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The field of economics can study more than the workings of economies or businesses, it can also help explore human behavior in how it reacts to incentives. Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner host an anthology of documentaries that examines how people react to opportunities to gain, wittingly or otherwise. The subjects include the possible role a person's name has for their success in life, why there is so much cheating in an honor bound sport like sumo wrestling, what helped reduce crime in the USA in the 1990s onward and we follow an school experiment to see if cash prizes can encourage struggling students to improve academically.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
Steven Levitt - Author:
The closest thing to a worldview, I would say, in "Freakonomics," is that incentives matter. Not just financial incentives, but social incentives and moral incentives.
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Employing 5 teams of directors (who did not collaborate per the producer's q&a comments), the film adaptation of FREAKONOMICS is a hit-or-miss extravaganza, mostly missing the mark. Even fans of the popular book (and its followups) are unlikely to be stimulated.
Superstar doc director Alex Gibney takes precedence here, and producer Chad Troutwine acknowledged at the post-screening q&a that his segment runs long for some audiences. I found his study of corruption in the ranks of Japan's sumo wrestling rather uninteresting, and Gibney's forced comparisons to the bad boys of Wall Street (Bernie Madoff, etc.) pointless and self-serving.
Movie's most controversial sequence has to be Eugene Jarecki's elaboration of the book's chapter on the causes of the lowered U.S. crime rate in recent decades. As an anti-Giuliani New Yorker I certainly ate up the red meat portion of the footage, indicating that our local self-appointed savior really had nothing to do with the dramatic lowering of the NYC homicide and violent crime rate since around 1989. However, author/economist Steven Levitt's conclusion that, statistically, 50% of the reduction in crime in this country is attributable to Roe v. Wade making abortion legal and readily available to a whole generation beginning in the '70s (causing there to be fewer unwanted kids in existence who might have grown up to become serious criminals 16 to 20 years after) spurious and more a case of grandstanding that solid science. Sure, he controlled for all the relevant variables (areas of the country that had already legalized abortion prior to 1973 vs. the rest of the nation, etc.), but I don't buy it. And worse yet, where does it lead us -to endorse eugenics next?
That segment exemplifies my basic problem with FREAKONOMICS, the publishing phenomenon and now the movie: trying to analyze complex issues from an economic standpoint is simply not applicable to all situations, unless you force it. It is just Levitt applying his expertise willy-nilly in what I take to be self-aggrandizement, and obviously millions of people are taken in by his con. Watching the film I became painfully aware of his heavy emphasis, almost ad nauseum, on the concept of "incentives", which he clearly believes professionally to be a basic way of explaining human behavior. Repeated over & over, the shallowness of this approach becomes quite evident.
There is a very cute segment by Morgan (SUPERSIZE ME) Spurlock on naming children, emphasizing issues with the prevalence of unique (even Uneek as a choice) names within the Black community, but this is also one of the dumber segments by the time all the theories have been trotted out and lampooned. The femme directors Grady & Ewing take on use of cash incentives (there's that word again) to attempt to approve grades and achievement of Chicago Heights ninth graders, but that part of the film struck me as pretty phony, even including a fantasy sequence, though the main protagonist named Urail (another unique name victim) is a winning screen presence.
Seth Gordon, who interviewed Levitt and his co-author, journalist Stephen Dubner at length, comes off best in this documentary since he does only the intros & interstitial segments. Overall, as one naysayer at the q&a perceptively noted, the film is mainly old-hat.
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