Search the Site

Injecting some Freakonomics into everyday life

We loved an article, written by the columnist Debra Pickett of the Chicago Sun Times, discussing how she is using the ideas of Freakonomics to navigate her daily life just a little bit differently.

Here is the text of the article:

Outsmugging the smug: Don’t try this at home
May 13, 2005


I’ve been reading Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (William Morrow, $25.95), the best-selling book in which University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt takes a look at the hidden factors — such as incentive systems, economic and otherwise — that make life work the way it does.

It’s a very dangerous book for someone like me, whose grasp of economics is not exactly firm, because its tone — the voice of Levitt’s co-author, writer Stephen J. Dubner — is incredibly friendly and approachable. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (Little, Brown: $24.95), Freakonomics makes me think I understand a lot more about the world than I actually do.

So, walking around this week, I’ve been keeping a keen eye out for truths that expose the often lazy and flawed thinking behind conventional wisdom.

Every time I saw someone in my baby-ridden neighborhood struggling with a $300 car seat, I felt a smug satisfaction at understanding, thanks to Levitt, that car seats really don’t do much to keep kids safe. It’s having the kid in the back seat, rather than on your lap up front, that makes the big difference. The “extra” safety of the 19-point restraint system in the 80-pound carrier is, statistically speaking, nominal at best.

It’s a rare joy to be able to out-smug the obsessive parents in the Strollerville section of Lincoln Park.

And I could barely contain the urge to photocopy the “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” section of Levitt’s book and distribute it to a few well-chosen mailboxes. It would only take a minute to highlight the passage in which a regression analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study demonstrates that neither having a stay-at-home mother nor visiting museums on a regular basis significantly improves a child’s performance in school.

But, really, who I am to point out to my Bugaboo-owning neighbors that all their child-rearing angst might be for naught? They’re fine people, after all, and shouldn’t have to suffer just because I read a book that has me convinced — for the moment, until the next big book comes along — that I have a deep and sophisticated understanding of the world.

City Council Logic 101

It was almost like a gift to me, then, when the City Council decided this week to prohibit drivers on Chicago streets from using cell phones, except for the hands-free kind.

Because I have absolutely no problem believing that having read a single book puts me in an excellent position to understand, comment upon, and, yes, even criticize the intricate workings of the aldermanic mind. And the cell phone ban is a fine example of council thinking.

Never mind all the studies that say it’s the talking, not the phone, that takes away from a driver’s concentration. Never mind that other things — like the pancake breakfast on a plate, being eaten with a knife and fork by a woman I saw heading south on Lake Shore Drive one morning — are equally distracting and that there are already laws against “distracted driving.”

The City Council went with classic conventional wisdom logic: it feels like cell phones are a menace to society, so it must be true.

And, because it’s far easier for the aldermen to take credit for passing a new law — look how productive! — than for avoiding the creation of a redundant one, they have to figure, “Hey, why not?”

For the first time in my life, I feel like I completely understand our city government.

How I’ll win my Nobel prize

Reading Freakonomics has me convinced that the entire universe works in an understandable way — just not in exactly the way most of us think it can be understood.

So I’ve been trying to apply Levitt’s rigorous logic to my own life, to get a better handle on why I make certain choices.

(Incidentally, this is not an exercise I would recommend to anyone who happens to be planning a wedding. It’s really best not to try to comprehend why a champagne toast costs $25 per person. Or why you feel, despite the cost, that you absolutely must have one.)

I started with some of the basic features of my daily routine, like the electric toothbrush I use. Is it really that much more effective than a regular toothbrush or do I just like its little humming sound?

And how about the little “stored value” cards I use to pay my CTA fare and to buy my tall soy latte? I feel, somehow, like they’re supposed to be a good deal — or at least that they should help me stick to my budget and keep track of what I’m spending — but they must also be a good deal for the businesses issuing them. What’s in it for them? And is having a Starbucks card actually making me spend more money there? Is that even possible at this point?

My imagination quickly moved to more esoteric questions, like why it costs so much more to get a manicure in Chicago than it does in New York.

Life is full of “freakonomic” conundrums. And I’m going to get right to work on exposing them.

Just as soon as I call the caterer to order that champagne.

We (Dubner and Levitt) are always interested in hearing about cases where the Freakonomic view of the world pays off, especially in unexpected ways. Send them our way.