But for me, the book’s most troubling section deals with California’s 1994 Three Strikes law, which, until it was partially repealed last year, forced judges to hand out 25-year sentences after a third offense, even if the third offense was as minor as stealing a few slices of pizza. Crime plummeted in California after the Three Strikes law passed, but as Gladwell rightly points out, crime rates “also came tumbling down in many other parts of the United States in the same period, even in places that didn’t crack down on crime at all.” He cites conflicting studies on the impact of the Three Strikes law, and concludes “[t]he state of California conducted the greatest penal experiment in American history, and after twenty years and tens of billions of dollars, nobody could ascertain whether that experiment did any good.”
He’s right, of course. I grew up in California, and I voted against Three Strikes in 1994. So I would be inclined to agree with Gladwell except that it reminded me of a chapter from The Tipping Point on New York City’s so-called Broken Windows style of policing, made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New York City, just as in California, crime seemed out of control. In both cases, the government got tough on even the most minor offenses, and crime rates plummeted. Of course, crime dropped everywhere else at the same time, and nobody really knows why. But in The Tipping Point, because Broken Windows fit Gladwell’s thesis, Giuliani and his police commissioner were heroes who brought a great city back from the brink of chaos, while in David and Goliath, because Three Strikes doesn’t fit his thesis, supporters of the law are guilty of costly and heartless government overreach.
Under this interpretation, many (possibly the vast majority) of business books are not really ‘books’ in the sense that they are intended to be read for the sake of their ideas, let alone their prose. If they are read, it is so that their maxims can be repeated to others within the firm, demonstrating loyalty. They are books only in the sense that they are physical book-like objects. Really, they are objects of ritual exchange. And business authors are less idea-crafters than hierophants, dedicated to helping senior management perpetuate the sacred mystery, or, when necessary, reinterpret it a little in congenial ways.
What these commentators don’t seem to notice is that the fads in their particular institution resemble the short-lived enthusiasms that occur elsewhere. In our society, most serious institutions—medicine, science, business, education, criminal justice, and so on—experience what we can call institutional fads. These institutional fads, especially in business, education, and medicine, are this book’s subject.
Institutional fads are not trivial; they have real consequences for our lives. Most of the time, our experiments with new diets or exercise programs have little lasting effect. But when we rely on the current child-rearing guru’s advice for raising our kids, our families are affected by whatever passes for today’s wisdom. When our children attend the local school, what they learn is shaped by that school’s current policies regarding teaching practices and discipline. We depend on our doctors to use diagnoses and treatments that can help us, rather than following some worthless trend. Our work lives—even the continued existence of our jobs—can depend on which management scheme our employers adopt. Whenever our lives intersect with social institutions, we can be affected by whatever ideas—including short-lived fads—are circulating within those institutions. (pgs 4-5)
Named one of Time magazine's "100 People Who Shape Our World," Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, is generally assumed to be a harmless, quirky pop economist for trivia nerds. However, Levitt has a history of attacking teachers' unions, advocating for the privatization of prison labor, defending online gambling and occasionally crossing over the fringe-right line by promoting climate change denialism and, some have argued, racial eugenics. A dyed-in-the-wool Milton Friedman neoliberal from the same “Chicago Boys” network that brought you the "shock doctrine," Levitt’s idea of economics Utopia is a world in which "the market" solves all our problems and government is restricted to protecting property rights.
As I've said before in regards to Levitt and S.H.A.M.E.: Yeah, when your number-one "smoking gun quote" on an economist is "I almost always believe in free markets as the solution to problems," then you're not exposing his shame, you're just disagreeing with him. There's a difference.
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