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Pop Culture Plus Economics Means Freakonomics

Updated: Oct. 5, 3:30 p.m.

The film version of the best-selling book “Freakonomics” is a fast-paced look at the “hidden side of everything.”

Mainly a compendium to the 2005 book, the film will be interesting for those with a mind open to looking at issues through a new prism, but it will not be anything earth-shattering to the more than 4 million people who have already read the book.

“Freakonomics” is essentially a visual representation of different chapters from the book. Four sets of directors worked on the film to present an economist’s model for explaining social events.

Questions that might seem rather theoretical, such as “Does having an African-American sounding name put one at a disadvantage in the workplace?” actually do get answered through experts and empirical data.

Perhaps the best segment is also the most controversial: that the Supreme Court decision in the landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade led to a drop in crime rate in the 1990s.

The film allows the book’s authors, Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner, the chance to respond to some of their critics. The two say they don’t actually advocate abortion as a crime-control technique, but that it’s important to look at the cause-effect relationship between removing the number of unintended pregnancies, because they say unwanted children could lead to more troubled youths and more crime.

If the film has one major flaw, though, it’s that while the authors’ views are well-argued and explained, their critics aren’t given much voice to present possibly valid views to the contrary. While “Freakonomics” certainly isn’t supposed to be a neutral documentary, it would have been nice to hear the counter-arguments to Leavitt and Dubner.

Also shown in the film are shorter vignettes offering viewers a few minutes of real-life situations where applying economics can help one see people’s motives.

The first of these shorter segments looks at the motives of a real estate agent. Popular opinion is that when one benefits from a higher selling price, the real estate agent does as well. But the authors of the original book pick apart that theory and explain in lay terminology that, in fact, the motive of one’s real estate agent does not necessarily align with one’s own motives.

It is these incentives that are the keystone of the movie and are described as the cornerstone of human behavior. Incentives motivate us, whether it’s the promise of a raise at work or the hope for a kiss from your spouse, in nearly every aspect of our lives. But because people’s desires are complicated, incentives don’t always work exactly as we might expect. In fact, they can have unintended consequences.

The clearest view of these incentives comes in the final story in the film, in which the University of Chicago set up a scheme to pay students to get and keep good grades. Students were given $50 when they achieved grades of C or better in all of their classes. They were also entered into a drawing to win $500 each month if they kept their grades up. The experiment didn’t work.

When legislators are looking at education reform, the outcomes of this experiment will likely inform that debate.

Ultimately, “Freakonomics” will provide its viewers with an interesting and illustrative view of human behavior. While it’s not a must-see, especially for those already familiar with the book, it’s pleasant enough to enjoy and certainly is less of a strain than sitting through Economics 101.

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