Dismal Is as Dismal Does

by Shaun Huston

9 February 2011

In each of its major segments, the documentary is walked right up to the point of tackling thorny questions of equality, social justice, and freedom -- only to be pulled back.
cover art


Cast: Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner

(Magnolia Pictures)
US DVD: 31 Dec 1969

When addressing a film adapted from material previously produced in another medium, a common critical stance is to proclaim the superiority of the original work. However, when put under interrogation, what this claim actually means in terms of what makes a movie good or bad, or worth watching, is difficult to tell. In many cases, alleged differences in quality are likely nothing more than reflections of differences in form and in the experience of reading or watching between different media: live versus recorded, written word versus moving image, drawn versus filmed.

All of which is a long way around to this point: while I hesitate to judge whether Freakonomics the book is better than Freakonomics the movie, the latter seems best viewed as a companion or supplement to the former, than taken as a standalone work.

On its own, the documentary adaptation of the 2005 bestseller works as an interesting and entertaining series of vignettes about odd social puzzles and off the wall questions, but what they are doing collected together, beyond being things that the book’s authors and the film’s interlocutors, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, find curious, is difficult to discern from a viewing of the movie.

The documentary introduces and frames its subject as being about “incentives” or trying to understand what people want in different situations. There is also the identification of Levitt as a “rogue economist”, but initially that label seems more flash than substantial. After the first extended segment, the Morgan Spurlock directed, “A Roshanda by any Other Name”, the pegging of Levitt as a “rogue” becomes more clear, as the central question, what does a person’s given name suggest about their future success in life, appears to be only tangentially related to what is conventionally considered the field of economics. Eugene Jarecki’s, “It’s not Always a Wonderful Life”, which looks at Levitt’s examination of American crime statistics since the late-‘80s, seems even further afield from what one imagines an economist would undertake to study.

Of course, the term “freakonomics” was coined for a reason, but the film leaves up in the air what this neologism is supposed to reveal about its subject. An interest in “incentives”, even with an expansive understanding that goes beyond financial calculations, does not seem to capture the connecting threads between the questions posed in the film’s four major pieces (which, in addition to the two listed above, includes the Alex Gibney directed, “Pure Corruption”, and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s, “Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed?”).

cover art


Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

(William Morrow)
US: Aug 2009

The book provides a clearer articulation of the freakonomics armature. Most importantly, it tells the reader how Levitt does economics and how his way of practicing the field leads to an interest in the kinds of questions posed in the film.

In the prefatory note to the text, for example, Dubner explains that Levitt has reduced economics, “to its most primal aim: explaining how people get what they want” (xi). When understood in that way, it becomes possible to connect not only the subjects of the movie back to Levitt’s field of study, but also offers a more refined understanding of the connecting threads between the segments than is made by the opening discussion of incentives. In particular, this framing prompts more thinking about the different actors in each story, highlighting, for example, that the central question in, “A Roshanda by any Other Name”, is not so much kids and their names, but parents and why they name their kids what they do.

The book also clarifies that Levitt sees his parent field as bring primarily about measurement and data, and bringing the statistical tools of economics to bear on a variety of questions beyond their usual scope. Indeed, the first three major pieces of the documentary can all be tied together if one understands that what the authors see in common is more methodological than topical in nature. Specifically, each of these vignettes is about looking for patterns in large data sets which have often been collected by different people for different reasons, but when looked at together, reveal unique sets of answers to common problems, such as why people cheat (“Pure Corruption”), or why crime in the United States began to drop in the ‘90s (“It isn’t Always a Wonderful Life”).

Reference to the book also shows that the segment of the film most directly concerned with incentives as discussed in writer-director Seth Gordon’s introduction, “Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed?”, is the only one that is entirely original to the film. Even here, however, the broader understanding of freakonomics offered in the text helps to clarify the discussion of the title question. One reason for the different paths taken by the two featured students is clearly that one of them wants different things for himself than do the adults around him, while the other has accepted the goals of adults alongside his own. This is important because if one stays focused on “incentives”, it would be easy to see the conclusion of this segment as, simply, “No, a ninth grader cannot be bribed to succeed”. While a fair answer, it is also one that misses the complexities of the story told by Ewing and Grady.

Like the original text, the extras included on the Magnolia Home Entertainment DVD offer ways to better understand the main documentary. These extras include: commentaries from the film’s producers and commentaries from the directors, additional interviews with Levitt and Dubner, and an HDNet promo for the movie. Each of these, to varying degrees, provides an expanded understanding of freakonomics and its objects of interest.

There is one sense in which it does not seem to matter much if one refers to the book or to the film. In both cases, freakonomics, however unconventional in other respects, shares at least one limitation with mainstream economics: a refusal to engage with the underlying values or politics of its claims about the world.

Still, once again, Freakonomics the book is more clear, explicitly counterposing economics as a science about how the world ‘really is’ to morality as a field concerned with how the world ought to be. The film, by contrast, comes at this same point from the side, and by implication, rather than by confronting it directly.

In each of its major segments, the documentary is walked right up to the point of tackling thorny questions of equality, social justice, and freedom—only to be pulled back. In the vignette on names, the film exposes poverty and institutional racism only to end with a glib shrug about the names parents inflict on their children. In the story about crime, the film presents Levitt’s conclusion regarding the role that legalized abortion has played in lowering the incidence of criminal activity, but refuses to embrace the implication that increased freedom for women improves the quality of life for society as a whole. Indeed, here the film fully recognizes that Levitt’s finding inevitably intervenes in the abortion debate, but nonetheless begs off of entering the fray. The piece on ninth graders has an interesting subtext about the importance of support systems for kids, especially those at risk for failure in school, but does not take this as the primary lesson to be learned from the experiment in bribery.

Alex Gibney’s “Pure Corruption” is the closest the film gets to making a political statement, emphasizing how the appearance of respectability is often used to mask less than respectable behavior, but even here the social critique is focused on how people use institutions for their own ends, and not on the institutions themselves, let alone the broader contexts for both.

When faced with evidence that the world as it ‘actually works’ might be irreparably broken, or in serious need of being remade, the “rogue economist”, in print or on film, will apparently choose self-styled ‘objectivity’ over justice no less frequently than will his or her less rogue-ish companions.



Extras rating:


We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.


//Mixed media

Call for Essays on Topics in Culture; Present, Past and the Speculative Future

// Announcements

"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…

READ the article