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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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economics

Week 1: I Love My Students!

I just finished my first week of classes for the new semester. It is now one full year since I started teaching here and I’ve never been so excited by my students!

The first class of the day was my basic microeconomics class. I made a point of being relaxed and just talking about the things that I care about while still sticking to the subject of the day. I also tried a new method of asking students for feedback. I picked a number (first three, then five) and every nth student would have to answer my question. It was really effective and I had a lot of participation without having to wait too long for students to hem and haw out their answers. At the end of the class one of the girls approached me and told me that she thought I was a really wonderful economics teacher and that she wished I could have taught her when she was a freshman. Wow! And on a day where I hardly prepared my talk! I was positively glowing for a solid hour after that.

The second class was orientation for my special seminar. This seminar is designed for young graduate students or undergraduates who are working on their thesis. One of the students who attended my orientation today is a former student of mine from my basic class. She’s a real smarty and I was flattered that she wanted to study with me again. After orientation she told me that she really wanted to study behavioral economics, and maybe even write her thesis under my supervision. I was flattered even harder. Unfortunately I am more than a little one-of-a-kind at this university and I don’t know of any other faculty who are doing behavioral work, so I felt like I couldn’t be much help to her. However, what really made my day was what the next student said to me.

In the last session of the week an exchange student from Canada attended my class and during introductions he said to me that he would be writing his graduation thesis based on the material we study and that he is frustrated that economics seems to never ever work the way it says it should. His criticisms of economics are the same as mine and he wants me to guide him on his way to find answers!

I couldn’t tell you who was more gratifying or inspiring today. I fight so often with feelings of impotence and futility in my work that to hear from these students that I was an inspiration to them, that they appreciated me and that they thought they could learn something valuable from me, this was so wonderful I could cry. Better! This was so wonderful to hear that now I feel excited to do more work! I feel like I matter to people and that my struggles do have meaning! People want to hear what I have to say and I want to rise to the level of their hopes.

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Eat a Variety

So, I’m on this candida diet right now. It’s perhaps the most difficult and restrictive diet I’ve ever been on, particularly since I’m trying to do this in Japan where the food is strange and the resource all written in weird squiggly box symbols. Yesterday I finally found a website that offered information freely (Candida Cure Recipes) and it even explained why there seemed to be confusion over whether or not fermented and pickled foods could be part of a healthy candida purge. I am really grateful to Susan for making this information available. It’s really the only thing that can help me in my position.

So that said, according to Susan’s candida philosophy, the first problem with a candida infection is that it tends to come in tandem with a generally weakened immune system. So a candida diet has to be rich in essential nutrients, vitamins and detoxifying bits. She offers up several degrees of candida dieting that are increasingly difficult to adhere to, but also increasingly hostile to an unwelcome candida population. The first level is simply to take out useless calories from your diet and add in helpful foods. Think ditching refined sugars, bleached and husked grains and most processed foods. This should be an easy and absolutely essential step in any diet that aims to promote overall health, but even though it was only one out of ten degrees of dieting it is so restrictive that anyone following it immediately loses the ability to dine at most restaurants.

Supposing one is successful at removing refined and simple carbohydrates from their diet, one is then challenged to replace those calories with more nutritious foods. Reading Susan’s website, you would think this is an easy and fun task. I’ve been on a candida diet for three days and I’ve eaten:

  • TONS of yogurt
  • Tofu
  • Avocado
  • Tomato
  • Garlic
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Fish
  • Eggplant
  • Eggs
  • Okra
  • Peppers

That’s about it. If these were each one a meal, that would be one thing. I could say “look how many recipes I’ve made!” But these are single ingredients. Tell me it’s not a sad list to look at? However, these are the only foods I could find that matched the commandments of no sweet rooty vegetables and no refined carbohydrates. Moreover, in order to achieve my daily caloric needs I’ve relied heavily on the animal categories.

This isn’t what Susan meant and this isn’t a sustainable diet. It’s also almost entirely industrial products with unknown chemical contents. No matter what the USDA says it most certainly does not contain enough variety to provide me with all my body’s nutritional needs, particularly its needs for antioxidant assistance and immune system support. Even the variety of animal flesh in my diet is miserably low. Chicken, beef and fish? That’s it? It’s a shame.

I ran into the problem of sufficient nutritional diversity before when trying to shift my ferrets onto a raw, or at least a whole prey diet. The advice is unanimous that a ferret’s digestrive tract is too short and too sensitive for almost all commercially manufactured kibbles, but as an obligate carnivore they require a variety of meat sources at a variety of ages, including organ meats, skin, small bones, fur and feathers. So far I have been able to find frozen mice of dubious origin, and chicken. It’s maddening!

Even mainstream doctors will stress the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet. But like everything else in our world today, once health was quantified everything that we couldn’t measure suddenly lost its value. The government decided that there are three macronutrient categories that partition all calories: carbohydrates, lipids and proteins. The government decided that there was a list of vitamins and minerals that encompassed all dimensions of nutritional benefit in a food, so that foods nearly devoid of natural goodness can still be considered nutritious if they are “enriched” with molecular constructs matching the missing elements from this list. According to the government, and therefore according to industry, chemically purified, skimmed, homogenized and hormone enhanced milk is the same as milk that came out of a cow that lived in a field and ate cow foods so long as you put the vitamins back in. And so when we try to follow the doctor’s orders we end up with trite recommendations: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Really? One apple? Every day? Is a pesticide apple ok? What about an apple that was picked last year and stored in a climate controled refrigeration facility? Is an apple better than, say, a pomegranate? Or a coconut? Why an apple? And while I’m on the subject, should I peel it first?

These days everything I say has the tone of despair and in my heart I want to sound the alarm of impending disaster. Help me! Please! I am dying! We are dying as a people! We know what we need, we know what we want, but we are so small and so insignificant that we can’t do it without help. All goodness in the world cannot be quanitified. It is not that “money can’t buy love”, it’s that scientists can’t measure the body’s voice, governments can’t enforce good spirit, bosses can’t observe the value of a human life. In our mistaken belief that science will one day allow us to know all things, we have arrived at the false conclusion that what science can’t know does not exist. It’s heartbreaking.

And right now, it’s stomach-aching, too.

My Sexual Harassment Story

Sexual harassment is a shitty thing. It is not just because people get hurt by it, but because it is an abuse of the social structure performed so subtly that the victim of sexual harassment may never have even a single concrete moment that she can look back on and say, “this was clearly sexual harassment.” Moreover, without those concrete experiences, people who would be inconvenienced by the news of sexual harassment in their workplace, people like the managers responsible for preventing said harassment, are more inclined to doubt the conclusions of the victim than they are to take action against the predator. A fellow academic shared her story of sexual harassment, and it inspired me to share my own. Sexual harassment is often a collection of actions that together unequivocally harm a woman’s self image, career, and work place relationships. In order to make it easier for the victims of sexual harassment to overcome their harassers, I think those of us who are able are obliged to share our stories. I hope that by sharing my story here that other women might recognize what is happening and take actions sooner and with more resolve in order to protect themselves.

The situation started when a young assistant professor joined my university. I was married at the time and he approached my husband, thinking he was another member of the university, and inquired about the attractive woman organizing the happy hour. That woman was me. It was my third year in graduate school and I was on the committee for planning the economics department’s social events. My husband, being the sort of man who likes to brag about his accomplishments, explained that I was his wife. At the time I was looking for an advisor and the young assistant specialized in my field, so I took the opportunity to start a conversation. Looking back I’m sure it was their shared moment of objectifying me that paved the way for the difficulty ahead.

I began working with the professor several months later on a project he had started in graduate school. We were working to extend a simple two dimensional model of choice under uncertainty to a three dimensional case to gain insight on the existence of a counter example. I devoted many precious hours each week to this project in the hopes that it would lead to a co-authorship, or at least a reciprocal research relationship in which I could develop my own work. I enjoyed the work, but the professor remained guarded. He took my ideas and used them, but would not share his insights beyond what was necessary for the current task. There was no suggestion that a co authorship would occur.

Playing with one of the functions we had discussed, trying to get a better feel for what it meant, I discovered that I had completely characterized it with a single axiom of choice. I shared this information with my professor and we agreed I would pursue this direction in my third year paper, a requirement for the PhD in my department. After formalizing our relationship, my professor began spending more time in my office and he began initiating interactions with me that had nothing to do with my work. After my duties on the social committee ended, he started making special trips to my office to ensure I would continue attending the happy hours. He insisted I stay with him for several drinks and a game of pool after the rest of the department left. He wanted me to play on his team in a game of flip cup at the annual party. I had few friends and a failing long distance marriage at the time, so I thought I would go along with the invitations, telling myself that I was using my femininity to gain an advantage. If my advisor was interested in me socially or sexually, then perhaps he would be more inclined to take a personal interest in my work as well. 

My marriage began to deteriorate as I began to progress on my own research project. It seems to me that my husband was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my growing marketability and he began sabotaging my research activities. A professor of economics himself, it was not difficult for him to initiate contact with my faculty under the guise of academic inquiry. My health deteriorated rapidly and between the sudden drop in weight and the horrendous acne, it was impossible for me to hide that something awful was going on outside of my work. To make matters worse, my husband had invited himself to my university as a one semester guest professor working with my advisor and the second chair on my graduation committee. I decided it was best to fill my advisor in on the situation in the hopes that he would be my ally and my support. However, if things had turned out the way I had hoped, I would not be writing this blog.

After telling my advisor that my husband and I had separated, his involvement in my life intensified. He hired me as a teacher’s assistant for his game theory class and when I came to deliver the graded homework assignments we would make excuses to keep me in his office. He wanted me to help him understand his gas bill. He was curious how I was holding up with the impending divorce. He wanted to explain to me about how Israeli chocolate was so much better than American chocolate. He wanted me to style edit his current paper for publication. I actually was known for my good grammar and style editing and charged $35/hr to faculty for my services. I spent three hours on this job and when I came to him he said, “wow, this is great work! You definitely deserve a chocolate!” A chocolate?! “Professor, I don’t work for chocolate. I work for $35 per hour payable in cash or with your research fund.” He never paid me for the work.

Things got noticeably worse after this. I told him that the divorce was so stressful that I was taking a semester off from research. I also began avoiding him in the hallways and guarding information about my personal life more actively. He responded by petitioning the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) to have me TA his course again. My funding had expired so if he hadn’t done this I would have had no income. I shared the job responsibilities this time with another student, a married woman who was five months pregnant at the beginning of the semester. I received only a half fellowship and the three of us met to discuss the workload. I agreed to grade exactly half of the assignments for half the pay and everyone found this acceptable. I had never been late on an assignment in the past and had always done high quality work, but this semester my professor would not stop riding me. Three days after the midterm exam he wanted the grades done. I told him that I never finished grading sooner than one week after the assignment. I promised him I would finish the grading the next day. It wasn’t even lunch time and he tracked me down in the building to demand the work. I told him that he hadn’t given me a specific hour and he was being unreasonable. He responded by secretly shifting one of the assignments from my co-TA’s schedule onto my schedule and rewriting the final exam to be multiple choice. The end result was that I did two thirds of the work for only half the pay. When I found out that he had done this I finally knew that I was being punished. I flew into a rage, which I carefully contained inside my head, and resolved to take action. He had stolen money from me on two separate occasions and there was going to be hell to pay…

Or so I thought. My professor had actually submitted a dissatisfactory performance claim to my department chair. Before I could think I was being reprimanded for my neglect of duty. I explained what had happened and that Professor D. had taken advantage of me and my chair said that since I had finished the work already that I should just let it go. I was even more furious then than I had been before. I was being reprimanded because my advisor was using his position to assuage his damaged ego? And I, a poor graduate student living on less than $15,000/yr, who was being stolen from by my professor because I had rejected his sexual advances, was being advised to just walk away?

I went to the university ombudsman on the recommendation of one of my classmates. She was an older woman who accused me of being depressed. I certainly was depressed, but I say accused because she seemed to imply that I was allowing my depression to cloud my judgment. I told her I wanted something done about the situation and she said if I pushed the issue it would cost me my career in economics. The only thing to do, she said, was to file a sexual harassment complaint against the department but it was sure to fail because all I had to go on was my word versus the professor’s. Essentially, what I heard from her, was that unless he had raped me on camera that he had every right to use and abuse me in any way he felt fit and if it was inconvenient for the university to interfere then it wouldn’t. I felt alone and helpless and for six months I didn’t work.

What finally got me out of my situation was, of all things, an annual progress report to the graduate group. We had to fill these out every year to prove that we were making acceptable progress towards completing our dissertations. I felt that no one in my department would listen to me, that no one in the university cared that I was being abused, that nothing mattered at all. At this lowest point I had nothing to lose, so in my progress report I was honest. I explained how ending my marriage had produced a marked change in my relationship with my advisor. I explained how my committee and my department head refused to interfere on my behalf. I explained how the social situation had made it impossible for me to seek advice on my research or make progress and that for a full year I had written no chapters and had no expectation of being able to finish my degree. Apparently this was the right thing to do because less than three days later I was invited — not summoned, but invited — to come in a speak with the DGS again.

My department head must have gotten in trouble from my report because everything turned around that day. I showed up on November 11, 2011 at 11:00 in the morning. At exactly 11:11 and 11 seconds I made a wish that I would overcome these obstacles and be successful in my career and at 11:12 my department head was listening intently to my story. There were moments when he attempted to steer me away from outright accusing Professor D of harassment, but I was determined. By the end of our meeting I had stated my claim that my advisor had contributed to my current inability to function by using his position to attempt to force sexual favors from me. I had stated my claim that the other faculty turned a blind eye and that this had sealed my fate. The department head did not offer to take any action against Professor D, but this time he did not attempt to deny my claim either. We agreed that I would switch faculty and he would make sure that Professor D did not interact with me until I graduated. He also promised me no further interference from the university in my degree.

In the end I feel like I won the fight. I also feel like I have battle scars that may never heal. The difficulty with the sexual harassment was not any one single aspect. My husband had encouraged it both when he spoke with my advisor and when he spoke to me, insisting that my professor’s personal interest in me was not only not inappropriate, but even beneficial to my career. When it became obvious to me that the personal attention was not good for me, I was already deep in the process of what would become a three year divorce battle and I lacked the emotional strength to end two poisonous relationships at the same time, particularly when one of them was so intensely related to my success as an economist. And then there was the difficulty in seeing the harassment for what it was. No single interaction by itself would be cause for alarm, but taken together I can see the pattern of a man trying to manipulate a woman, stealing her time and her attention, without openly acknowledging that that is what he was doing. And finally, there is the shame of admitting that I was taken advantage of, that I even thought that I was the player at one point, not the one being played. Even when I was able to admit to myself what was going on, I had no allies. Even the women were uncomfortable acknowledging my experience and preferred to just sweep it all under the rug.

At this point I doubt anything more will come of the situation. I do worry, on occasion, that Professor D will not credit me for the work I contributed to his research. I need that credit as a young professor myself, but I doubt that even if he were to withhold it that there would be any repercussion. Sometimes I dream of the day we meet again, sometime off in the future where I am well established and respected in my field. I imagine him stunted and meddling, an older, fatter, balder version of himself. We will meet eyes and he will know that in the end I was the stronger one. Then, he will turn and hobble off into his dark ivy covered cave to perpetuate his delusion of greatness.

I share my story here for any women who might be now in the place I was years ago. To you who are wondering if his criticism, or even his praise, is really because of work you did or if it’s because he wants something from you; to you who feel as if you are the only one who sees it; to you who doubt that your own intuition is trustworthy; to you who have no allies, I give you my story. I hope when you read it you will find some insight into your own situation and some strength to fight for your own dignity. Also to you who share a workplace with women. I hope that my story gives you some insight into our plight. I hope that in reading my story you are able to recognize when your own coworkers are suffering a similar situation. I hope that maybe when you see the damage that sexual harassment causes that when it is your turn to choose if you will sweep it under the rug or not that you will choose to validate her experience instead.

 

Perspective

Living in Japan has taught me many things. The most difficult lesson I am having at the moment is understanding how Japanese people can work six to seven days a week for weeks on end, and know the exact number of holidays they’ve taken year to date at any day of the year. I have two acquaintances here with whom I have discussed this point. Both were quite enlightening.

One man works for an interior renovation company as a project manager. He can easily work for three weeks without a day off, and they are mostly ten hour days. I still do not understand how this is possible. When, for example, does a person on this schedule do their laundry? This is in a country where letting your laundry pile up for more than two days is considered bad hygiene, and dryers are luxury items. When we met I learned that he loves surfing and used to live near the beach before moving for his job. His dream is to become employed by a boutique sports wear shop on the shore where he can surf every morning for an hour or two before work. To me, this sounds like a small dream, but to him it is immeasurable personal freedom.

Since we met he told me he has started to rethink his life and his priorities. He wants this job, but he does not know how to acquire it. Japanese are not particularly good at controlling their own destinies. Generally, they are a very passive people. Recently he lamented to me that he would like to quit his current job, but there are no other available options to go to. I said to him, “why don’t you just take a few ‘sick’ days without quitting?” I figured if he gets caught, he wanted to quit anyway and maybe he’ll get some unemployment or something. I feel like this was a very American suggestion. “Ah! What an idea? I never thought of that,” he says to me.  “You really gave me a new perspective!”

The second man works for a local branch of a large sports equipment company (what can I say? I like sports). He is an hourly employee, which is considered “part time” in Japan. The shop closes at seven in the evening and one night I received a message from him “Done for the day!” It was 10:30 pm. He gets one day off per week and on that day he works part time as a mechanic. I said he works too much. He said I work too little. I told him the French consider a 35-hour work week to be excessive. He said Japan is not a country where you can live working less. At this last point, my mind started spinning.

As an economist I am keenly aware of the role of boundaries in our lives. Sometimes the boundary is money, as in we have to meet our budget or else we can’t pay off our mortgage. Sometimes the boundary is very personal and very rigid, like our innate attention span. Sometimes the boundary is imposed upon us by organizations that seem more mechanical than human, like the boundary between on-the-clock and off-the-clock. Boundaries can be comforting, such as when we set a boundary for how much risk we are willing to tolerate in our lives, and then stay safely inside it. But they can also be suffocating, such as when the boss thinks that an acceptable boundary between work and personal life is having access to your social media profile, e-mail and cell phone number, but promising not to misuse them. Boundaries can also control our ability to make good decisions by changing the context of the choices that we make. Japan, I argue, has a problem with boundaries.

As a member of the modern world with access to the internet, you have undoubtedly been told that the wealth available to the average citizen of the United States is greater than that of King Louis XIV, or some other similar claim of modern affluence. Undoubtedly you were told this by some charitable organization hoping for just two dollars a month to save some children from starving, or else you were told by some authority figure who wanted to impress upon you the need to work more and play less. Perhaps when you heard this claim, you thought to yourself, “if I am so rich, then why is my life so difficult?” Indeed, this is a difficult question to answer unless you are accustomed to thinking about how boundaries influence our welfare.

Let us take a moment to think back. Decades, indeed centuries ago, when the sun went down the world went to sleep. Even the lowliest peasant on a Midieval fief was sent home at the end of the day because the fuel to light the fields was simply not worth the expense. Come industrialization, not only did we have the ability to work long, grueling hours, but we also had the technology to make it profitable. From industrialization we moved to telecommunications. Now, even when the work day ended, our bosses could still find us in our homes and return us to work. From telecommunications we went to the current situation of live feeds and mobile computers so light and small that they fit in our pocket, and which are more powerful than the clunky desktop pieces we shared among an entire family barely twenty years ago. From the perspective of the economy, this is a massive increase in productive capacity and it is part of the reason why we are so affluent today. However, all this technology has created a difficult situation for employer and employee relationships.

Years ago, in fact only one generation ago, when you left the job, you stayed off duty until your shift started the next day. It was simply too difficult or else too cost ineffective for your boss to expect you to be productive in any capacity when you were not physically on site. Even jobs that relied on computers (or typewriters, as it were) stayed in the office since many people did not own the necessary equipment to take their work home with them. This placed a boundary on the daily productive capacity of each employee, which in turn restricted overall profits as well as individual wages. Today, however, the ability to take work home with us has reached through to almost every kind of job. Today, if we want to stop working, we have to provide a reason to stop where before the reason was clear: that it’s simply impossible to work more.

The technology that has allowed us to choose when and where we work has essentially created a conflict between employer and employee that clearly favors the employer. Now every employee must appeal for the privilege to stop working. If it is possible to work, why wouldn’t you? seems to be the logic that every company employs. Unfortunately because the power is never balanced between boss and worker, the worker loses ground. It is impossible to say to one’s boss “I simply don’t want to work this much,” without risking one’s job. The truth is that over time, technology has eroded the natural boundary between work and personal life and the individual is simply not equipped socially to reinstate it.

My friends do not work six to eight days a week because Japan is a country where it is impossible to live working less than six days a week. In fact Japan is a country where it is possible to live working every waking hour, and even some sleeping hours. That’s why my friend’s lives are so difficult. In Japan it is even more difficult to assert yourself to your superiors than it is in the western world. This is because Japan has a very well established social hierarchy and sense of obligation. The employer should take care of his employees’ every physical needs right up to subsidizing their rent and work meals, and in return the employees must dedicate their lives to their employers. It is almost as if the Samurai live on with karoshi (literally “death by over work”) replacing seppuku as the means of preserving honor.

Japan is not the only country that is slowly destroying its people through over work. Americans are well on their way there, too. To see this we need only look at the billions of dollars wasted on medicating chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and depression. Unfortunately this outcome is inevitable. The powerful will always take advantage of the weak, and there is an inherent power imbalance in our market system. All hope is not lost, however. We may not be able to control the infrastructure of our society, or be able to tell our bosses that they are crossing the line, but we can appreciate each other on a personal level. We can love our friends and celebrate their lives — lives lived fully, and completely, with work and with play and with love and with responsibility. In doing so we will lessen the moral burden of leaving an organization that abuses us. If we know we have the support of our friends in making decisions that improve our lives holistically, then even if it means risking our jobs, we can turn around and assert our own personal boundaries on the people who seek to use us up for their profits.

It may never happen that, as a society, our right to happiness and leisure is officially recognized. Even if we do everything in our power to protect our happiness and the happiness of those we love, it may always be true that the weaker in spirit will not be protected and will further contribute to a system that consumes where it should be providing. However, even if our numbers are too small to “make a difference,” there is still enough affluence in our society that even if we were to live perpetually at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, we would still have enough to live and live happily if only we could remember to keep that happiness precious.

In the end, I suppose it is all about perspective. We have a choice between selling our souls for affluence, or building affluence out of pure spirit. It can be done. It’s scary, though. We are not taught to be alive or to be happy and many of us simply assume that if we just do the “right” things happiness will fall on us. But, no. You have to make your happy. If you take the perspective that the world exists as resources to build happiness, as compared to the perspective of you exist to “succeed” and are only entitled to whatever happiness you can fit into the margins of that success, then you will find that happiness. As an economist I am meant to study the world as it operates in the presence of scarcity, but I don’t think we live with scarcity. I think we live with abundance, if only we were brave enough to reach out and take it.

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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