Stephen J. Dubner: My Part in his Upfall

by Henry Farrell on March 21, 2012

So it appears that Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of _Freakonomics_ is “upset at various critics”: He is deeply unhappy with Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung, for having written what appeared to me to be a skeptical but intellectually generous take on the Freakonomics project. He is angry at Ezra Klein, whom he describes as someone who is ‘in the business of attacking at any cost’ on the basis of a tweet that Dubner presents in a “rather misleading fashion”: And he believes that ‘a man named Chris Blattman’ (great title for a band btw), was insufficiently abject in his apologies for a post “in which he suggested”: that _Freakonomics_ did not provide sufficient credit to other bloggers. Dubner is entirely right when he suggests that apologies should not be self-serving. So I hope that my own apology – long overdue – is not misinterpreted as same. I’d hereby like to sincerely apologize for having done my little bit to make Stephen Dubner and the whole _Freakonomics_ phenomenon what they are today.

Long-time readers will be familiar with the _Crooked Timber_ seminar that we did many years ago on the original _Freakonomics_ book. I can’t say what exact role it played in helping the book becoming the mass cultural phenomenon that it did, but the publicists seem to think that it played a significant role in generating publicity. Part of this was likely novelty – no-one had done anything quite like this before, so that lots of other bloggers linked to it. The revised and updated paperback edition of the book described the seminar as having provided the most astute analysis to date of the book’s arguments.

Doing this seminar was, I’m afraid, my initiative. I could try to defend myself. I (and others) were more interested in Levitt’s original academic work than the popularization. We sort of said this _sotto voce_ in the seminar, but only _sotto voce._ Nor has _Freakonomics_ been entirely bad. It’s gotten e.g. Justin Wolfers, who is excellent value for money, out into broader public circulation.

But even if it seemed a good idea at the time, I should have known better. Yes – Levitt is an interesting and original economist, but the glib contrarianism and breezy confidence that silly econometric results would tell us something valuable about the world were baked into the cake from the beginning of the _Freakonomics_ project, and perhaps before. D-squared’s perhaps never-to-be-published CT summation of his various posts on Freakonomics makes that clear. It’s a bit like one of those high-end fashion marques that begins with haute couture, and ends up over-extending its brand by using it on everything from cheap plastic novelties to toilet paper.

Both the blog and the second book were pretty dreadful. John has written about the contrarianism of the book, while as Andrew Gelman has hinted, he could have been a lot nastier had he wanted to be, pointing e.g. to the blog’s highlighting of results suggesting that ESP works, that the economy wasn’t actually all that bad in October 2008 etc. Nearly every time that I’ve seen _Freakonomics_ mentioned in the last several years, I’ve felt guilty and embarrassed that I had something to do with its rise to prominence. Very likely, it would have become prominent anyway (it had a very well organized PR campaign). But perhaps, given the chanciness of social contagion etc, it would not.

In any event, there really aren’t any excuses. I’m genuinely sorry for whatever push I gave to help start the _Freakonomics_ snowball rolling down the hill. There’s not much I can do about it now, but there you go.

David Brady on the Welfare State, Unions, and Poverty

by Kieran Healy on March 21, 2012

Here’s a nice profile in the Guardian of my colleague Dave Brady, who was in London recently talking about poverty and social policy:

Brady’s response is that we need to rebuild trust in a welfare state that everyone feels they benefit from. The problem he sees developing in Britain is similar to the situation that exists in the US, where welfare is now only for the very poorest people.

“The more [that] ‘welfare’ is a broad portfolio of social policy to help people across the life span, the more effective it is at reducing poverty,” he explains.

“If you create a small constituency of beneficiaries that doesn’t have broad-based political support, it’s harder to mobilise in support of those benefits.”

For evidence, Brady points out, look no further than the ease with which the welfare reform bill got through parliament compared with the ferocious fight the coalition government has had to get the health bill on to the statute book.

Unluckily for me, Dave will soon be heading off to Berlin to be a director at the WZB, despite the city’s near-total absence of quality baseball.

Poems to celebrate World Poetry Day

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 21, 2012

Today is World Poetry Day, and as previously announced we will celebrate it here at Crooked Timber by having an open thread where all of us can post poems, with or without translations, of our own making or borrowed from someone else. Here’s mine, which dates back to my student days, but I am pretty sure I didn’t write it myself – I think it read it somewhere in the form of street poetry or in a students’ magazine. The original is in Dutch, the English translation mine. Enjoy!

Ze schreef een klein gedichtje
het had niet veel om handen
maar het was als een klein lichtje
dat in het donker brandde.
She wrote a little poem
it didn’t mean much at all
yet it was like a tiny light
glowing in the dark.

No Ordinary Deal

by John Q on March 21, 2012

Max Weber once described politics as the slow boring of hard boards, and this is an apt description of the continuing efforts of the advocates of a globalised capitalism to grind down all the obstacles that might be posed by democratic government.

The dominance of global capital has been greatly enhanced by trade agreements such as those establishing the World Trade Organization. But, over time, the WTO has been less and less able to avoid public scrutiny and popular resistance. Moreover, it has an unfortunate tendency to stick to the rules even when US business doesn’t like the outcome. So, we’ve seen a steady shift to bilateral deals, in which the US can dictate the terms.

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