Freakonomics: A Fun Film Your Brain Will Like

As a huge fan of the Freakonomics books I was thrilled to see the new film based on them last night. I’m still not sure if the film lived up to my massive expectations, but I am sure I enjoyed it.

More of a film festival than a film, Freakonomics is about a lot of things – sumo wrestlers cheating, abortions lowering crime rates and bribes encouraging children to study, to name a few. The central thesis of the film, much like the books that inspired it, is simple: incentives matter. People react to incentives, but not necessarily in the ways you’d expect.

For example: real estate agents. Early on in the film it’s pointed out that a realtor’s best interest isn’t necessarily aligned with yours, because you getting an extra $10,000 isn’t necessarily worth them working an extra week for a minor increase in commission. In the film Levitt states you can prove this by comparing how long realtors take to sell clients houses to how long realtors take to sell their own houses.

These kinds of scenarios are played out a few times in the film, the product of 6 different directors. The film is divided into four different short films, tied together with segments featuring Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (co-authors of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics.)

The first segment, directed by Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock, examines whether a given name can cause a child to turn out a certain way. Paced quickly in Spurlocks typical style, this segment concludes that your name doesn’t so much cause your future as tell you a lot about the socio-economic situation you were born into. There are some cheap laughs here, which I enjoyed, and it’s a great short to start with.

Next up is “Pure Corruption”, which examines the prevalence of cheating in sumo wrestling. Director Alex Gibney, who brought us Enron: The Smartest Guys In Room, connects the corruption of sumo wrestlers, and Japanese culture’s inability to admit there’s a problem, to corporate America’s corruption. The change in pacing from Spurlock’s section is dramatic, and yet somehow this more reflective section works well.

I wish the same could be said for It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life, the third section. This piece examines infamous study about the effects of legalized abortion on crime, which concludes that the dramatic drop in American crime in the 1990’s is directly related to Roe V. Wade passing 20 years earlier. Considering this argument is one of the most compelling in the original book it was disappointed to see it translate so poorly to film, but

Happily things picked up during the finale: Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made one of my favorite films, Jesus Camp, in which they excelled at letting kids talk for themselves. This segment excels at that too, as economists try to encourage kids to do well in school by offering cash incentives. I think this was my favorite part of the movie, because the kid’s motivations were so clearly defined and because the incentives didn’t seem to work the way you’d expect.

Overall Freakonomics is a lot of fun with a bit of educational value. Don’t expect to see as much information conveyed as in the books, but expect to have a good time and do a little bit of unconventional thinking. I’m not sure the film meets the massive expectations I had, but I certainly enjoyed myself.

Official Freakonomics Movie Site

Buy the books:

Freakonomics: Barnes and Noble,

Superfreakonomics: Barnes and Noble,

‘Grapes of Wrath’ and the Great Recession

It’s difficult to think of anything new to say about The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s masterpiece. But recently I, after years of Kathy insisting I do so, got around to reading it. I couldn’t help but notice a few things relevant to the here and now, and seeing as I have a computer I figured I’d post them on the Internet.

Our Recession is Lame

Yeah, housing prices are low. Some people don’t have jobs, and many are spending less than they’d like.

Very few American children are starving to death, however.

To even compare the economic events of the past few years to the Great Depression is, I think, insulting to those who actually lived through it. Our modern unemployment rate, hovering around 10 percent, certainly leaves something to be desired; it is, however, minor when compared to the 25 percent rate nationwide in the 1930s.

Comparisons between our modern recession and the great depression seem even more foolish if you imerse yourself in Steinbeck’s epic, where entire families wander from town to town in hopes of finding a single day’s work.

Many today are without work, yes, but the vast majority of them wouldn’t even consider physical labor as a way to feed their family. Far better to collect unemployment until something comfortable comes along.

Okies/Illegal Immigrants

But you know who is willing to do physical labor? Illegal immigrants. Steinbeck’s description of depression-era “Okies” to me almost perfectly mirrors the modern illegal immigrant.

Both leave everything they’ve known behind to build a better life for family, both are more than willing to work hard to do so and both are generally regarded with suspicion–even anger–by the people they are working for. Depended on and despised.

The fact that these Okies were in the country changes nothing. Californians in Steinbeck’s novel are determined to define the incoming white American masses as outsiders, so they do so. Much of the rhetoric they use to describe these outsiders parellels contemporary to the point where it’s easy to mistake one for the other.


Al and Tom Joad both understand cars. They can drive them, they can repair them and they can tell when something’s going wrong with them. Many older individuals, however, seem to have no comprehension of how these machines work–despite depending on them.

Sounds familar? It does to me, because computers simply make sense to me. Almost every day, however, I help someone who–though depending on a computer to make a living–has almost no idea how they work.

I suppose the point I’m making here is that new technology, to the young, is normal.

This is an enormous advantage, career-wise. I’ve no doubt that Al eventually found his way into a garage and made a decent living. Likewise, I’m not worried about my employment prospects so long as there are people who can’t find their googles and as such think they have a virus.

Someday, however, my skills will be obsolete. Young people who understand future technology will infuriate me.

Barnes and Noble, Borders,

‘Idiot America’ shows how truth became a product

You might not guess it from the title, but Idiot America is perhaps the most loving tribute to the United States on book shelves right now. In many ways an extension of his famous October 2005 Esquire article Greetings From Idiot America, Charles P. Pierce’s latest book covers everything from the Terri Schiavo circus to climate change denial to Sarah Palin to the story that started it all: The Creation Museum. All of this is done with love and wit, aimed to both amuse and highlight the absurdity of our present national dialog.

For example, here’s how Pierce introduces the Creation Museum:

“Outside, several [people] stop to be interviewed by a video crew. They have come from Indiana, one woman says, two toddlers toddling at her feet, because they have been home-schooling their children and they have given them this adventure as a kind of field trip. The whole group then bustles into the lobby of the building, where they are greeted by the long neck of a huge, herbivorous dinosaur. The kids run past that and around a corner, where stands another, smaller dinosaur.

“Which is wearing a saddle.

“It is an English saddle, hornless and battered. Apparently, this was a dinosaur used for dressage competitions and stakes races. Any working dinosaur accustomed to the rigors of ranch work and herding other dinosaurs along the dusty trail almost certainly would wear a sturdy western saddle.

“This is very much a show dinosaur.”

Excerpts like these are combined with a wide variety of stories from America’s past and present to promote Pierce’s central thesis, which is simple to grasp: America, once the mindchild of Enlightenment ideals, is becoming a place where truth doesn’t matter so much as marketability. Calling the place America is becoming “Idiot America,” Pierce claims we live in a society where expertise is regarded with at best suspicion and at worst hostility. Idiot America is based on three main premises:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

Throughout the book Pierce does a great deal to defend what he calls The Great American Crank. He devotes quite a lot of ink to Ignatius Donnelly, a 19th-century congressman and amateur scientist whose book Atlantis : the Antediluvian World (Barnes and Noble, Project Gutenburg) made the concept of Atlantis a phenomenon at the time. Pierce calls Donnelly the quintessential American Crank, a person outside the mainstream of the day who pushed the nation’s imagination to places it otherwise wouldn’t go.

The problem, to Pierce, isn’t the cranks. Cranks are an essential part of our national fabric, part of what makes America great.

No, the problem is that we’ve made our cranks into commodities. They have TV shows and book deals, and if they sell enough books or yell loudly enough what they say is just as valid as the opinion of a scientist or any other expert.

Or moreso.

Essentially, Pierce states that we live in a nation where everything is in the wrong place. Religion is mixed with science, entertainment with journalism and politics with faith. All of these things are weaker for being mixed together.

Particularly vivid, to me, is Pierce’s discussion of one of the most surreal election in America’s history:n 2008. McCain, previously a moderate, campaigned against legislation he wrote in order to garner votes in Idiot America. The nomination of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate was perhaps the epoch of the craziness:

“The more people pointed out Palin’s obvious shortcomings, the more the people who loved her loved her even more. She was taken seriously not merely because she had been selected to run, but also because of the fervor she had stirred among people in whose view her primary virtue as a candidate was the fact that she made the right people crazy. Their faith in Idiot America and its Three Great Premises was inviolate. Because the precincts of Idiot America were the only places where his party had a viable constituency, John McCain became the first presidential candidate in American history to run as a parody of himself.”

The book is worth reading if only because it’s the first thing I’ve read that made sense of the 2008 election, but there’s a lot about this book that makes it worth picking up.

Not that it’s without shortcomings. Pierce doesn’t mock the premises of Idiot America in action on the left nearly as much as he does on the right (he claims this is primarily because the right was in power as he wrote the book.) As someone who lives in Boulder, Colorado, I have to say that these three premises are alive and thriving on the left. It also seems, to me, that there is something iconic about Pierce criticizing the way truth has become a marketplace via a book with an extremely marketable title.

But perhaps I’m nitpicking. What Pierce does best here is contrast the crazy notions of the past with the crazy notions of today. For example, his conclusion regarding the Creation Museum:

“Counternarratives are designed to subvert conventional ideas, but there is nothing at all subversive about the Creation Museum. The ideas in it are not interesting. They’re just wrong. It’s a place without imagination, a place where we break our dragons like plow horses and ride them.”


Barnes and Noble