October 25, 2010

The new documentary Freakonomics harkens back to the good old days of 2005. Remember when economists, having permanently perfected the economy, graciously allowed their attention to wander to crime fighting, sumo wrestling, baby naming, and other fields not traditionally enlightened by their insights? University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt teamed up with journalist Stephen J. Dubner to compile one of the Housing Bubble era’s biggest airport-bookstore bestsellers: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything. Levitt and Dubner have now recruited some prominent documentarians to anthologize five disparate chapters of Freakonomics.

The most entertaining is the segment by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) on those not fully thought-through first names with which some African-Americans have saddled their babies ever since the late 1960s”€™ Black Pride movement. For example, scholars have counted 228 varietals of “€œUnique,”€ including “€œUneek”€ (a fine name for a future rodent exterminator).

Still, isn”€™t there something incongruous about Levitt and Dubner making fun of the forlorn hopes uneducated people invest in names? After all, they got rich by inflicting the word “€œFreakonomics”€ upon the English language. It’s hard to imagine their clever and readable but random little book hitting it big if it had been more descriptively titled Quantitative Musings on Miscellaneous Social Phenomena.

Are black children’s lives permanently damaged by all this parental originality? In 2005, Levitt and Dubner rather callously concluded that, in effect, if your parents named you “€œM”€™qheal”€ rather than “€œMichael,”€ your bigger problem is likely your last name. You are evidently descended from some mighty poor decision-makers.

Spurlock, however, adds a useful coda from another social scientist who mailed out résumés under white and black first names that were otherwise identical. Job applications bearing Ghetto Fabulous monikers are more likely to go straight into Human Resources Departments”€™ circular files. So, African-American parents: For the sake of your kids”€™ careers, please resist your whimsical urges. (Somebody should study the impact of the science-fictiony first names that Mormons dream up, such as D”€™Loaf, Zanderalex, and ElVoid.)”€œ

Freakonomics seems even more scattershot as a documentary than as a book.”€

Another key to the book’s success was its relentless insistence on Levitt’s supergeniusness. (The coauthors somehow managed to convince readers that the egomania was all Dubner’s reporting rather than Levitt’s boasting.) In reality, most of Levitt’s purportedly novel insights”€”for instance, when selling your house, don”€™t trust your real-estate agent when she advises you to quickly accept a lowball offer”€”were old news. (Regrettably, the movie doesn”€™t tell us how many trusting Freakonomics readers are now in foreclosure because they held out for a higher price at the Housing Bubble’s peak.)

On screen, though, Levitt seems less the epic brainiac of Dubnerian legend and more a friendly, handsome blond man with a lisp (a manly Daffy Duck-style lithp, not a hissy Al Gore-like lissssp).


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