Roger Marolt: Roger This
August 12, 2010
All right, who wouldn’t love a book that uses statistical analysis to confirm that real estate brokers don’t have their clients’ best interests in mind? It is the same book that dispels the notion that drug dealing is a lucrative profession, shows that the outcome of many near-sacred sumo wrestling matches are fixed, and proved that lots of teachers have cheated to boost their students’ standardized test scores that were designed to measure the teacher’s performance. The book I am referring to is “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.
All right, it’s a bestseller that’s been out for a few years, and the fact that I’ve just gotten around to reading it proves that the stack of to-be-read books on my nightstand is so daunting that I will gladly ignore it to read just about any old book that a neighbor brings by after discussing it over a beer one evening. It is only a pleasant coincidence that this book happened to be a tremendously interesting read.
I will admit, however, that I was struck dumb by the assertion made in the book’s introduction that this country’s crime rate suddenly began a pronounced drop at precisely the time when most experts predicted it was poised to go through the roof, sky light, basement windows, unlocked car doors, etc. – primarily because of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Abortion reduced the crime rate! As the authors are very clear about, this finding is not subject to interpretation. It is an inarguable, statistically proven fact.
The authors do touch on the moral argument by pointing out that reducing the number of murders in the United States by about 9,000 annually came at the cost of an additional 1.5 million abortions each year. The point being that econometric modeling through statistical analysis only tells us about cause and effect, but is not designed to address ethical or moral issues. Fair enough.
At the very least, “Freakonomics” will make you question “conventional wisdom,” the phrase famously, if not disparagingly, coined by economist John Kenneth Galbraith who claimed, “we associate truth with convenience,” which is a fancy way of saying, “we usually believe what we want to believe.” (i.e. that which we don’t have to think too hard about)
I got fired up about this book and vowed to come up with unorthodox thinking about something big. Living in Aspen and hearing about it nearly constantly, I decided to look at greed. Why is there so much of it? Has it become more prevalent? How on Earth would one go about measuring it?
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My first step was to find a proxy for measuring greed. In my mind I equated greed with instant gratification. I then reasoned that instant gratification might be measured by accumulation of personal monetary debt. Personal debt basically is, after all, just borrowing against tomorrow’s earnings to satisfy today’s desires, or “instant gratification.”
Next I looked at the growth of personal debt in this country. News flash: It has grown tremendously! Between about 1950 and today, household debt in the United States has grown from around 25 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to more than 80 percent.
But why? That’s an important question. If you think greed is a problem wouldn’t you like to know its cause? Many would likely say that low interest rates over this period led to the explosion of personal debt. The data doesn’t support that theory, though. Throughout the period in question the average long-term interest rate in the United States was approximately 5.75 percent, which is nearly 100 basis points higher than the average long-term rates during the past century.
So, what else occurred during this time of growing greed that might help explain it? I looked long and hard. Wars came to mind. I don’t know why. During this period we were in big wars and little wars, declared and undeclared wars, and wars against known and unknown enemies. I couldn’t make a connection with greed here other than that all wars are ultimately fought over money, and that’s been a constant forever.
Then I looked in the other direction and found a thread, you might even say a bare thread. The beginning of the rise in personal debt in this country coincides very nearly with the beginning of the Sexual Revolution. And how do you measure the beginning of the Sexual Revolution? Well, like everybody else does – with the invention of The Pill! It came to market in 1960 and the rest is history, as they say. Use of the pill grew dramatically throughout the ’70s and created an expanding mass market for even more safe, convenient and effective forms of contraception since.
Without a doubt, then, there is some correlation between the advent of modern contraception and the accumulation of personal debt. But, correlation does not establish cause and effect. Their positively slopped trend lines running together through the past 50 years might only be coincidence. Of course you could gather data and create a model to test this theory, but that work should be left to freakonomists who would rather force-feed data into a computer than ride their mountain bikes through the forests.
What we can do, however, is try to explain hypothetically how the advent of modern contraception might have led to an explosion of greed in this country. How’s this for discussion’s sake: Because of the Pill, men no longer had to worry about getting women pregnant and women no longer had to worry about becoming pregnant. Commitment became an afterthought, literally. Objectification of the human body became ubiquitous in marketing and entertainment. If anyone wanted it to be, sex could now be a purely selfish act. And, I’m guessing that a lot of people wanted it that way. It’s no secret that sex is important in our lives. If we could suddenly have it so easily, why couldn’t we have everything else just as easily, too? Not bad.
But, why stop there? If the current economic crisis, caused largely by the huge accumulation of personal debt, turns out to be bigger than we think and everything completely craters, can we then blame the fall of Western Civilization on the advent of modern contraception? That might be a stretch, or maybe not. Whatever, it’s kind of freaky to think about.