Magazine article Baylor Business Review

PREPARE TO BE DAZZLED: The Hidden Side of Economics Forays into Mainstream Culture

Magazine article Baylor Business Review

PREPARE TO BE DAZZLED: The Hidden Side of Economics Forays into Mainstream Culture

Article excerpt

Judging by the wisdom of the crowd, "Freakonomics" - the application of the dismal science to address a wider range of societal issues (crime rates, education reform, baby names, drug dealing) in a compelling, often controversial and exceedingly user-friendly manner - has passed the tipping point.

Thanks to the very recent best-selling success of authors like Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink), James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of the Crowds) and others, it appears economics has gone mainstream. But appearances can be deceiving, as anyone who analyzes hard data for a living knows. In a twist Levitt and his co-author Stephen Dubner might appreciate - after all, their book claims to explore the hidden side of everything - modern economics, it turns out, has enjoyed a lengthy and, at times, influential presence in mainstream culture since its inception.

Whether that presence is helpful, harmful or neither remains open to debate.

For economists and writers who know how to translate highly complex economic analyses to engaging, well-written stories for mass consumption, this trend has proven lucrative. The Tipping Point, which examines the theory of "social epidemics," has occupied the New York Times best-seller list for almost three years. Tack on the suffix "nomics" to almost any phrase, and there's a good chance an ambitious acquisitions editor will snap up your manuscript (just don't name it Freedomnomics because that book, which probes the logic of free-market economics, rolled off Regnery Publishing's presses in June).

A brief history lesson sheds new light on economies' most recent immersion into mainstream culture in the form of best-selling business books, newspaper columns and the ubiquity of their authors on television news and business shows and on the business conference circuit. That historical context, in turn, illuminates some of the impacts of this trend and pros and cons of "mainstreamnomics."

As Gladwell's blurb on the cover of Freakonomics warns, "prepare to be dazzled."

Chapter 1: The Source of Supply

Steven Green, professor of Economics, department chair, and graduate program director in Economics at Baylor, has a theory about economies' most recent incursion into mainstream culture. He points to three elemental forces:

1 Authors who want to popularize economics;

2 Technological advancements; and

3 The allure of the counterintuitive.

Steven Levitt, Steven Landsburg, Milton Friedman, Richard Posner and other "popularizers" - whether they are economists, or lawyers or writers who frequently write about economics - firmly believe the dismal science can illuminate discussions on a broad range of topics.

"As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions," writes Dubner of his Freakonomics co-author." His particular gift is the ability to ask such questions. For instance:

If drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers?

Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What really caused crime rates to plunge during the past decade? Do real-estate agents have the clients' best interest at heart?"

Those sorts of questions are much more likely to resonate with a popular audience, rather than addressing what may happen with interest rates next quarter, notes H. Stephen Gardner, Herman Brown professor of Economics and director of Baylor University's McBride Center for International Business.

"When we economists weigh in on big social issues of the day - what can be done with health care reform, education reform, war and peace - we are more likely to get the attention of the general public," Gardner explains.

Fortunately for Levitt, Dubner and their contemporaries, technology advancements have made it much easier to answer interesting questions today than it was even as recently as 10 years ago. …

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