Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Super Freakonomics

I picked up Levitt and Dubner's Super Freakonomics (2009) when I ran into a former student on a flight from Dayton to Washington Dulles International Airport. Brian, who works for the State Department of the U.S.A. and was on his way to Iraq to help with the stabilization efforts with the Iraqi government, was done with the book and gave it to me to read on my return to Qatar.

The book's propositions are straightforward - people are driven by practical and economic motivations rather than humanitarianism, altruism, or anything else. The authors also believe that many changes in history have been attributed to the wrong factors and, with this as a backdrop, they propose that there are easier ways to address current problems than we might think.

The authors dissect numerous specific cases of incorrect historical attribution. One case was the rise of gasoline-powered automobiles in the 20th century. In Levitt and Dubner's interpretation, Henry Ford and his mass production techniques were important but the real driver was that cities in the early 20th century were drowning in horse manure. Yes, they assert that the major motivation for the auto was to reverse the messiness and smelliness of horses and that the public disposal of manure (or lack thereof) had degraded the quality of life in urban areas to such intolerable levels that the auto was the only way out. Another example of reinterpreting history was the case of the Viennese doctor who was troubled by the high death rate among infants in the local hospitals. The presumed causes at the time the problem was prevalent (early 20th century) ranged from believing that infant deaths were the result of tight petticoats, foul air in delivery wards, or the presence of male doctors during childbirth. A young and aware doctor looked more carefully and found that infant deaths were lower among those women who gave birth with the assistance of a mid-wife than those who gave birth in the hospital. The stunning and simple answer was that doctors weren't washing their hands while mid-wives were. This simple conclusion, and the campaigns that came from it, began to save lives in Vienna and eventually around the world.

Both of these examples shake up prevailing beliefs. Freakonomics asserts that many of the causes for change in our society are different than we thought and some that we've attributed to complex dynamics are actually much simpler than we think.

The one example that demonstrated possible future inaccurate attribution as well as too complex a solution is global warming. I am a believer in the warnings we have about global warming and so are the authors. However, it has been perplexing to see the political and economic battles that dominate the conversations about the role of jet fuel and automobile exhaust as major contributors to the erosion of the atmosphere. Particularly as a resident of the oil/gas rich Arabian Gulf, it isn't to this area's advantage to reduce fuel consumption and the fact is, while western countries are attempting to do something, developing countries see using relatively cheap fossil fuel as their right, especially since the west birthed the largest economies in the world by broad and aggressive use of the same fuels. So, the point is, how could a strategy be discerned that doesn't overreact to the problem and doesn't penalize developing countries who may not be convinced of the importance of global warming or feel that the west needs to address its own issues before telling others what they should do?

Intellectual Ventures, an innovative California group that specializes in finding unlikely and effective solutions to problems, has an idea about how to address global warming. For a starter, they don't see the dire straights claimed by some. They say that one of the easiest solutions for global warming would be a couple of volcanoes spewing enough gas and ash into the atmosphere to reduce temperatures across the globe as a natural outcome. Intellectual Ventures further suggests that, if we aren't willing to wait for a volcano or two, another solution is to create a "garden hose to the sky" that naturally circulates heavy and light air that will correct the atmospheric problems at a fraction of the cost most people predict when they propose models of fuel reduction, alternative energies, and other strategies under popular debate.

I've struggled with posting thoughts on Freakonomics because I have been arguing with its first premise - that change is only motivated by practical and economic benefit. I agree that sometimes simple solutions are better than those that are more complex and I see that solutions are often inaccurately attributed to things that were only tangentially related. By struggling with the motivational origin for change coupled with the idea of simple solutions, I've realized something about my experiences as of late. I am struck by how easy it is for some of my acquaintances to reach out in generosity to each other and me. By believing in abundance that comes from giving what you have to others, those with little can actually have a lot. They have enough to eat, they share shelter, and they have very rich and caring relationships. I am not saying that we'd all be better off if we had less. I'm simply observing how easy and simple sharing, being in community, and caring for each other is among those who have few physical possessions but have wealth in relationships that is beyond the imagination of many of those who have so much.

So, is Freakonomics right about self-interested motivations for change and simple solutions to bring change about? Their evidence would seem to indicate that there are many examples that could come down to this. On the other hand, some of the world's greatest challenges - food, shelter, education, and natural resources - just may be equally, or more, resolvable when approached with simple solutions grounded in connectedness and concern for the mutual needs of us all. At least in the microcosm in which I live, the simple solution of assuming abundance and sharing more equitably may be the only way to save lives and create peace in our future.


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