Birmingham Post Editor Alun Thorne speaks to author Stephen Dubner whose celebration of the stranger side of economics has provided a startling insight into the behaviour of human beings.
He may be a multi-million selling author but Stephen Dubner is not one for getting carried away with himself.
Indeed, the man who co-authored Freakonomics with economist Stephen Levitt – one of the literary success stories of the past decade – is quick to admit the difficulty in trying to pinpoint quite why this book and its subsequent follow up, Superfreakonomics, resonated with such a wide audience.
“I think it has a lot to do with luck,” says the New York-based journalist. “We can’t even take credit for the name as Levitt’s sister came up with that.
“I don’t think it was the economic turmoil either that sparked an interest in the book as the first book pre-dated that.
“I think one of the keys is that the books don’t take themselves too seriously. I think we had something worthwhile to say but we are not telling people how things should work, just how they are working, and I think that is a relief to people as they don’t like to be preached at.
“We all intrinsically know that so much of what we hear is false – even if it is just ten per cent false. There are not many people out there trying to explain how the world works without some kind of vested interest.
“Because neither of us has our house on any race, I think people were just tickled that somebody had taken the time to look at these issues. People enjoyed the way we were able to work through these issues and then back them up with numbers.”
Dubner was speaking ahead of a UK tour that will see him taking to the stage in Birmingham, Liverpool, Brighton and Cambridge and sharing some of the stories that have made the books such a success – be it the best way to catch a terrorist, explaining the link between legalised abortion and crime or analysing why the price of oral sex has fallen so rapidly in recent years.
The tour follows a successful series of shows last year by fellow New York writer Malcolm Gladwell whose books such as Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers have received similar acclaim to Freakonomics and Dubner is quick to praise the work of his peer.
“I like Malcolm as a person and Malcolm as a writer,” says Dubner. “I don’t think there is any doubt that if it wasn’t for Malcolm then we and others may not have enjoyed such recognition – Malcolm was very influential in training the modern reader to appreciate a certain kind of book. He is a great story teller and has excellent taste in material.”
When he stands up at Birmingham Town Hall on June 20, it will be the first time that Dubner will have presented Freakonomics in such a format and he just hopes that the content transfers to stage. I suppose I am a little nervous to call them shows as that would mean people are expecting some kind of a performance,” he says.
“What I will be doing is standing up for around an hour or so and telling some of the stories from the books which I hope will be engaging and fun.
“Hopefully, they will be the kind of stories that will tickle people. There is also an illustrated version of Superfreakonomics coming out later this year with images and graphs and tables and so on, so I will also be using some of that to help with the story telling.
“We have never done anything like these shows before.
"Levitt and I have both delivered numerous lectures since the first book was launched so I suppose this is an extension of that, although with lectures people are usually obliged to go and listen whereas we are hoping this time around people will choose to come and listen.
“If I fail miserably then we will also be showing a short excerpt from a film that has been made about Freakonomics so that will be something new for the audience.”
The film was recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is the brainchild of “a very smart fellow called Chad Troutwine” who has produced the film using four different directors to look at different sections of the book.
“The film is very good and I can say that with some certainty as we have had absolutely nothing to do with it,” says Dubner.
Now with two successful books, an imminent stage show and a film, Dubner and Levitt are looking to new opportunities and the writer of the pair – while admitting that he relishes new projects to get his teeth into – believes there’s still life in the franchise yet.“I am a writer who gets easily bored,” he says.
“I get obsessed with a couple of topics for a couple of years and then move on. Around ten years or so ago I got very into behavioural economics which is not so much about the economy itself but how it is affected by human behaviour. I had started a book on the psychology of money looking at how it is a concrete constant in life but it is also emotional, like sex or money.
“I was intrigued by the anomaly so I was working hard on the book and was confident that it would be good but then I met Levitt and his research was so much more intriguing.
“I still have no doubt that the money book would have been okay. I may still finish it one day, but this was definitely a better one. Levitt is a remarkably creative researcher who looks at the world in a very different way. The second book was definitely more difficult. First and foremost the expectations were much higher for the second book.
“The trouble is that 80 per cent of the research for the first book had been done by Levitt and existed on papers somewhere and allowed us time to work on and expand.
“This book has been started from scratch effectively and while it still comes from Levitt’s research, the process has certainly been a longer one. I have no idea whether there will be a third book but if there is, it will be a long way off because we are very slow.
“At the moment we are trying to start up a radio and a TV show which will be fun – sitting alone in a room writing for long periods of time can be very hard work.”
* Stephen Dubner will be appearing at Birmingham Town Hall on June 20. Tickets at www.superfreakonomics-live.com
* SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner is published in paperback by Penguin on June 24.
Some of the highlights in the two Freakonomic books:
* Drug dealing – In ‘Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?’, the authors break down the corporate structure of a drugs gang and discover that those who actually sell drugs on the street do so for just $3.30 an hour.
* The Ku Klux Klan – In ‘How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?’, the authors look at how the imbalance in flow of information has harmed groups like the KKK but helped estate agents.
* Sumo wrestling – In ‘What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?’, the authors look at examples including teachers helping pupils on tests, sumo wrestling and a bagel honour system to demonstrate that cheating, like almost everything else that involves incentives, can be predicted.
* Climate change – In ‘What Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common’, the authors compare the current theories on global warming with the theories in the 1970s of global cooling – suggesting that spraying sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to diminish solar radiation may be a solution.
* Suicide bombers – In ‘Why should suicide bombers buy life insurance?’, the authors take a leftfield look at the economic cost of terrorism and the best way to catch a suicide bomber.
* Prostitution – In ‘How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?’, the authors look at how the shift in sexual mores within society has seen the collapse of earnings for prostitutes.