When Keyboards Attack!
Bruce Sacerdote on Nature and Nurture


So a copy of the galleys to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2005), Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York: William Morrow: 006073132X), arrived today. I open it at random and find:

[A] crack gang works pretty much like the standard capitalist enterprise: you have to be near the top of the pyramid to make a big wage.... [M]ost of J.T.'s foot soldiers also held minimum-wage jobs in the legitimate sector to supplement their skimpy illicit earnings. The leader of another crack gang once told Venkatesh that he could easily afford to pay his foot soldiers more, but that it wouldn't be prudent. "You got all these n** below you who want your job, you dig?" he said "So... you try to take care of them, but.. you also have to show them you['re] the boss.... If you start taking losses, they see you as weak." Along with the bad pay, the foot soldiers faced terrible job conditions. For starters, they had to stand on a street corner all day and do business with crackheads.... Foot soldiers... risked arrest and... violence... The results are astonishingly bleak. If you were a member of J.T.'s gang for all four years, here is the typical fate.... arrested 5.9 [times].... Number of nonfatal wounds or injuries (not including injuries meted out by the gang itself for rules violations)... 2.4.... Chance of being killed... 1 in 4.

A 1-in-4 chance of being killed. Compare those odds to being a timber cutter.... Over four years' time, a timber cutter would stand only a 1-in-200 chance of being killed.... So if crack dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary is only $3.30 an hour, why an earth would anyone do such a job? Well... they all want to succeed in an extremely competitive field in which, if you reach the top, you are paid a fortune.... To kids growing up in a housing project on Chicago's south side, crack dealing was a glamor profession.... [T]he job of gang boss--highly visible and highly lucrative--was easily the best job they thought they had access to. Had they grown up under different circumstances, they might have thought about becoming economists.... But in the neighborhood where J.T.'s gang operated, the path to a decent legitimate job was practically invisible.... [B]arely one in three adult men worked at all.... [F]oot soldiers often asked... help in landing what they called "a good job": working as a janitor at the university of Chicago....

I have a feeling that I am going to recommend this very highly indeed when I have finished it...

Indeed, highly, highly recommended. Dubner and Levitt take the reader on an extravagant romp through a remarkably large range of Levitt's work. Mind you, I'm not sure that the fall in America's violent crime rate in the 1990s is--as Donohue and Levitt believe--fallout from Roe vs. Wade (I give them a 70% chance of being right). And I'm not at all sure that the important parts of parenting are, as they put it, not what parents do but who parents are: the self-reported information about what parents do is, I guess, much less reliable--so it's no surprise that children whose parents say they read to them everyday but don't have many books in the house don't have superior reading skills. For at some level, the doing/being distinction is unsustainable: what are we but what we do? It's noisy versus more accurate signals.