Freakonomics is losing its lusterĀ 

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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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?

Marching again

It’s weird what and who you think about when certain conditions are right.  I’ve been thinking about Mr. Hanlon, who was my physics teacher my junior year of high school.  

I cannot understate the damage he did to my overall intellectual growth and natural curiosity.  He was the reason why I didn’t take a science senior year of high school.  

On the first day of class, he walked in and asked us why we were all taking physics.  The simple answer to this question was that it was next in line after biology (freshman year) and chemistry (sophomore year).  His response to being told this?  “Wrong!  Physics is everything!”

In fairness to Mr. Hanlon, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about science (or whichever field a teacher teaches).  What he didn’t seem to understand is that the students who don’t share his enthusiasm need to appreciate the topic on their own terms in their own time.  

That’s not what he did, though.  He had a way of talking down to students like me who had the aptitude but not the interest.  He had the misfortune of timing being a teacher of mine after I had just come home from Penn State’s Summer Intensive Language Institute where I learned German and realized that I wanted to study languages.  

I acknowledge having the aptitude.  There was one lab report, for example, where he came out and shook my hand in front of the whole class because what I’d written was more or less what he wanted to see.  I had let other people copy my report and I guess they went a little too far in paraphrasing what I had written.  

But as the year went on, he made his opinion clear: I’d be wasting my life if I didn’t declare that I wanted to be either a physicist or engineer.  At one point, I got so pissed off at his attitude that I wrote a lab report up in French.  (For reference, I learned then that the French word for “wave” is “vague”.  He made a lame joke about the repeated use of this word in my report before he gave me an A on it.)

In college, I took my mandatory “hard” sciences, and studied the science of linguistics, which started to rekindle things but it wasn’t until my kids were born, that I started to read scientific books again.  Thanks to George Hrab’s podcast, I discovered the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. And now I am a booster for science.  

Keep in mind that I don’t like most science fiction because they still skimp too much on character development, and I can’t imagine starting to watch TV shows like Star Trek, Dr. Who, or CSI    

I don’t know what happened to Mr. Hanlon.  If he’s still alive, though, I imagine that he might have been marching this past weekend at one of the many rallies in the March for Science.   

I did just that this past weekend in Washington, DC.  It’s unfortunate that it was needed, but the anti-science attitude of much of the federal government, needs to be called out and put right.  There are stories that allege that Donald Trump was shaken by it.   I hope they’re true and that he might change things for the better.  Stopping climate change is the most important issue we’re facing.  That’s only one thing, though.  

We need to follow the evidence in public policy, pure and simple.  And if the current administration and the current congress refuse to do so, they need to be voted out and replaced by people who will.