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Frako film?

The book that made economics trendy and its economist-author a superstar is now a film.

Written by Express News Service |
May 9, 2010 4:42:46 pm

The book that made economics trendy and its economist-author a superstar is now a film. Karna Basu caught the world premiere of Freakonomics,the movie,at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. The movie doesn’t quite work,six talented directors fronting its six segments notwithstanding. And that raises an interesting question: can we marry the power of logic with the power of cinema?

In 2005,economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner published a book that would lead to a revolutionary change in the public’s perception of economics. For some years,the catchy covers of Freakonomics were visible everywhere. The US edition carried a picture of an

orange disguised as an apple,artfully suggesting that appearances can be misleading. Cover images elsewhere were equally arresting. In Estonia,it was a light bulb disguised as a pear. In Norway,it was an ear of corn disguised as a banana. And in Turkey,inexplicably,it was a woman in a bikini. Suddenly,economics was trendy.

Freakonomics was intelligently marketed,not just as a book but as a brand name. Economics has regularly produced great public intellectuals,with Amartya Sen and Paul Krugman being recent examples. But Steven Levitt was arguably the first bona fide superstar to emerge from the community of academic economists.

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Levitt’s popularity is understandable. To economists,research has always had romantic and dramatic potential,but to many outsiders,its only use was as a cure for insomnia. This was partly due to the mistaken notion that economics was predominantly concerned with dry topics like stock prices and interest rates. Levitt and Dubner have successfully corrected this perception. While we may still trust Bono on matters of the heart,it turns out economists can teach us a lot about drug dealers,sumo wrestlers,and abortion.

The Freakonomics brand has spawned a small empire. Levitt and Dubner have recently written a new book along similar lines,and they continue to host a popular New York Times blog. Now comes the eponymous film—a documentary— that will soon be released across the globe. The film is a collaboration by six directors and consists of a series of vignettes that illustrate results from the book.

I had the opportunity to catch the world premiere of Freakonomics at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It was a high-profile affair for which the rich denizens of New York emerged from their black limousines. Levitt and Dubner were in attendance,as were hordes of Levitt’s graduate students. The producers are aiming high and Freakonomics is likely to be a commercial success. But how does it stand up as a work of cinema?

We can think of the film as belonging to two categories — adaptations of non-fiction texts and investigative documentaries. The US has a respectable tradition of converting nonfiction writing into film. The work is sometimes fictionalised in the process,as in Fast Food Nation or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. The second is a dated but tantalisingly perverse adaptation. In it,Woody Allen converts an earnest non-fiction book into absurd scenes that involve,among other things,a runaway breast and Gene Wilder in bed with a sheep. The adaptation of Freakonomics is different in this respect since it remains a work of non-fiction.

Freakonomics also works as an investigative documentary because it uncovers hidden truths. Film-makers like Michael Moore and Errol Morris are examples of this. One of the most brilliant examples of investigative documentary is Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. The movie reexamines the evidence against a man who was sentenced to death in Texas. Morris uncovered so many inconsistencies in the official narrative that the state not only took the man off death row but released him soon after. Given the competition in this genre,it is unsurprising that Freakonomics fails to match up.

This is not for lack of material. Rather,the problem is that the investigation has already been carried out by Levitt and others and has been articulately explained in the book. For the film to make a contribution,it would need to either extend the investigation or find engaging ways to re-explain existing results. Despite some interesting segments,the film ultimately feels like a slapdash attempt to capitalise on the success of the book.

To understand the film-makers’ task,it will help to think about the ideas in the book. Levitt,a professor at the University of Chicago,was a highly regarded economist well before his public success. In 2004,he received the Clark Medal,which is awarded to the best American economist under the age of 40. Levitt’s work is relatively accessible to the non-academic reader,but that does not diminish his achievements. He is modest and claims to have only a rudimentary understanding of theoretical economics. In fact,he has an exceptional knack for applying the theory of decision-making to real-world data.

Levitt is particularly good at teasing out causality from data on correlations. Consider,for example,his work on abortion and crime. In the 1990s,crime rates in the US started to drop sharply and unexpectedly. Naturally,policymakers were keen to know why. Some prevalent explanations involved innovation in policing strategies and increased incarceration. Given the strong correlation between these changes and the crime reduction,the explanations seemed reasonable and potent.

It turns out that people had been too quick to infer causality from correlation. In the movie,this fallacy is explained with a nice example. In the 1940s,many Americans concluded that ice cream caused polio. This was because of an observed correlation — ice cream consumption and the incidence of polio tended to flare up simultaneously. The truth,however,was that summer temperatures made children more susceptible to the polio virus. Since summer temperatures also make children more susceptible to ice cream cravings,many incorrectly concluded that ice cream was the culprit.

Similarly,in the case of crime,Levitt and his co-author John Donohue observed that the noted correlation was not sufficient evidence of causality. They argued that there were other,bigger factors at play. To motivate this argument,the book describes an episode in Romania’s history. In 1966,Nicolae Ceausescu,the dictator of Romania,banned abortions. This resulted in increased unwanted births,especially in low-income households. This,in turn,led to a rise in crime since a large fraction of those children grew up poor,under-educated and with few economic opportunities.

Levitt and Donohue applied this logic in reverse. In 1973,the US Supreme Court legalised abortion. (The case,Roe v. Wade,continues to generate political controversy today.) The women who benefited most from this were poor,single,and reluctantly pregnant. The Supreme Court decision reduced the number of children who would be economically disadvantaged and therefore more likely to engage in criminal activity. The unintended consequence was a reduction in crime.

Levitt and Donohue analysed the data to find that that Roe v. Wade was the single biggest cause of the crime reduction. This result has been widely contested,and not just for its moral and racial implications. Chris Foote,an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston,discovered some mistakes in the data analysis. Even though it is now clear that the magnitude of the abortion effect was smaller than initially argued,this was a provocative study that demonstrated the importance of carefully thinking through the social and economic determinants of crime.

Levitt has also studied the role of incentives in decision-making. In the fundamental models of economics,individuals are assumed to respond only to economic incentives. Of course,as Levitt observes in the movie,in reality other factors drive decisions as well. But much of Levitt’s work is motivated by the observation that,on a basic level,our decisions are consciously or unconsciously driven by rewards,which could be monetary,social,or moral.

Consider a homeowner who hires a real estate agent to sell her house. The real estate agent needs to decide how much time and effort to put into this sale. Imagine the agent is able to procure an offer of Rs 50 lakh. Now,the agent might know that another week of effort will yield an offer of Rs 51 lakh. From the homeowner’s perspective,this would be worth the wait. But from the agent’s perspective,it is not—since her commission is a small percentage of the sale price,she only stands to gain a few hundred rupees from an extra week of effort. So the agent will mislead the homeowner into thinking this is the best possible offer.

Indeed,Levitt and Chad Syverson discovered that real estate agents consistently sell their own homes for higher prices than the equivalent homes of their clients. This shows that incentives matter. A real estate agent has a stronger incentive to seek out the highest possible price when selling her own home because she gets to keep every additional rupee rather than a small fraction of those additional rupees.

This principle can be observed in other realms as well. Development economists have long understood that sharecropping leads to smaller agricultural outputs than owner-farmed land. This is because a sharecropper gets smaller benefits from additional effort than a landowner would. And it is hard to forget the ordeal of buying shoes at Bata in the 1980s. Employees were then so under-incentivised that they made no attempt to withhold their rage when a customer entered the store.

But Levitt’s research,while fascinating,is not necessarily amenable to the formal structure of cinema. Successful documentaries combine image and sound to convey a message that is beyond the power of the written word. In Freakonomics,the film-makers have selected some of the book’s results to be explained on film. This is done through extensive interviews with Levitt and Dubner,voiceovers,animation,and supporting footage. As in the book,several other economists,including Sendhil Mullainathan,Roland Fryer,and John List,get cameo appearances.

The film-makers are all independently talented. Of them,the most famous is Morgan Spurlock,the director of Super Size Me. He directs a segment on the relationship between names and success. Can parents affect their child’s economic prospects purely by the choice of name? Do employers discriminate based on names? (They do —job applicants with “white” names are more likely to get interviews than identical applicants with “black” names.) These are intriguing questions and Spurlock certainly engages the audience. Yet,it is not clear that any film-maker could achieve the nuance required,let alone one whose second film involved a facetious search for Osama bin Laden.

Alex Gibney directs a segment on corruption. Mohammad Azharuddin would be relieved to learn that sumo wrestlers too engage in rampant match-fixing. This is the most visually striking part of the film. While the music is unnecessarily ominous,the dark high-contrast footage of Japan successfully underscores the overall lesson — that the illusion of purity can encourage corruption.

Finally,Eugene Jarecki takes on the relationship between crime and abortion while Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing present research on incentives. All four sections use animation and advanced graphics to varying degrees,but the constant shift in film-making styles is quite jarring. One consistent problem is that the non-animated footage is frequently too generic to be relevant. At these times,the voiceovers provide all the information the audience needs.

Freakonomics is enjoyable enough,but one can imagine a better film emerging if the directors were to stray from such a textual representation of the book. In a sense,Levitt and his fellow economists have constructed several investigative tools. The film-makers could have considered using those tools in new settings. I also found myself wishing to learn more about the people behind the ideas. For example,if the same topics above were integrated into a more personal biography of Levitt,the film would have appeared cohesive while resonating more strongly with the audience.

Levitt and Dubner close the film by telling us that they have the right incentives to seek the truth. But if we have learned anything from them,we should take this with a grain of salt. After all,just as the producers had an incentive to make this film,Levitt and Dubner have the incentive to say that they have the incentive to seek the truth. Their rock-star status is not a bad reward.u

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