By David Henderson
This is my third post (see the first two here and here) on Levitt and Dubner’s SuperFreakonomics. Chapter 3 is one of my favorite chapters in the book, for one main reason: the way it deals with the Kitty Genovese story. Those of you under 50 years old who have never taken a social psychology course might not know, but Ms. Genovese was the woman who was murdered in 1964, apparently in plain sight of “38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens.” (The quotations are from the New York Times story on the issue, which made the case famous.)
That one incident colored the views of many people in my generation. In rural Canada, where I grew up, we attributed it to the anonymity of city living, with a little anti-Americanism thrown in for spice. It seemed to indicate a cruel, uncaring society. It wasn’t until I read this chapter that I learned the truth.
I won’t give it all away, but just to take one important factual error, it’s not true that no one called the cops. Mike Hoffman and his father did call the cops. The cops didn’t come. And it turns out that the “38 uncaring citizens story” was planted with the New York Times by none other than–the cops, actually, the police commissioner. I think that if Levitt and Dubner didn’t have such a connection with the New York Times, they would have emphasized the bad incentives of the metro editor, A.M. Rosenthal. The extent to which Levitt and Dubner do cover this story is actually a testament to their own courage in the face of incentives.
Also interesting is how the murderer was found. In their great last paragraph, Levitt and Dubner write:
Which means that a man who became infamous because he murdered a woman whose neighbors failed to intervene was ultimately captured because of . . . a neighbor’s intervention.
There’s much more in the chapter:
. An introduction to John List, a Levitt colleague who does important work in experimental economics. Their conclusion after discussing some of his clever work that introduced new elements into a lab experiment to make it look a bit more like the real world:
It suggests that when a person comes into some money honestly and believes that another person has done the same, she neither gives away what she earned nor takes what doesn’t belong to her.
Despite their use of the feminine pronouns, I think they and List would generalize to males also.
. Their reporting that the one country in the world where the government pays people to give up a kidney is–Iran. I think the government shouldn’t tax other people to pay for this, but it’s less barbaric than our government, that will throw people in prison for paying for this. When I was the health economist under Martin Feldstein at the Council of Economic Advisers, I wrote a memo to Marty advocating that the Reagan administration oppose Rep. Al Gore’s bill to ban a market in organs. Marty wouldn’t touch it.
I have one picky point about language. They write, “Still, people appear to be extraordinarily altruistic.” If people appear generally altruistic, then it’s not extraordinary. The word “very” could have been more fitting. But if that’s the extent of my criticism, that indicates a pretty good chapter.