Freakonomics is losing its luster 

I remember reading the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner when I had to fly to Nebraska for work.   I thought it was an interesting, occasionally fascinating read.  The most controversial aspect of the book is that it postulates that perhaps the reason why violent crime plummeted in the early 1990s, was because of legal abortion starting in the 1970s.   

While I can think of easily a hundred reasons why a woman’s right to choose abortion should be kept legal, I like this argument only because it gives conniptions to those who oppose abortion.   But regardless of that point, I thought it was a fascinating study in looking for real connections that might not be immediately obvious.  

Dubner has been the host of a weekly podcast based upon the book (and its less compelling follow-up, Super Freakonomics) for nearly seven years.  I’ve been listening to the podcast almost since its inception.   And it has had some fun moments in these past seven years: the story of a fake restaurant that exposed the fact that wine “experts” probably don’t know what they’re talking about, extreme foodies who make bizarre meals like turning a whole T-bone steak dinner into something the size of a bean, even getting ahead of some trends, like the service oriented economy and streaming music services.   

A couple of weeks ago, I had a blog entry inspired by an episode of the podcast.  But that episode is a part of a disturbing trend right now.   Four of the last five episodes were not really up to the standards I’ve come to expect of the show.  

It started with the kid gloves with which Dubner interviewed former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.   Whatever else Ballmer is or is not, he’s not a great steward of the companies he has run.   The culture he created at the software behemoth almost ruined the company, and it’s still struggling to get out of that.  The interview completely glossed over his tenure at Microsoft other than to needle Ballmer over his prediction that Apple’s iPhone wouldn’t sell.   

Then came the interview with Steve Hilton.  (Maybe Steve Dubner just likes people who shares his first name…)  I don’t need to rehash my comments from my earlier blog entry but the kid gloves were on again, not just for not calling Hilton on his myopia, but also for not criticizing him for leaving his country in the aftermath of the vote he orchestrated to the results he sought.

I’ll give a pass to the next episode, which was dedicated to the CRISPR gene editing tool.  Insightful and neither overly optimistic nor filled with scare tactics.  We need more science communication like this.  

The next two episodes were both released this past week, and by the end of the second part, I was ready to throw something at Dubner, when he interviewed Charles Koch.  While this interview did grant some insight into why I agree with him and his brother on some issues (most notably immigration) and even why he occasionally pursues tax policies that would cost him more money than he pays now, I can’t accept some of the places where Koch should be held more accountable, despite Dubner’s mysterious silence.  

The first and most glaring part of Koch’s position is how often progress is stymied by “special interests”, both from the left and from the right.   Given the lack of detail he provided in terms of what qualifies as a special interest, I have to assume he meant anyone who doesn’t want what he wants.  We all have interests and we all think we’re special.   I’d like to think my interests (fortification of the wall between church and state, being good stewards of the environment, not allowing the free market to run roughshod over those most in need) aren’t really all that special and, to be blunt, in the best interests not only of me and my family, but also in the best interests of the country.   

The second part is his pride in being opposed to legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley.   This law was passed after the accounting scandals in companies like Enron and WorldCom.   Indeed, all financial regulations that are codified in the law — be they the laws passed in the 1930s under the New Deal, or the regulations on Wall Street in the 1980s, or more recent laws like Sarbanes-Oxley — are there because the people we trusted with our money, were doing things that were, at best, untoward with that money.  

You can argue that that’s true of all laws: they’re generally passed because someone did something they shouldn’t have done even though it was technically (up to that point) legal.    In the state of Delaware, it’s illegal to go fishing on horseback.   You can almost see how that law came about: someone (probably a male-type person) did just that, but the horse got spooked when he caught a fish.   He got injured, possibly losing his fishing pole in the process, and sued for damages and/or a new fishing pole.   The law almost writes itself after that.  

Koch also pointed to HillaryCare as a reason why he first became politically active in the 1990s. While I’m not trying to argue that Hillary’s proposals back then were perfect, I don’t quite understand why health care should be treated as a commodity to the extent that it is.  But that’s the stuff of another blog entry, especially given the current debates on capitol hill.  

Next week’s Freakonomics episode will be a repeat of an episode first aired a couple of years ago.  I hope Dubner turns the ship around on this podcast, since the quality of the shows has not been good of late.  I don’t mind listening to people I disagree with.  I do mind when they’re not challenged on such obvious topics as what we’ve seen with Ballmer, Hilton, and Koch in the past month.   

Can we please do away with referenda?

Last week on the Freakonomics podcast, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Steve Hilton, one of the architects of last year’s Brexit vote.  One of the tidbits of that interview was Hilton’s disillusionment not at the result of the vote (which is what he wanted: for Britain to leave the EU) but instead at the reasons why people voted to leave the EU (anti-immigrant sentiment and a misplaced nationalism, which he didn’t want).

I’m willing to look away from his myopia for the purposes of this blog entry.   (If this essay were more focused on the Brexit vote itself, he wouldn’t be so lucky.)

But he made an interesting and important point that I’m not completely unsympathetic to: his quarrel with the EU was a direct result of the fact that the centralized government was appointed and not elected.  He used the analogy of the United States: each individual state is autonomous, but we still vote for the president and the congress.  That doesn’t happen with the EU.  

I suspect that particular bit of resentment isn’t unique to Britain.  But is the solution to that problem a complete withdrawal from the union?  Why couldn’t he lobby to change the way the EU’s leadership is chosen?   If he is being intellectually honest, then, I have to assume he feels the same way about the UN and NATO.   He didn’t say.  

But Brexit is emblematic of a greater problem that democracies have to face: the fact that allowing the voting public to make serious policy decisions via referenda is, more often than not, counterproductive.  (If I’m being my most polite.)

At its surface, it feels like it should be the opposite.   After all, if you put questions of the future of the community directly into the hands of the people, that seems like the ideal future state of a democracy.   (Even the word “democracy” comes from the Greek, meaning leadership or government by the people…)

But that’s the real failing of a referendum: a democracy depends upon an informed electorate and even the most informed of us, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know before we step into the voting booth.  And a referendum has two pain points to it: the wording of the question and the limitations of it being a yes/no question.   

Think of the hypothetical referendum that asks the question “would you support a tax increase in order to turn the community into a Paradise by every sense of the word?”  There are three kinds of people who would vote “no” on this question: the curmudgeons who want everything to get worse, the people who already think it’s perfect, and the people who stopped reading after the word “increase”.

Think of all of the votes around the US prior to the Obergefell v Hodges ruling in 2015 that legalized same sex marriage.   Almost all of the referenda in the various states, went against allowing same sex couples to get married.   Why?  If you aren’t gay, allowing gay couples to marry is something that you should be, at worst, ambivalent to.   I’m sure there are some gay people who don’t want to be allowed to marry, but there’s no way they could be enough to swing the results of the referendum away from that privilege when you look at the size of the greater electorate.  

Now magnify that to something at a much larger scale, like Brexit or a vote to secede from a greater union/nation-state (I’m looking at you, Scotland, Quebec, and even Basque).   With all of the moving pieces that need to go into the implications of such a dramatic change, is it ever truly fair to expect such a dramatic policy initiative to be driven by asking literally everyone a yes/no question?   Especially when there could be other options that haven’t been put to a vote at all.   A hundred people voting “yes” could offer a hundred different reasons for their vote.  

The very fact that so many aspects of the US Constitution are still being litigated and in need of interpretation — nearly 230 years after it was first ratified — is proof that no one can truly know all of the implications of a vote.  (Although the Third Amendment isn’t litigated very much.   I guess we got that one right…)

I have no problem with any time the leaders of a democracy want to know if they are steering the country in the right direction and opening questions up to a general vote.   But the voters are under no duty or obligation to uphold the foundational documents and intents of the community or nation, the way the leaders are.  For that reason alone, referenda should never be binding.  

And if you’re just polling the people to know how they’re feeling, why not use the professional pollsters rather than going through the timing and expense of an election?

A message for future generations 

I’m sorry.  

On behalf of my generation and on behalf of those generations that came before me, I profoundly apologize to you, my children, their children and generations of children yet unborn.  

About two years ago, almost every country on the planet came together and agreed to make the changes necessary to confront what could be the single greatest threat ever faced by mankind: the changes in the global climate that are a direct result of human activity.

Today, Thursday, June 1, 2017, US President Donald Trump abrogated his responsibility as the leader of the country that, in raw numbers, is the second worst polluter in the world.   When those numbers are rejiggered to the per-capita pollution, the USA is the worst.  He announced his intent to withdraw from this agreement.  

I can’t honestly say this is a surprise.   He promised he would do it on the campaign trail.  And that promise alone should have been reason for any sane person not to vote for him.  

Still, this action, which will take four years to complete, makes me ashamed to be an American.   I just want to underscore that Donald Trump does not speak for me on this issue.  

I have been making a concerted effort, at my own level, to combat additional damage to the environment, as both my electric car and the solar panels on my roof will attest.  Not quite as visible are the water-saving measures on every faucet, hose, and spigot in my house.  

I have said it before: even if the climate weren’t changing (which it is) and even if we weren’t responsible (which we are), I don’t see how cleaning up the planet — this beautiful, lush planet — and reducing or eliminating pollution can be perceived as a bad thing.  

If there is criticism of the agreement that we are backing out of, it’s that it’s not aggressive enough in combating harm to the environment.  

I still hope that the US can still take responsibility before the withdrawal is complete.  To abide by the terms of the agreement, if not improve upon them.  To restore sanity to the nation and to the world.  

But today, I can only say I’m sorry.