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Review: ‘Freakonomics’

October 1, 2010

My first and, in an academic capacity, only economics teacher was a big, brutish-looking but very intelligent man named Carilli. The official goal of the class was to teach us the basics of the dismal science, but Carilli’s true aim was to challenge our way of thinking. And challenge he did. As an English major, my specialty was simply posing questions—“What does the green soldier in The Red Badge of Courage signify?” “What is Ahab’s nailing of the gold coin to the mast really signify?”—and, nine times out of 10, the best answer was “We may never know.” But Carilli wanted something definitive. “Why aren’t there any great baseball players anymore?” would be a standard question, followed by a lot of head-scratching from me and my peers, and before I could work up the courage to mouth a “We may never…” he’d take pity on us and answer, “Because basketball pays better. The top athletes go into that, because that’s what the people watch—and that’s what makes money.”

That’s the kind of question Freakonomics would ask, and its greatest strength is taking what most would think of as a relentlessly boring subject and making it interesting.

The film presents itself almost as a term paper, with the thesis that incentives matter, and applies it to everyday life, correlating data to explain why you should keep your house on the market if you expect a higher payoff later instead of a lower payoff now or why Sumo wrestlers cheat.

The authors, “rogue” economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, pose quite a few of these questions, and the film breaks up into four sections with some supplementary material to explore them. Each segment is about 20 minutes or so long and handled by several of the foremost documentarians of today. For the purposes of this review, I’ll do likewise.

The first segment, directed by Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me), looks into the naming patterns of whites and blacks, citing a study where a few-thousand job applications were sent to numerous employers. The candidates were identical in every qualification save that one had a “white-sounding” name and the other a “black-sounding” name. Guess which one received the most callbacks. It then looks at the reason there are definitively “black” names and finds a statistical shift in naming conventions around the 1960s and 1970s, right around the time the Black Panthers came to power.

The second, directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), exposes the fascinating trend of cheating among Sumo wrestlers. Like most people, I didn’t know much about the sport, particularly how seriously it’s taken in Japan, going into the film, but, as Levitt usefully notes, the more honored something is, the more likely it is to invite corruption. That equally applies to the Japanese police, who, we’re informed, are less likely to investigate a case they have a low chance of solving to keep their arrest-records high.

Next is Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s (Jesus Camp) look at whether or not high-school students can be bribed to get better grades. They do this by offering poor-performing students of a Chicago public school $50 a month and the chance of entering a lottery to win $500 if they raise their grades. (And all the while the Tyler Cowen in me was wondering if any well-performing students intentionally dropped their grades so they could cash in, too.)

The final segment, and perhaps most notorious, directed by Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), details Levitt and Yale economist John Donohue’s controversial work on the correlation of abortion and crime, focusing specifically on the drastic decline of crime across the U.S. in 1992. The reasoning is that the peak age-group of criminals corresponds to the passage of Roe v. Wade. That is, the legalization of abortion led to an absence of unwanted children, the group most likely to commit crimes.

And between these segments are a handful of interviews (and a South-Park-style “Terence-and-Phillip” cartoon explaining why you should keep your house on the market) directed by The King of Kong’s Seth Gordon.

All of it is interesting. With so many directors, Freakonomics runs the risk of looking stylistically scattered, but for the most part it never gets too distracting nor loses the concentration of the viewer. Likewise, I got the sense that most of the directors actually understood the material they were presenting.  That may sound like an odd thing to write, but, as I’m sure Levitt and Dubner would note, the concepts that make Freakonomics so interesting are precisely so because very few people ever think, much less know, about them. The only exception is Spurlock’s portion, which I think gets too caught up in visual jokes and unrelentingly throws image after image at the viewer. When he asks us to read a handful of sentences being highlighted among a sea of text and compounds it with fast-talking narration, I get lost.

However, the revolving directors also works in Freakonomics’ favor—if you don’t like one part, just wait for the next. And this was especially true moving from Spurlock to Gibney segment on Sumo wrestling, which is beautifully shot and contains not a shred of animation (which Gordon and Jarecki I think overuse). Gibney’s not so much interested in visual complexity as he is in simply presenting the material. This and Jarecki’s parts are perhaps the most dense, but both of them present it clearly—though Gibney moreso than Jarecki.

The only other criticism I have is that Freakonomics never takes a moment to discuss any dissenting opinions. This is especially notable in Levitt’s work on abortion and crime, which the even narrator mentions is controversial. I understand that the film already has its hands full, but, to use an equal handful of clichés, if the cat’s out of the back, it’s fair game to chase it.

Still, Freakonomics is a documentary worth seeing. I’ve known about Levitt’s work for a while and still found it captivating, so I can only imagine the revelations that will occur to someone going in cold. If nothing else, it should spark that same interest in economic thinking as my dear old professor Carilli.


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