A Flying Visit Through Economics

My latest Netflix adventure took me into the heart of the world of economics, and how the thorough mining of data points can bring up some surprising information. I dove headlong into Freakonomics, a documentary based on the book of the same name. This film is an anthology with various writers and directors contributing segments that correspond to chapters in the book. The film’s pieces are held together by interviews of the book’s authors: economist Steven Levitt, and journalist Stephen Dubner, which are placed in order to contextualize each new segment. This is a truly fascinating movie that takes on a wide range of subjects, from real estate, to cheating and corruption in sumo wrestling, to the reason behind falling American crime rates in the 1990’s.

Each segment of the film has an entirely different style yet still manages to blend into a cohesive whole. Due to each directors own style the information is presented in varied ways, taking potentially dry information and bringing it to life. The film not only shows us facts and figures, but provides personal stories, animation, elements of investigative journalism and amusing reenactments to make its points. Freakonomics shows us how to connect the dots and appreciate the uses of economics in a whole new light.

One of the most fascinating portions of the film was the ever controversial assertion that falling in crimes rates in the 1990’s was due, not so much in part to tough policing or stricter jail terms and gun laws, but rather on the 1973 passing of Roe v. Wade. The film argues that legalized abortion was responsible for as much as 50% of the drop in crime. Essentially, Levitt’s data showed that if mothers were able to gain legal access to abortion, and delay the time they have birth until they are ready, it would reduce the number of ‘unwanted’ children, statistically shown to have a greater chance of becoming criminals.  Indeed, states that not only legalized abortion, but made it easily accessible, saw a 30% bigger crime drop than the rest of the country. The data has been disputed, yet Levitt claims that even with his figures adjusted to meet criticisms against it, the results are still the same. It’s a powerful assertion, controversial for many reasons, but it certainly leaves a lot to think about.

Freakonomics is mostly enjoyable, although there are definitely chapters that are more interesting or well presented than others. The least effective segment of the film hands down was on incentives and performance. It features Grade 9 students who are offered a chance to win $50 a month if they are able to raise their grades. It’s a fascinating idea (one that would certainly work on me), but the segment is carried out in a way that makes its point less effective. Rather than meeting a large group of students, we only follow two. Although this affords us a detailed look at their home life, and their own ambitions, it is difficulty to see the widespread effects of the program when looking so closely. The economists running this test inform us that overall the program is working, though less effectively than they would have hoped. They ponder whether a bigger cash incentive would get more students turned on to the idea of studying.

As much as I enjoyed the film, I still feel like it has a large problem. Just like the ever popular TED Talks, it over simplifies complex information, making it seem as though multi-faceted problems can have simple solutions or reasons behind them. I just don’t buy it, and even if the information is accurate I almost feel cheated watching a program that feeds its audience information in bite sized pieces, while blowing past the complexities behind the data. You could make an entire film on just one of the film’s sections and still not even begin to scratch the surface.  I enjoyed Freakonomics, but the film could have been even more interesting if it had done more than just skim the top of its arguments.