to be all that interesting. There are some interesting stories, but by and large I guess I expected more. I’ll save you from having to read it yourself by relaying to you the highlights. I have to say that if this book is a popular rendering of Levitt’s academic work, I have a hard time figuring out why he won the Clark medal, awarded to the best economist under the age of 40. I guess it is intended for a wider audience, but I feel I could have gotten the essence of it in 20 pages.

I was heartened, however, that he confesses to knowing very little macroeconomics; macro is a very dusty tool in my set and I always feel a tad guilty calling myself an economist, especially one trained at Minnesota, but they can’t take the PhD away from me now, unless they pry it from my cold dead hands.

The coolest part of the book deals with cheating among Sumo wrestlers in Japan. There are six tournaments for Sumo wrestlers each year, and at each tournament a wrestler takes on 15 opponents. Less than 8 wins drops your ranking as a wrestler; more than 10 can improve it. Your status and income are very connected to your ranking as a Sumo wrestler. So a last bout between a seven win wrestler and an eight win wrestler pits someone with little to gain or lose against someone with much to gain. Levitt found significant evidence that there is widespread cheating – in final matches pitting a seven win wrestler versus an 8 win wrestler, the seven win wrestlers won about 80 percent of the time. In looking at matches between these same opponents in previous tournaments, in circumstances where they met early in the tournament, the seven win wrestler only won about 47 percent of the time. Finally, when you look at a subsequent match that occurs between the two, the eight win wrestler won close to 80 percent, suggesting a quid pro quo arrangement. Too bad it cannot be real like the WWF.

There is also a chapter on the naming habits of parents, and how names trickle down from the upper classes to the lower over time. The chapter also deals with the differences in naming habits between blacks and whites. Two observations that struck me as funny: Jake (not Jacob) was listed as the “whitest” boys name; I forget how whitest was defined, but I am guessing that the percentage of Jake’s who are white is higher than that for any other name. It holds true in our case – Jake is in fact white. Proof beyond appearance can be offered in his horrid jumping abilities and lack of rhythm. Which reminds of Dr. Jack, involuntary subscriber to Ideas Hatched, who used to take his med school rejection letters, doctor them up, and pin them to the door of his room. One such offering had a P.S. added to the bottom of the letter with a picture of Jack, face colored in with black pen, and the dean of admissions saying that they looked into his racial background and found that he was not, in fact, a black man. Another offering kindly thanked Jack’s father for the offer of a new gymnasium, but went onto explain that the parents of a similarly under-qualified applicant already spotted the money for the new campus gym last year.

The other funny naming issue was that both Joey and Billy ranked among the top ten names used for the sons of lower class whites. In fairness, our Joey and Billy are nicknames for Joseph and William, whereas the table clearly states that the names Joey and Billy are the proper names rather than the nicknames. That said, I really have to get that car in my driveway off of the cinder blocks.

Tomorrow – Abortion! Abortion! Abortion! Abortion! Don’t say you haven’t been warned.


Blogger Professor Vic said...

The two items from Freakonomics I found most humorous were also both in the names section. Among the names that were most likely to indicate that your parents had a low level of education was "Micheal". Yes, indeed, if your parents don't know how to spell "Michael" on your birth certificate, don't count on reading a lot of Kirkegaard at home as a kid.

The other story, which one can only hope is apocryphal, is the parent who wanted to name their child "Shuh-teed" but unfortunately spelled it "Shi-thead."

While playing foosball, I have often called Hatch "Shuh-teed," but could never seem to get the pronunciation quite right.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

That reminds me of the classic from the Jerk, when Steve Martin is saying he should call his new found dog "hero", and someone suggests "shithead," which he enthusiastically adopts.

The other interesting name anecdote was the guy who named one son "Winner" and another "Loser"; if I recall, Loser went onto be successful, and Winner spent some time behind bars.

8:58 AM  
Blogger pbryon said...

I polished it off a few weeks back, and I was unimpressed too. I found it too simple--almost posited that his theories were the only right ones. He also didn't seem to back up a lot of his other assessments.

I wonder how much of the book is Levitt, and how much of it is his NYT collaborator.

Whenever I saw UMiami and NYGiant Micheal Barrow, I always wondered if they were misspelling it. Maybe not.

The "Winner" and "Loser" anecdotes were interesting--but just that, interesting. They don't prove anything. Same way he told the little story that ended with the Ted Kaczynski reveal.

If you're interested in these types of books, check out the "Damned Lies and Statistics" series by Joel Best. Just as entertaining, and I think a bit more rigorous.

Funny, my realtor never wore a white hood!

9:39 AM  

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