Over the Christmas break I read Freakonomics, a book whose authors proudly confess has no unifying theme. The book basically builds on the work of Steven D. Levitt, the self-professed rogue economist who explores the hidden side of everything.
I never realised economics could be so fun. At West Point, I was required to take Econ 101, but all I can recall is something about the supply and demand curve and that everything has an opportunity cost. I scraped by.
The guys who wrote Freakonomics, however, have made economics sexy by exploring the things us normal human beings like most – crime, corruption, and sex. By the time I finished reading the book, I felt like dropping out of my current line of work and becoming an economist.
- What do schoolteachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common?
- How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?
- Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?
- Where have all the criminals gone?
- What makes a perfect parent?
Why do drug dealers still live with their moms is my favourite chapter. I particularly like the story of Sudhir Venkatesh, who was sent into a Chicago ghetto with a clipboard and a seventy question survey with the first question being: ‘How do you feel about being black and poor?’
Venkatesh basically stumbles into the hangout of a gang that is a part of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation.
Just as things were looking their bleakest for Venkatesh, another man appeared. This was J.T., the gang’s leader. J.T. wanted to know what was going on. Then he told Venkatesh to read him the survey question. He listened but then said he couldn’t answer the question because he wasn’t black.”Well then,” Venkatesh said, “how does it feel to be African American and poor?”
“I ain’t no African American either, you idiot. I’m a nigger.” J.T. then administered a lively though not unfriendly taxonomical lesson in “nigger” versus “African American” versus “Black.” (Freakonomics, 86)
After a scary first night of practically being held hostage, the gang slowly accept Venkatesh and he embeds himself with them over several years. What is remarkable about the story is Venkatesh is able to do what no one else has done before which is get the full financial reports of a big city gang.
Read the book to find out what the data reveals.