Freakonomics: Three Years Late
I just finished Freakonomics. Yes, I know I’m late. That’s okay. It actually had some interesting things to say about education and race and economics that will color my thinking about the other reading I’ve been doing.
The most important thing I realized while reading is that you have to be careful what you do with hard data, and beware the conclusions you accept from others. It’s far too easy for foolish logic to become mainstream on important issues. But there were some other themes that show a lot of promise in explaining things like voluntary segregation, education gaps and income disparity.
Fear is often the most powerful motivator. So powerful is the threat of violence or sever consequence, that they need not even happen in most cases. Fear allowed the KKK to expand almost unhindered in the first half of the 20th century. Fear causes parents to do all sorts of irrational things. And fear is what allows politicians use to convince you that you should vote for them, and allow them to run amok at the Capitol.
Fear of inequality and unfairness, despite the obvious presence of both, is what keeps legitimate reform out of the education system. The good news, as presented by the authors, that the desire for a better education is enough for any student to achieve (based on the Chicago Public Schools choice lottery). And the truly capable can overcome the adversity. It’s not great news, but it should be a sliver of hope when we look at students without any in crumbling schools in neglected neighborhoods.
Recall for a moment the two boys, one white and one black, who were described in chapter 5. The white boy who grew up outside Chicago had smart, solid, encouraging, loving parents who stressed education and family. The black boy from Daytona Beach was abandoned by his mother, was beaten by his father, and had become a full-fledged gangster by his teens. So what became of the two boys?
The second child, now twenty-eight years old, is Roland G. Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist studying black underachievement.
The white child also made it to Harvard. But soon after, things went badly for him. His name is Ted Kaczynski.
The care we have to take with the data is that some things can’t be measured on a large scale. According to these statistics, parenting decisions (made after the birth) have little, if anything, to do with student achievement. But what about the effect on mental health, self-image, socialization, and emotional stability? Applied Microeconomics can explain somethings frighteningly well (like how Roe v. Wade may have cut crime rates drastically in the 90’s), but it has no hope of explaining others.