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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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October 2013

Freakonomics: The Hidden Underside of Sensational Journalism?

I am an applied microeconomist, a misunderstood breed. I do not look like an economist, so when people find out they are always surprised and eager to probe my brain for answers to the nation’s problems. “So, when is this recession going to end?” “Can you give me advice on stocks?” Sometimes, with what I am sure they think is mature wit, they ask me, “So, are you going to solve the deficit crisis?” I then have to explain to them that I am a micro economist, which means I don’t work with movements of the economy on a national level, but more with individual choices, and marketing strategies. “Oh, like Freakonomics, then?”

Freakonomics was published while I was still an undergraduate. I remember seeing its mascot, the apple which, when cut open, reveals an orange, plastered all over the walls of the Yale School of Management. Get it? Apples and Oranges? I always thought it was a book on marketing showing how to trick the consumer into buying more stuff than they wanted. It isn’t. It’s a book about how a journalist with an above average understanding of Econ 101 and an economist with a bloated sense of false modesty can team up to convince a nation that it will never understand anything it reads.

The work is a brilliant product as is evidenced by its ubiquity and massive sales volume. However, as a an economist, and a teacher, I feel compelled to set the record straight on one critical point: questions. The book begins with a description of the meeting between Levitt and Dubner, the books co authors. Levitt, after winning the most prestigious award in economics short of the Nobel, tells Dubner that he is a crap economist because he doesn’t know how to do math, theory or econometrics and because he can’t talk about the stock market or growth or deflation. Given the similarity with my own skill set, I was drawn to this character. Perhaps, I thought, his success was a sign that my own style of economic research could be recognized as successful by my colleagues. Dubner goes on to describe Levitt’s strength in his ability to ask good questions, and it is here where the deception begins.

Asking good questions is in many ways the be all and end all of economic research. We don’t place much weight on math skills because Wikipedia exists, and so do co-authors and grad students. We don’t require every economist to know how to process data either. The reason is the same. Whatever skill you are lacking, you can hire a research assistant to fill in the details for you provided you are keen enough to know which questions are good ones to ask. To anyone but an economist, Levitt sounds modest, but the truth is that he is boasting, “My only skill is the only one that matters and I get by with more handicaps than basically everybody else.” A little boasting is fair when you just won the John Bates Clark medal. But lying about your skills in order to sell a book, especially on so critical a topic, this is unacceptable. I’m sure it was the journalist’s idea.

Questions. How do we ask good questions? This is the primary skill I attempt to teach my students from Basic Micro all the way through my graduate courses. We must first become familiar with the subject we are studying. We have to be able to feel what makes sense and what does not. Then, we must be able to translate our subject into the formal language of economics. What is the correct theory, the most relevant model to capture the phenomena we wish to understand? Applying the model and processing it helps us to isolate the causes and effects we are interested in. We are then compelled to tweak our model to check its robustness, play with the variables to see if the cause and effect go in the direction we suspect, change the theoretical analogs to the variables we actually have access to in the real world to see if we can affect the outcome in a positive way. What we do not do is throw two apparently unrelated items together in a data set and sit around waiting for eureka and hoping to win a medal. This is how Dubner presents the findings of Levitt to the world and it is wholly dishonest.

Chapter one: What do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common? It turns out the answer is that they both cheat in statistically measurable ways. This is a great title for an article in a newspaper (blog?) but when in the body of the book Dubner goes on to say, “The two previous chapters were built around a pair of admittedly freakish questions: What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? and How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?” he is leading the reader into believing that these were the questions that motivated Levitt to start compiling data in the first place. “…If you ask enough questions, strange as they seem at the time, you may eventually learn something worthwhile.” What he says here is true and what he does is a typical marketing trick used to get around the truth-in-advertising laws: Juxtapose two statements that are not necessarily describing each other and the reader will interpret them as a pair. The chapters were organized around these questions, but the research is not. Asking questions is doing research. Writing chapters is doing journalism. To use one of my favorite phrases, Dubner has successfully confounded the two.

The book, while incredibly deceptive and destructive to any mind in search of actual truths, is not without its merits. In fact, I believe that in spite of being written by a journalist, the very subject matter of the book makes it a great tool for self empowerment. For anyone who has ever been frustrated by the fickleness of scientific discoveries as they are reported in the media, Levitt and Dubner’s goal of exposing the “hidden underside of everything” lays out some very good strategies for wading through the bullshit statistics and their errant conclusions that we see daily, and these days even hourly, published in media.

If inclined, one might divide the goals of Freakonomics into two categories: providing the thrill of seeing the world as totally different than you thought it was, and breaking down the mental barriers built up by the practice of “conventional wisdom.” I like that the authors name this idea and define it, because it’s the kind of thing that we don’t know we are obeying until someone points it out. It is this second goal that is the book’s saving grace.

We associate truth with convenience, with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem — John Kenneth Galbraith

Levitt and Dubner go on to discuss many conventionally accepted truths and describe how they get implanted into our collective psyche without ever being established as truths. They talk about how journalists and experts feed off each other to build stories that are credible enough to capture the attention of the public. As an example, a 1980s homelessness advocate claimed that “there were 3 million homeless Americans,” or 1% at 1980s population levels, or 1 out of every 100 people. It turns out that this number was un researched and wrong, but because a journalist asked an expert, the expert felt compelled to answer, and because it was an expert that answered, the journalist did not feel compelled to double check the source. He later gives a statistic so outrageous that it suggests that one third of all deaths in the United States are a result of homelessness. Kinda whack when you think about it.

From the perspective of an economist, Freakonomics is really just sensational journalism mixed up with applied microeconomic theory and a bit of creative deception. From the perspective of a layperson, Freakonomics is a great way to understand how the truth that we accept is not acceptable at face value. Because I am an advocate of informed consent, I recommend reading this book. It is a truly wonderful eye-opener for how the world we operate in gets constructed around us by people who do not necessarily care about our well-being, and may in fact be opposed to it. My recommendation, however, comes with a warning: please do not mistake its contents for actual economics.

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Gender Neutral?

I’m a youth who identifies as asexual. That isn’t my question. I was born female, and I’ve been binding for a while and identify as gender-neutral. But I’m afraid to tell others that I’m gender-neutral for fear of being told I’m wrong because I wear dresses. Does wearing skirts and dresses mean I’m not gender-neutral? I just think I look better in dresses than flannel.

Gender-Neutral Asexual Youth

Wear whatever you like, identify however you like, and refuse to engage with idiots who think they have a right to critique, dictate, or overrule your gender identity.

This week’s column on Savage Love has a letter from an “Asexual Youth” worrying about how to identify for other for fear of being criticized. Savages advice, given in his usual caustic style, tells her to screw everyone else’s opinion and do what she likes. In principle, I agree with him.

But the conversation made me think of the entire notion of gender identity, and the human need to identify themselves with other humans, with ideas, with groups. It is true that humans need to feel a sense of belonging. We are not made to be solitary and knowing our position relative to others provides us with a sense of certainty and comfort. But how important is it, really, that other humans understand and appreciate our identity and our chosen position in the groups we find meaningful? I am not sure.

I think this point is the main subject of the conversation between gender queers and the relevant status quo. Just like an adolescent rebelling against his parents, before a group can be recognized for its own unique characteristics, it must prove that it is independent of the reigning categorization. Ideally, gender neutral, male, female, dom, sub, top, bottom — all these categories of identity — can exist simply as what they truly are, but first it is important that they establish themselves as distinct from what they are not. I think that is why the conversation of gender identity with respect to gender neutrals or gender queers bothers me so much.

Gender is important because people need to know how to react to each other. It is important for me to know what my gender is so that I can predict how others will behave towards me. I am a woman. As such, I anticipate certain overtures from the men I work with in the office, and I anticipate a certain degree of background murmuring from the women I work with. It is unavoidable, but in knowing that I am a woman, it is also manageable. If I were a man, I would have to behave differently as the world men operate in abides a different set of rules than the world that women operate in. But what of the gender neutral world? I claim it does not exist. Inasmuch as the society we operate in has a binary gender, the world we will face only has social cues to respond to one or the other.

It must be frustrating for one who truly believes their self to be without gender. How should they present themselves at a company party? Should they “man up” or flirt with the men? Should they gossip or rain chivalry on the women? But there is another side to this story, and that is of the company. People who have no concept of gender neutrality do not know how to interpret the behavior of a member of this category. Should we interpret their unwillingness to flirt as an unwillingness to be social? The failure to participate in men’s bonding rituals as disdain? Forcing an understanding of gender neutrality on others puts them in a situation of discomfort. And I find myself often wondering, why? Is it really necessary to do this?

Some cultures have a notion of a third gender. Ours does not. It is every individual’s duty to learn who they are, but also to recognize that you do not exist in a vacuum. You are a part of something greater than yourself. You are a member of a society that cares for you and expects you to abide its rules in return. It’s how we live together in a semblance of harmony. If you wear a dress, you are a woman. That’s what dresses are: women’s clothes. Even the transexuals understand this. It is prideful and self-centered to expect someone you do not know to understand your gender neutrality when you communicate to them in the social language of femininity, or masculinity, or whatever. Respect for your fellow humans means you have to make choices and then hold yourself accountable for the outcomes of those choices, whether or not you like them.

Through the Lense of Habitual Pessimism

Pessimism is like drinking. A little bit of it can get you through some sketchy times in your life, but make it a habit and it will give you cirrhosis of the brain. I’ve been a pessimist all my life. After reading the book by Dan Seligman titled Learned Optimism, I learned that optimism and pessimism are more than just a tendency to be positive or negative. They are paradigms for the way we process all of our experiences in the world. Moreover, neither one of them has much to do with reality because they are manifested in the conversations we have with ourselves when we are alone, conversations that tell us if we did a good job, or a bad job, or if something going wrong was our fault.

I was taught from a young age that whenever things went wrong, it was because I screwed something up. As a forgetful person, there was never a shortage of ammunition to throw at me when things did go wrong. As a corollary to this lesson, I learned that I never had a right to relax or feel proud of myself until I had checked and rechecked every possible way that things could go wrong, and built a solid plan of action for how to deal with them. On the outside, this sounds like responsibility. Every one knows that it’s attention to detail that gets you ahead in the world, and sloth is a sin besides. In reality, no one can predict every possible failure and trying to do so is why the Japanese have “overworking” as an official cause of death.

As an adult, it’s now Me, Myself and I that throw the ammunition at each other, and we’re all standing in a circle as we do it. Trained from so young to always look to myself for the source of bad things, and to prevent them rather than react to them, I read disaster into events that could be benign as a summer breeze, and I berate myself for failures that others would see as shining accomplishments. 

Today I received an e-mail from a student in my graduate seminar. He was withdrawing from the course because he felt he could not keep up. We are only on our second full session. My heart sank as I read his most sincere apology for wasting my time. I immediately starting wracking my brain for ways in which I failed to accommodate him. Did I speak too fast? Was I not clear about the prerequisites of this course? Is the material just plainly too hard for these students? Was I taking for granted knowledge that is specific to my field? I was so distraught that as I entered the classroom for my next lecture and saw only two of the four students I expected, I almost broke out in tears.

Moments after my near crisis, one student walks in and informs me that the fourth guy is sick. We had a great time together talking about economics and laughing at some of its silly implications. The students took their work seriously and after today I know that this one course is going to be fine.

Walking back to my office, I wondered to myself why I had been so upset. I’ve had students drop my classes before, and I’ve had students stay in who are clearly not able to keep up. I’ve never had bad reviews. What’s different now is that I am working at a new institution in a new country with students who are studying English at the same time as they are studying the material in my class. So, essentially, I’m out of my element. Anyone who is out of their element experiences stress. Pessimists, however, take all that additional uncertainty and chew on it, ruminating and worrying it into a stomach ulcer, or a chronic migraine, or just crippling self doubt.

With so much unknown and untested, my inner dialogue had almost free reign over my interpretation of events. My habits of blaming myself and looking for fault were compounded by the fact that I didn’t have any baseline of comparison. I realized that in my home country, small classes were desirable. Even for me, as the professor, a small class is more manageable and I know the students are more comfortable and learn better in the more intimate setting. So why was I getting upset? Habit habit habit.

I realized that where I was seeing crisis, there was none. Where I was looking for fault, there was none. I could have easily congratulated myself on making it clear from the start what we were going to accomplish so that the student didn’t waste half of his semester struggling, just give up before making it to the end. Instead of fretting about how my poor teaching skills are causing the students so much distress, I can focus on how much better off the students who remain are for having a class more appropriate to their level. Even better, I can remember that I was hired as a teacher because I am an amazing teacher. I have over ten years of teaching experience, perhaps even fifteen, and my experience spans more than just academia. I have taught dance lessons, I have coached running, I have taught self confidence to the chronically depressed. I have taught introductory courses and advanced courses. I know what I’m doing. If the students don’t like it, then it’s not my fault, it’s just the way things happen.

Well, it’s easy to say those things now. Habitual pessimism makes it difficult to say those things in the moment of perceived crisis. It makes crises out of nothing and it makes you, me, the pessimist powerless in the face of these crises specifically because the crisis and the ability to overcome the crisis are both in our own minds. Outside in the world, life is bigger and there are many other things that matter more, but inside my mind, the obstacle is insurmountable.

Luckily, I am able to see the problem for what it is. I have learned in the past few years several strategies for dealing with my old frenemy. As frightening as it was the first hundred times, I’ve learned that the best defense is a solid outside opinion. When I’m nervous, I talk to other people who I have reason to trust. When it’s a work problem, I talk to a colleague. My habitual response was always to deny any encouragement they gave me, but now I force myself to believe them 100%. Some might say that this is dangerous, that it’s giving away too much of my autonomy to strangers, but I say that when my own judgment has turned against me, there is no better judgment than that of anyone else!

With practice I’ve noticed that it gets easier to believe people, and I find their words more comforting. I never knew I had a problem being comforted before. I did know I had a problem feeling close to people and a problem with giving myself permission to put down all the baggage and relax, godammit. The best part is that I’m seeing these problems in retrospect, from a place of greater wholeness and well being. And it’s empowering to see them go! Knowing that the stress and the worry are all products of my mind, I now have the confidence that I can be happy and relaxed and worry-free in any situation. I have given myself the freedom to define my own life and set the bar for my own personal happiness. I don’t have to wait anymore for the perfect job to land in my lap, I make my job perfect from where I am. I don’t have to wait around for the right person to love me, either. I make my friends, I really make them because when I share my troubles and allow them to help me, we both are better off for it.

 

 

 

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