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.   

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