Thursday, September 30, 2010

Incentivize Me: Freakonomics

So this is what passes for iconoclasm in the age of hope and change? Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner scandalized millions with their mega-bestselling Freakonomics. In a nutshell, they argue correlation is often confused with causation, incentives matter, but people are often motivated by unforeseen factors, yet they are often willing to cheat for a valuable reward. What can you say about that, except maybe: “duh.” However, their flair for colorful illustrations sold millions of books and has now inspired Freakonomics (trailer here), an anthology documentary opening tomorrow in New York.

Featuring four separate short docs adapted or inspired by the book, Freakonomics the film is held together by author segments directed by Seth Gordon, who seems to understand the material far better than the other participating filmmakers. In addition to Levitt and Dubner’s kvetching, Gordon illustrates one of the most topical Freakonomics case-studies, an incident in which Chicago public school teachers were caught cheating. To protect their own interests, they were filling in the correct answers on students’ unfinished standardized tests, suspiciously starting from the bottom with the hardest questions of the exam.

Likewise, education is the also the topic of Freakonomics’ best (and final) constituent sub-film. Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady’s self-explanatory Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed? follows a pilot program advised by Levitt that dispensed small cash payments to underperforming students who sufficiently improved their marks each quarter. The results were okay, but not overwhelming because of the myriad of competing incentives for teenagers.

By contrast, Alex Gibney’s Pure Corruption is easily the worst segment of the film. Gibney and the Freakonomists assume the mere idea of cheating in the sport of sumo will be shocking in and of itself. However, after MLB’s steroid scandals and the open secret of American wrestling’s scripted nature, most viewers will simply shrug at such revelations.

That is not to say an interesting film could not be made about sumo corruption, but Gibney himself seems bored by the topic. As a result, he frequently tosses in non-sequitur references to Wall Street indiscretions and American conduct in the War on Terror. He would be perfectly within his rights to do so in his own film (as debatable as such stretches might be), but Freakonomics carries the imprimatur of Levitt and Dubner, who honestly seem to make a good faith effort to resist partisanship in their own work. Gibney does them a disservice and does not do any favors for audiences either, dashing off a murky film that visually resembles an early 1990’s episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

Like Gibney, Morgan Spurlock does not seem to have much of a handle on the Freakonomics methodology either in A Roshanda By Any Other Name, which asks the question whether children’s names can determine whether they will be successful later. The answer seems to be it can’t, except when it does, but really not. Various sociological studies are cited, but they leave us asking more questions. In one experiment, it was determined resumes with bland white-bread names were more likely to get a response from prospective employers than those with what were assumed to be African-American names. However, it would be interesting to compare the presumed African-American call back rate to that for white trashy names like Billy Bob Bakersfield, but Spurlock never delves into any such crosstabs.

Though still a mixed bag, Eugene Jarecki’s It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life is more successful tackling one of the most challenging arguments of Freakonomics: that the precipitous drop in crime during the mid to late 1990’s was directly attributable to Roe v. Wade. Like Levitt & Dubner, Jarecki is careful not to explicitly advocate anything. However, in framing the debate, he seems to take great pleasure in denying credit to Mayor Giuliani’s proactive policing policies, while speedily glossing over the insignificance of gun control. (Again, showing his partisan colors would be fine in his own film, but in a very real sense, Jarecki is representing Levitt & Dubner here). It is provocative argument that raises a host of ethical questions everyone basically punts away. Still, the stylized animation is effective and Melvin Van Peebles adds some serious coolness as the narrator.

Levitt and Dubner did not invent incentives. They have always been a fact of life and they have always mattered. In fact, Freakonomics-style analysis has been around for decades. Economist James Buchanan argued the self-interest of politicians and bureaucrats should always be taken into account when analyzing government regulation. Of course, his Public Choice Theory of economics did not spawn a New York Times bestseller—just a Nobel Prize. Still, Levitt and Dubner are bright and engaging speakers, which Gordon conveys fairly well. The rest of the film though, is just all over the place. It opens this Friday (10/1) in New York at the Angelika.