Thursday, June 23, 2011

Results you have to live with

In their 2005 book Freakonomics, journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven Levitt are all about results you might not like, but have to live with, because the statistics support them. Like the theory that the crime rate fell in the early 1990s as a direct result of the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. See, unwanted and subsequently aborted babies can't commit no crimes. Controversial but probably true.

It's kind of funny, then, that the documentary version of their book ended up containing plenty of results they might not have liked, but had to live with.

As part of the resumption of our Documentary Mondays summer series, which took a one-week hiatus while we were out of town (with possible future hiatuses for a family visit this Monday and 4th of July the following Monday), my wife and I watched the 2010 documentary Freakonomics starting on Monday night and spilling over into Tuesday. It was supposed to be my turn and we were supposed to watch Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud (also from 2010), but Netflix pulled a fast one on us and rescinded its instant availability. We probably have a good 25 other docs in our instant queue, and this one took its place.

The film is supposed to build on the theories discussed in the 2005 book of the same name, which I did not read, but which supposedly includes a number of theories that combine economics and popular culture to try to force its readers into looking outside conventional theories to explain societal trends.

The problem with a movie version is that the topic is so deep and so far-reaching, it becomes a nearly hopeless task to try to encompass it all in a single film -- an 86-minute film at that.

Especially when the film is comprised of essentially four short films directed by four prominent documentarians (or teams of documentarians) with four distinct styles, and little accountability.

Yep, that's right, once these documentarians had been commissioned to make their segment of the overall film, it doesn't seem like there was much of a guiding hand that forced them into sticking to a clear, cohesive message, a message that also boiled Freakonomics down to its essence. So, assuming that Hubner and Levitt were in some way responsible for commissioning the film, they were pretty much forced to live with whatever these documentarians gave them.

And while the film is fairly entertaining throughout, it's so uneven that I had to record it as a thumbs down in my official records. That's pretty controversial in itself, since almost every documentary I've ever seen has received at least a marginal thumbs up from me.

The first segment was directed by agent provocateur Morgan Spurlock, famous for Super Size Me and other experiments in documentary filmmaking that have basically served to build the Morgan Spurlock brand. It's got the already dangerous title "A Roshanda by Any Other Name," and it goes on to explore how and whether the name you're given by your parents affects your prospects for success in life.

On the surface this is an interesting idea, but it's handled with a significant lack of racial or socioeconomic sensitivity. For example, Spurlock gets a number of African Americans to list to the camera a bunch of "made up" African American names that we are supposed to find vaguely ridiculous, the result of adhering too closely to African heritage and certain types of naming conventions that are "uniquely black." (In fact, there's a whole bit on the number of girls named "Unique," and the number of possible spellings of that name.) This gets the piece off to a really icky start. It's as if Spurlock is saying "See, the black people are the ones who are making fun of the names, so it's not racist." Uh huh. Then what about that white guy who says that his friend's drug dealer is named Tyrone, and he assumes the dealer is black?

With only limited basis in either science or economic theory, Spurlock's contribution to Freakonomics seems to exist solely for the purpose of belittling people's reasons for choosing the names they give their children. And it's not only black people he's making fun of. There's a bit where he talks about the five most popular girls' names among upper middle-class white girls and lower middle-class white girls. The fact that two of those names overlap (Ashley, Jessica) leads Spurlock to conclude that that "the Walmart set" is trying to "steal" the names that sound aristocratic, depriving them of their value. (There's actually a line that says, paraphrasing: "Yesterday's Ashley is today's Trashley." Huh?). Then there's his whole bit about how girls named Brandi and Bobbi are more likely to become strippers. Um, what? First off, strippers named Brandi are usually not actually named Brandi. That's their stripper name. Secondly, is Bobbi supposed to be a common stripper name? Not according to any stripper naming conventions I'm aware of. In fact, you'd think it would be pretty unlikely since it sounds like the male name Bobby, and might tap into the customers' dormant (or not so dormant) homophobia.

Without having read the book, it's unclear to me how much of this is Spurlock and how much of it is Dubner and Levitt. But since I have developed a negative bias toward Spurlock in recent years, I'm going to blame him -- if not for the theories, then at least for the carelessness and dismissiveness he displays toward almost everyone he discusses. There's one sort of interesting observation about how a job candidate named Tyrone was getting fewer calls from prospective employers than a job candidate named Greg, despite them having the exact same resume. But do I really need an economist to point this out to me, or is it something I can just assume based on my understanding of centuries worth of oppression of blacks?

While this first piece was riddled with problems, at least I saw how it was trying to relate to the overall theme (such as it is). Not so with the second piece, directed by documentary heavyweight Alex Gibney (Enron, Taxi to the Dark Side).

Gibney's piece is about cheating in sumo wrestling. It's ostensibly about how in the extremely insular world of sumo, there's a secret system of favor-doing that essentially causes some wrestlers to throw matches when it will benefit their opponent to win more than it will hurt them to lose. I suppose this can be tied to some kind of economic theory, but Gibney does not do this ostensibly. (Though I have to say, this is the segment of the film where I had to bail on Monday night -- a beer and child-related sleep deprivation sent me to bed prematurely, and I may not have been fully grasping the film in the few minutes before I went to bed, especially since it contained subtitles for the Japanese interview subjects.)

Instead, Gibney gets into talking about a case where a couple whistle-blowers were murdered for trying to shed light on the cheating scandals that plagued the sport. Details about this case are delved, and there's a pretty extensive discussion of how the principles of sumo dovetail with the principles of Shintoism. What any of this has to do with economic theory becomes quickly clouded.

In the end, Gibney made a short film about match rigging in sumo, probably because that aligned more with his own interests. A shame, because as a standalone film it would be pretty interesting. As is, it just made me scratch my head more about where Freakonomics the movie was going.

It took Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) to get the film going in a direction I could recognize. Jarecki was left with the juicy bit I teased in my opening paragraph -- namely, the idea that at least 50% of the drop in crime in the early 1990s could be blamed on criminals who were legally aborted before they had a chance to become criminals. And although that idea is absolute heresy to pro-lifers -- abortion as a crime-fighting tactic? -- it makes sense as described. And Jarecki's segment goes on to satisfactorily prove why Roe v. Wade may have played a larger role in the reduction of crime than a change in police tactics, an increase in the number of jailed criminals (meaning they aren't on the streets to do the crimes) and tighter gun laws.

Jarecki smartly uses footage from It's a Wonderful Life as a counterpoint to his ideas, since the theory is the same -- how life would be if you had never been born (in that case, George Bailey; in this case, a future carjacker). There's a possible racial element to this segment as well, but Jarecki skirts it in part by using a black narrator -- in fact, a narrator who also sounds very old. Something about this choice works, as the cracking ancient voice lends a certain gravitas to all the facts and figures being discussed. Among those is the idea that the advent of abortion did not prevent birth, but delayed it. A woman who was young and in dire circumstances would have previously had a child who grew up in a potentially poor and unloving home. By aborting and then delaying until the conditions were right, the mother would bring a child into the world who's better loved and better cared for. Meaning a child from the same parent might have a better chance of avoiding a life of crime.

This segment really worked for me, so I don't have much more to say about it.

The last segment was by the directors of Jesus Camp, whom I didn't remember by name: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Having examined the motivations of teenagers (and younger) in Jesus Camp -- if you haven't seen it, the weeping 10-year-old "true believers" in that film are downright horrifying -- they were the perfect directors to take on the segment of the film dealing with incentivizing teenagers to do better in school.

Their segment essentially follows the program implemented by the University of Chicago in a local Chicago high school, to pay students $50 per grade period if they kept their grades as C's or higher, and make the qualified students eligible for a lottery with a $500 payout. The goal was to give the kids incentive to study, obviously -- and remove the incentive of teachers to cheat on students' behalves to raise their standard test scores, which has positive consequences for the school.

Ewing and Grady follow two kids -- a white teen named Kevin and a black teen named Urail (who, my wife and I noted, would have made a good participant in Spurlock's segment about names). Both have mostly failing grades, and both want to improve in order to get paid. In the end (spoiler alert), Urail gets better and Kevin gets worse. A nice counterpoint to some of the unfortunate racial politics earlier in the film.

I found this segment pretty interesting, but ultimately did not really know what it was supposed to show us. There's an economic theory at work here, for sure, but the results are positive for one test subject and negative -- not just neutral, but actually negative -- for the other. What are we supposed to take from that? More than anything, the segment seemed to function as an opportunity to show the bold application of economic theory -- not whether it actually worked or not.

Okay, that's a bit more detail about Freakonomics than I intended to get into. See what happens when you piss me off, Morgan Spurlock?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to post on this to let you know that I am said white guy who assumed that Tyrone the drug dealer was a black guy.