Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rick James Would Be Proud

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have come out with a sequel to their surprise hit, Freakonomics (entitled, simply "SuperFreakonomics") and it is every bit as entertaining and fascinating as the original. At the same time, a new Malcom Gladwell collection "What the Dog Saw," is hitting the shelves.

You'll probably find these two side-by-side at your local bookstore, as the popular wisdom seems to be that these three are in the same practice of writing books on what seems to me to be best described as "pop-sociology," although Levitt is an economist and Gladwell is a historian. The reality, however, is that in this particular field, Gladwell, as hard-working, prolific and intelligent as he might be, is not fit to shine Levitt and Dubners' shoes.

The difference between Levitt/Dubner and Gladwell is the difference between Rocky Road and vanilla ice cream. Rocky Road isn't for everyone, but it certainly has a lot of flavors to consider, while vanilla is safe and digestible, but ultimately, somewhat unsatisfying. The eater feels like something is missing.

So it is with Gladwell, the Bing Crosby to Levitt & Dubners' Mick and Keith. Gladwell is much less likely to stir controversy, his conclusions in books like Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers are nearly universally hailed as groundbreaking and revolutionary, and very rarely challenged in popular media (perhaps despite Gladwell's protestations to the contrary). On the other hand, Levitt & Dubner, with assertions such as that there is a causal link between abortions and drops in crime rates, are regularly excoriated by both the right and the left.

My own feeling is that what is missing from Gladwell's work is some kind of practical application; indeed, Gladwell doesn't even seem to be looking for one. While Levitt/Dubner's work easily lends itself to all sorts of ideas about how we can change the world and why we do or don't, in every area from education to climate change, Gladwell's work seems more about wry observations of why things are how they happen to be, with little concern about what that means for the future.

Freaknomics (and SuperFreakonomics) tells us why and when people cheat and how people tend to over and underestimate potential dangers in the world. This is information that is very clearly useful, and can very obviously inform our future behaviors, if you buy into it. Gladwell's work tells us that in certain cases, people born in certain months have a greater chance of success (Outliers) that people sometimes instinctively know when something is out of place (Blink) and that certain products blow up in sales when enough of the right kind of people take an interest in it (Tipping Point). It's all interesting to be sure. But is it really groundbreaking and revolutionary? Without some kind of context, some interesting ideas about how we can manipulate such information in a useful way? Not for my money.

Speaking of my money, I bought both SuperFreakonomics and What the Dog Saw. Sure enough, Levitt and Dubner jump right in with the both controversial and useful notion that, in deaths per mile, driving home drunk is many, many times safer than walking home drunk, and moves into the idea that television empowers Indian women while at the same time leading to an overall increase in crime (not violence, but crime) all over the world, while Gladwell starts us off with story of Ron Popeil, what makes him special (he learned to make the product the star) and how he came up with the idea to invent the RonCo Rotisserie (he realized that people pay a lot for rotisserie-cooked food) and moves on to explore why Heinz has cornered the market on ketchup (they make the best ketchup).

To be fair, the Gladwell book is a compilation of some of his favorite New Yorker articles, rather than a single book concept with a unifying theme, and as he states, is not intended to persuade, but simply to give insight into how others think. It is also well-written, and well-researched, and Gladwell is to be commended for this. The Ron Popeil story, the quest to make a better ketchup, and the other stories Gladwell tells are interesting, in their own way.

That being said, if you want to read a book that will really keep you up at night thinking about things like the economics of prostitution, how terrorists are profiled and whether or not you should be more afraid of elephants than sharks, you're going to want to plunk your money down on SuperFreakonomics. I'm sure Rick James would agree.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Peace, Brother

A lot of people are up in arms (so to speak) over the fact that Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Here are a few reasons why this is really nothing to get worked up about.

1. The Award Is Ironic
Awarding the prize to Obama is not ironic, however, the fact that Alfred Nobel, the founder of the award, made the money to fund it (as well as the other Nobel Prizes) by inventing dynamite, one of the most popular explosives in history, is.

2. The Award Is Vague

The Nobel Prize for Peace is supposed to go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” during the preceding year. Ok, I don’t really know of anyone who is doing a ton of work for the reduction of standing armies or the promotion of peace congresses these days, so it really comes down to this “fraternity among nations,” which could mean anything. You could argue that Obama has done a tremendous amount for fraternity among nations just by not being George W. Bush.

3. The Award Is Arbitrary

Gandhi, the poster boy for non-violent conflict resolution, never won a Nobel Peace Prize. Jody Williams, for her work banning landmines, has. Banning landmines is great, but is it really work for fraternity among nations? It sounds more like work for shutting down Nobel’s dynamite competitors to me.

4. The Award Doesn’t Mean Anything

Winning a Nobel Prize is nice. You get a shiny medal and a chunk of cash. But it doesn’t confer any authority or require any recognition. You don’t even have to travel the country for a year as a representative of world peace, the way Obama might have had to do if he was awarded say, the Miss America crown.

5. Positive Reinforcement Is GoodWhen someone is given a prize for doing something, expectations rise. Given that Obama still has two wars to extricate us from and the work restoring our standing with the International community after the disastrous Bush years may not be quite finished, shouldn’t this guy be getting all the encouragement the world can give him?