Movie Review: Freakonomics, the Documentary

Have you heard of Freakonomics?
Freakonomics Documentary Movie

It’s a runaway bestseller about the weird consequences of incentives. The book has been described as “economics meets pop culture,” and the co-authors are, suitably, a journalist and an economist.

I read the book about five years ago (it came out in 2005). This week I watched the documentary Freakonomics, which is based on the book.

The movie is divided into “chapters,” each one covering a different rogue idea in the book. One chapter describes why — according to the authors — your real estate agent has an incentive to encourage you to sell your house for less than it’s worth. Another describes why sumo wrestlers have an incentive to purposely lose a match.

A chapter toward the end argues, pretty convincingly, that public school teachers in a Chicago district cheated on standardized tests by filling in the answer bubbles on behalf of their students. It explains why the teachers would have an incentive to cheat.

Freakonomics’ popularity is based, in part, on how data-driven and research-driven the conclusions are. These authors aren’t conjecturing; they’re pouring through thousands of standardized tests and discerning patterns in the answers that point toward cheating.

Look, for example, at the chapter that describes how your first name impacts your chances of getting a job. Rather than just perform guesswork, the authors find a researcher who sent out 5,000 identical resumes, with the only variable being the name. Half of the resumes had a historically black name, like Tyrone, while the other half had a historically white name. The resume with the white name received 33 percent more phone calls — a statistically significant figure.

The movie cites IDENTICAL research as the book. Don’t watch the movie with the expectation that you’ll learn something new, something you didn’t already read in the book.

Should I Watch It?

It’s refreshing to watch a documentary without a political agenda.

As to whether or not you should watch it: if the anecdotes I described above sound intriguing, watch it. If they don’t, don’t. It’s as simple as that.

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Thanks to Hikosaemon for today’s photo.

Movie Review: Inside Job

inside job movie review
As a general rule, I’m wary of political and economic documentaries. Many tend to be one-sided and oversimplified. Most cherry-pick facts and quotes that cast their own agenda in the best possible light.

I was pleasantly surprised by Inside Job.

Inside Job, which won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, examines how corruption in the financial services industry led to the 2008 recession.

Yes, it had a preordained conclusion: banks = bad. That’s the premise of the movie; it’s evident in the title. That verdict was decided before the filming began.

But it was well-researched. It presented complex facts. For the most part, it gave “the other side” a fair shot.

I got sense that the director was furious at the banks, but forced himself to film with restraint.

The Structure

The movie is split into five parts:

#1: How We Got Here – Details the deregulation of banking in Iceland, the savings and loan scandal of the 1980’s, the Internet bubble, and the 21st century consolidation and dominance of just a small handful of investment banks.

#2: The Bubble – Goes into depth about credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. The narrator, Matt Damon, interviews an all-star cast of government and banking officials. He asks tough and nuanced questions.

#3: The Crisis – This is mostly a historic recap. Everything collapsed; the sky is falling.

#4: Accountability – Here the movie rants about CEOs walking away with huge severance packages while the masses get unemployed.

#5: Where We Are Now – This story doesn’t have an ending, so they forced a conclusion in the form of a question. Where will we go from here?

Should You Watch It?

I’m not calling it “objective,” by any stretch. The movie included several scenes –- including a long, irrelevant tangent on cocaine use — that were filmed for the sake of making red-herring character attacks. The movie also seems to propose that regulation is the answer to all of life’s problems.

But compared to many other documentaries, it was restrained, reasonable and well-researched. That’s all I ask for.

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Movie Review: The One Percent, a Documentary

the one percent documentaryWant to hear about a documentary depicting wealth, money and business fame … ??

The One Percent

Last night I watched The One Percent, a documentary filmed by Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

The One Percent — as the title implies — focuses on income disparity between the rich and poor in the United States. I was drawn to the documentary when I noticed that it came out in 2006, long before the financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement began.

“If Johnson was talking about ‘one percent’ back in 2006, he must have been at the forefront of the movement,” I thought. “Let’s see what this is documentary is all about.”


This documentary is based on an important question: Is income disparity in the U.S. a problem? Or is there nothing wrong with income disparity as long as the bottom 50 percent have a better quality of life? What’s more important: relative poverty or absolute poverty?

These are important questions, and they deserve to be treated with intellectual rigor. Unfortunately, Johnson’s documentary lacks the complexity, nuance and critical thought that these issues deserve.

The movie is pure punditry. The quotes are cherry-picked to cast the wealthy in the worst possible light. Johnson seems to be more interested in reinforcing his audiences’ ideas than he is in authentically exploring a complex issue.

Punditry, of course, exists on both sides of the fence. Regardless of which “side” it supports (as if complex economic theories could be boiled down to two sides), punditry over-simplifies the topics that affect our lives. Economics cannot be reduced to chants and cliches.

Johnson, for example, has managed to create an entire documentary framing “rich vs. poor” without ever asking the question, “where does money come from?” He seems to believe that money falls from the sky into the laps of a privileged few.

That perspective comes from his own experience — as heir the Johnson & Johnson fortune, a circumstance of birth brought him unimaginable wealth — but his own good fortune does not sufficiently explain how the laws of competition, supply, demand, wages, job creation and incentives govern our society.

Johnson has access to some of the world’s most intriguing interview subjects: Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, former Presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. He had the opportunity to pose thought-provoking questions that could lead to insightful commentary. But in every conversation, Johnson seems more interested in advocating his own arguments than in listening to his interview subjects’ answers.

This documentary panders to class warfare. Income disparity is an important issue that merits rational discussion and critical thought. Unfortunately, Johnson’s movie deprives this issue of the analysis it deserves.

Thanks to Great 8 for today’s photo.