Weakonomics

In this the Freakonomist is only a symptom of a pervasive metaphorical creep that has been underway for some time now. The trend toward understanding human beings as maximizers of gain and avoiders of loss has a longer history than Freakonomics' eight-week residency on the bestseller list. Indeed, it is difficult to think otherwise of ourselves these days.

Levitt Slinging Soft Old U-Chicago Stuff

It is predictable enough that any popular social science book will inspire antipathy among academic social scientists. For being too simple, too fun, too easily understood—after all, what do university intellectuals offer the general public if not sweaty handfuls of painstakingly gathered arcana? And here is the successful crossover author just giving it away between four-color covers!

So it is with some wistful jealousy that the towerbound academic, staring down another ‘revise and resubmit’ notice from a peer-reviewed journal, contemplates the immense popularity of a book like Freakonomics. Well, she thinks, how do the authors roost on the bestseller list in a season of beach reads? How did they get the subtitular “hidden side of everything” to thrill like a novel by Tom Clancy, or Jonathan Safran Foer? Get over the title and open the thing, elitist! Your summer session students are already slack-jawed over their suspiciously crisp copies of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic; maybe this is something they could get excited about.


The coauthors begin by shuffling their feet in self-deprecation. Steven Levitt, despite being a University of Chicago economist, claims near-total ignorance of his subject. “I just don’t know very much about the field of economics,” he tells journalist Stephen Dubner at their first meeting, while “swiping the hair from his eyes.” “I’m not good at math . . . if you ask me about taxes—I mean, it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything about any of those things.” Economics needn’t be dismal, Levitt seems to be saying, or a science. As it turns out, this is more than a populist pretense at anti-elitism, although that aw-shucks mistrust of obscurantist expertise has no doubt fueled the book’s sales and its expansion into a New York Times Magazine column.

It’s true that the book does not depend on the model building and analyses of structural features that usually make up economic research. Instead, Levitt’s method is to deploy a behavioral model that focuses on individual decision-making. The strategy, repeated in each chapter, is to find a situation with colorful particulars (sumo wrestling! crack dealing in the projects!) and then to shake these off to reveal the core rationality that alone animates all players. Surface eclecticism belies an elemental monomania. Levitt’s predictive arguments are all based on the idea that human action is oriented, rationally, toward achieving positive incentives and avoiding negative sanctions. Fellow Chicago economist Gary Becker bequeathed this meager conceptualization of human nature to economics in the 1970s.


Levitt, far from being a maverick, is really Becker’s great heir. Freakonomics is so reliant on the doctrine of incentives that the authors describe it as their unifying theme: a self-your self, my self, anyone’s—is driven by a calculative rationality, bent on achieving an imputed version of the good life. Levitt and Dubner have a typology of incentives: economic, social (trying to publicly stay on the right side of social norms), and moral (trying to privately stay on the right side of your conscience). They focus largely on the economic, at the expense of the others. But the more important problem with their analytic premise lies in the assumptions it makes. Their introduction announces their intention to continue Adam Smith’s project from his Theory of Moral Sentiments—to understand how the individual’s self-interest might be reconciled with “the greater moral plane.” They shelve this ambition straightaway, but their invocation of Smith’s Moral Sentiments hints at the flaw in their blithe assumptions about the rationality of everyone at all times.

Smith argued that the best hope for restraining human selfishness lay in our essential sociability. He hoped that sympathy—the ability to extend one’s self to inhabit another’s predicament—would give pause to rapacious profit-seekers. Levitt and Dubner aren’t so interested in restraint of the rapacious, but they do rely on Smith as they make free with imputations of maximized utility. They assume that they can pretty well guess the optimal outcome to any situation for any social actor, from a 1940s Klansman to a teenage resident of Chicago public housing during the “crack epidemic” of the early ’90s, to a primary-school teacher who inflates her students’ scores on standardized tests. No matter who is doing what whenever in world history, they are still doing what any rational human being must—and exactly what Levitt and Dubner would do in the same situation.

Smith hints at the limits of this approach. He feared that one’s own self could never be sufficiently shed to allow for a true appreciation of another’s condition: “Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own person and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case.”

Levitt’s analytic process is the same, but without Smith’s misgivings: “Whenever I try to answer a question, I put myself in the shoes of the actors and I ask myself ‘What would I do if I were in that situation?’” So sympathy always relies on the assumption that the other is more or less like oneself. Levitt, responding to critiques of the book on the Crooked Timber website, gives an example that may clarify the limits of his sympathy: “. . . So when I think about legalized abortion, I think it sounds like a really sick form of insurance policy.” He mistakes narcissism for identification.

Take the book’s case study of cheating on high-stakes standardized tests in Chicago elementary schools. In this case, teachers actually cheated on behalf of their students to inflate their scores. Levitt and Dubner argue that “cheating is a primordial economic act,” that results from a specific arrangement of incentives. For the teachers, there were strong incentives to have their students pass, including the threat of job loss or the promise of a pay raise. Incentives against cheating—especially the perceived risk of being caught—were low. In this situation, they suggest, the teacher will weigh her possible gains against her possible losses in deciding whether or not to cheat. This computation of individual risk and gain is the entirety of the story they can tell about how such a decision might be made. Their teacher doesn’t concern herself with testing’s impact on her school, her students, federal funding patterns, or the politics of No Child Left Behind. She is just trying to avoid being left behind herself, while getting ahead by whatever means she can.


Levitt has also adopted Becker’s fondness for metaphors; the latter’s most famous being perhaps that children are “durable goods,” like any appliance guaranteed for eighteen years. But of course economics, like any rhetorical project, is saturated in metaphor: the invisible hand, the rising tide, the market. The Freakonomist may not know numbers, but he’s highly skilled at using economic metaphors to describe what we used to be content to think of as “social” life. Or, rather, he continually extends the bounds of a single metaphor, in a kind of dogged rhetorical colonization of the idea of the self.

In this the Freakonomist is only a symptom of a pervasive metaphorical creep that has been underway for some time now. The trend toward understanding human beings as maximizers of gain and avoiders of loss has a longer history than Freakonomics’ eight-week residency on the Times’ bestseller list. Indeed, it is difficult to think otherwise of ourselves these days. How naturally we grasp ourselves as rational navigators of various markets: markets for friends and lovers, for career advancement, for our weekend leisure time, our political commitments. We budget and invest our time, our effort, our sympathies and pleasures. It’s true that this perspective is substantially inflected with that other popular theory of self, Freudianism. But since the explosion of market exchange, seeing ourselves and others as market players has become irresistibly, sensibly alluring.


Why does this matter? Metaphors abound. But this metaphor matters because it underpins political transformations—making them seem either more palatable; or, when it runs unopposed, natural and inevitable. Our description of the rational self supports the real-world conditions under which some futures seem more attainable than others. It coaxes us into wholehearted, personally felt participation with capitalist regulation.

Levitt’s calculating individual is the ideal subject of contemporary neoliberal economic reform, in particular the expansion of the market into all possible areas of life. Blair’s “stakeholder society” and Bush’s “ownership society” are based in just such a fictitious understanding of the individual as Levitt offers. Bush and Blair naturally take their slogans from shareholder prospectuses. Their programs involve predictable amendments to federal pension plans and tax codes. And both initiatives hail an entrepreneurial subject who is willing to negotiate various markets in the course of providing for their needs and wants. If Bush promises to make it easier for you to own a home, then what does it matter if you or anyone else has a right to shelter?

These policies, of course, cut the tottering legs out from under what remains of the welfare state. This once-vast edifice is based on a very different grasp of human motivation. Levitt can’t tell us anything about it. Gifts to strangers in social life are beyond his rational actor’s paltry reach. Forms of exchange that involve imagining oneself as a member of a group that shares a common destiny fall outside even his passing reference to “moral” incentives.

But there are some goods that have no exchange value—they are so valuable they cannot be priced. Once citizens of wealthy nations managed to conceive of ourselves in a way that supported the provision of these vitally mundane goods—the right to healthcare, the availability of affordable housing, the guarantee to protect children from destitution. Political rhetoric and social policy invoked us as bearers of a solidaristic self-concept. (Within limits, of course. Race and gender are two points of difference on which the communal ideal foundered badly.) The solidaristic self is based, perhaps, more on an ideal of empathy than one of sympathy. But empathy and solidarity are not on Levitt’s map. Solidarity would require formulating some idea, however unspecific, of a shared human condition. It doesn’t entail mystical notions of universality; nor does it invite us to project our notions of best utility onto strangers. Western welfare states were designed to ameliorate the harshness of capitalist accumulation processes. The quality of solidarity merely asks us to recognize that everyone is subject to the grim downsides of markets, whether our retirement savings disappeared with the dot-com bubble, or the local labor market has no call for our skills.


Levitt and Dubner reveal an implicit vision of a social contract when they suggest that it is possible to manage incentives properly so that they “would seem to be nicely aligned” between all parties to a contract (emphasis mine). The simultaneous (but not mutual) pursuit of solitary self-interest will suffice as a contemporary version of Smith’s “greater moral plane.” The relation of market exchange is probably all Freakonomic Man can manage.

So say these experts. But they also remind us not to trust experts, who they warn will bank on our being “…so befuddled by the complexity of their operation that you wouldn’t know what to do with the information if you had it.” In this let us heed them. Without needing to follow Levitt and Dubner on their fieldtrips (where they invariably find confirmation of the assumptions they have brought with them), we can recognize in ourselves that we both already are and can be other kinds of people than the rational maximizers described by Levitt and Dubner and solicited by Bush and Blair. And let’s make better popular expertise! The well-being of nations is now measured in economic terms, and other social scientists run behind, furiously adding up the social costs. Durkheim had to argue that there was a terrain of the social, distinct from individuals, and now we have to do it all over again.


The clock hands have pressed forward while you blustered on about the real hidden side of everything. The students have fled the basement classroom for the sunlight of the park. And someone left behind a tight copy of The Protestant Ethic, no dog-eared pages. Those Protestants, with their delayed gratification and reinvestment strategies, were certainly calculative. Their aspiration, though, was so quixotic as to defy belief: to assuage their terror about which eternal fate their god had chosen for them at birth. Was it heaven or the fiery pit? Weber, sufferer of a six-year bout of depression and contractor of at least one duel, never did anyone the injury of assuming them merely rational.

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