Because the book Freakonomics was a huge bestseller, the co-authors, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, decided they wanted to make a film based on their theme, which they define as “the truth,” perceived by asking the right questions. So they recruited some documentarians they thought could ask the right questions and let them do their thing.
It starts with the two writers apparently talking off the cuff and unrehearsed, not breaking the fourth wall. But these conversations do not set much of a standard for honesty. Dubner tells Levitt, “Tell the story about Amanda,” and Levitt unctuously replies, “Oh, that’s pretty long,” then says, “OK,” as if he just made the decision to tell Amanda’s story on the spot as they were sitting there in front of the cameras and hot lights. That’s hardly the way to set a “truth” criterion.
Unfortunately, the several documentaries are too long, tedious, and really don’t make much of a point. One, a documentary on “cheaters,” concentrates on sumo wrestling and the discovery that many matches are fixed. That might be interesting in Japan where there are people who actually care about sumo wrestling. It might even be interesting outside of Japan if it were short enough. But this one, directed by Alex Dibney, who is responsible for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Casino Jack and the United States of Money, two of the more biased pieces of propaganda disguised as documentaries, goes on so long that the point, if not lost, at least loses its effectiveness.
Another, about incentives by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, mendaciously purports to show people living their lives as they live them. But they are living their normal lives in front of cameras and film crews, so a viewer can’t take anything they say or do as anything other than an act.
Then there is a documentary by Eugene Jarecki on why the crime rate fell between the 1970s and the 1990s. Golly, gee, but what a surprise to find out that this examines a specious idea propounded by none other than Steven D. Levitt, the producer of this film! Levitt’s idea was that the crime rates fell in the 1990s because abortion was legalized in 1973 by the Supreme Court’s notorious decision outlawing abortion in Roe v. Wade. Levitt starts with the undocumented and unstated assumption that unwanted children are the ones who cause crime, and then makes the connection that the decision allowed unwanted children to be killed in the womb and not born. Since they weren’t born in the 1970s, they weren’t around to commit crimes when they would have reached adulthood in the 1990s. Levitt presents not one iota of evidence for this, no proof that crime is caused by being “unwanted.” He just makes the bald allegation, and draws a conclusion. Levitt ignores the facts that the economy sucked in the 1970s due to the inept presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, that it rebounded mightily due to Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and that there is abundant evidence that crime is tied into the economy. There is far more corroboration that crime increases as the economy gets worse and decreases as it gets better than there is that all crime is caused by unwanted children. But Levitt ties a halo around the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and the lower crime rate in the 1990s and draws a conclusion that can stand as a classic example of the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy (after this, therefore because of this). Levitt’s conclusion is about as logical as blaming 9/11 on the Yankees losing the 1955 World Series to the Dodgers. Maybe Jarecki’s participation in the film was conditioned on his pushing Levitt’s fallacious conjecture.
The charm of the book was that it did come near to living up to its promotion, that it exposes the hidden side of everything, debunking conventional wisdom, and revealing what answers may come if one just asks the right questions. Based on that standard, however, this movie perverts the basis of the book, since many of the answers it draws are based on bald conjecture and staged or semi-staged scenes rather than fact.