"Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work, wheareas economics represents how it actually does work."
This quote details an important distinction that characterizes the rest of Levitt's analysis. As an economist, he studies the way the world actually functions, which includes deviations from what might be considered the moral thing to do, like cheating or abusing informational advantages. People do not always make moral decisions—whether or not they do so depends on the incentives that motivate them.
"An incentive is a bullet, a lever, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation."
Incentives, defined as things that motivate a person to take a certain action, are the building blocks of economics, and Levitt focuses on them in multiple chapters of this book. Incentives can be broken up into economic incentives, social incentives, and moral incentives, all of which, together, drive our decision-making.
“Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent–all depending on who wields it and how.”
When thinking about our day-to-day lives, it is important to remember the power of information and the advantage held by whoever has the most of it. We often think of economic transactions as consisting of physical goods, like money or items. But information plays an even more important role in determining the outcomes of our interactions, and people who hold more of it—like experts—are in a position to take advantage of people who have less.
"Or more likely, it has become so unfashionable to discriminate against certain groups that all but the most insensitive people take pains to at least appear fair-minded, at least in public. This hardly means that discrimination itself has ended—only that people are embarrassed to show it."
With this quote, Levitt posits an important truth about discrimination in modern-day United States. Why it may appear that discrimination has ended in our society and that people are tolerant and accepting, there are more subtle indications that some discriminatory preferences still exist. Levitt uses the game show "The Weakest Link" in order to show this.
"The problem with crack dealing is the same as in every other glamour profession: a lot of people are competing for a very few prizes. Earning big money in the crack gang wasn’t much more likely than the Wisconsin farm girl becoming a movie star or the high-school quarterback playing in the NFL. But criminals, like everyone else, respond to incentives. So if the prize is big enough, they will form a line down the block just hoping for a chance. On the south side of Chicago, people wanting to sell crack vastly outnumbered the available street corners."
This important quote outlines just how similar crack dealing is to many other high-stakes professions that are more mainstream, despite the fact that crack dealing is illegal. It works like a pyramid, with a few highly successful, wealthy individuals at the top, and hundreds at the bottom are motivated to stay in the company in the hopes of someday making it up the ladder to prosperity and fame.
"The Supreme Court gave voice to what the mothers in Romania and Scandinavia—and elsewhere—had long known: when a woman does not want to have a child, she usually has good reason."
This quote comes as Levitt is connecting the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 to the 1990s crime drop. He acknowledges that those unborn children of mothers who had abortions would be much more likely to grow up to be criminals had they been born, having primarily been raised in low-income, low-education households. Roe v. Wade meant that these unwanted children were not being born—thus, they could not grow up to be criminals.
"The typical parenting expert, like experts in other fields, is prone to sound exceedingly sure of himself. An expert doesn’t so much argue the various sides of an issue as plant his flag firmly on one side. That’s because an expert whose argument reeks of restraint or nuance often doesn’t get much attention. An expert must be bold if he hopes to alchemize his homespun theory into conventional wisdom. His best chance of doing so is to engage the public’s emotions, for emotion is the enemy of rational argument."
In this quote, Levitt points out the mentality that experts have if they want to become well known. The only way to gain attention is to speak to extremes, taking a solid stance on one side of another of an issue. Experts also know how to play to their audience's emotions, and many experts—particularly parenting experts—use fear to their advantage.
"Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late. Most of the things that matter were decided long ago—who you are, whom you married, what kind of life you lead."
Here, Levitt summarizes the truth about parenting that is the central focus of the book's last two chapters: it is not what parents do that affect their children's life outcomes, but rather who they are. Children born into high-income, high-education households are already primed to succeed, regardless of what choices a parent makes while raising them. Conversely, children born to families with low socioeconomic status have the odds stacked up against them from the start.
"So it isn’t famous people who drive the name game. It is the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and newer car."
This quote comes in response to the question of where the majority of parents get names for their children. Many people believed name inspiration comes from the celebrity names, but this is rarely the case. Instead, parents will look to successful people around them—friends, acquaintances, neighbors—and hope, often subconsciously, that by using these names they will prime their children for success.
"The second child, now twenty-seven 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."
This quote makes an important point—things will not always turn out the way they are predicted to, regardless of the data that might support these outcomes. Roland G. Fryer, Jr. lived a difficult childhood, and yet he managed to surmount the fate that his circumstances predicted and become successful. Ted Kaczynski, however, despite his cushy upbringing, still turned into one of the nation's most notorious criminals.
Freakonomics Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Freakonomics is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.