Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Q&A | Stephen J. Dubner,

co-author of Freakonomics

Suggested mottos (the winner's in red)

From the Freakonomics guys, a new motto for America, in six words

Stephen Dubner

Stephen Dubner

In their bestselling book, Freakonomics (A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything), Stephen J. Dubner, an author in New York City, and Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, swam against conventional currents, finding unanticipated results by analyzing routine economic statistics in unique — okay, odd — ways. They continue the discussion, looking for weird but illuminating comparisons and contrasts, on the New York Times Freakonomics blog. One of their latest efforts was to ask readers for a new motto for the United States, a phrase of exactly six words. Here Dubner answers questions by e-mail from Perspective editor Jim Verhulst to explain what they were up to.

Q: First of all, why six words? (After all, "of the people, by the people, for the people," while checking in at nine words, seems to have worked pretty well for a long time.) Is there some mathematical beauty, something mystical, here in six words?

A: This was inspired by a new book called Not Quite What I Was Planning, a collection of six-word memoirs by all different kinds of writers. This book, in turn, had been inspired by a legendary (perhaps apocryphal?) story that Ernest Hemingway wrote when bet that he couldn't write an entire short story in six words. He won: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Okay, let's stick with word count for a second.

Economists, and I assume that includes freakonomists, strive for elegant and simple solutions. I'm looking at the reverse side of a quarter, which says E Pluribus Unum. Sure, it's three words, not six. But that one's worked pretty well too for more than 200 years. Are we so big now that three words aren't enough? With the six-word contest, was it time for a whole new approach or something?

Interestingly, "E Pluribus Unum" was superseded, at least to some degree, by "In God We Trust" and then later, to a lesser degree, by "One Nation Under God." Plus, you earlier mentioned "Of the people, by the people, for the people." Which of these is our official motto? Well, if you ask five different people you will probably get five different answers. None of them are used consistently, or are universally embraced. So I thought it might be worth taking the temperature of our nation — or at least our Freakonomics readership — to see what they'd come up with.

Even though the contest was mostly for fun, what did you learn from it as a freakonomist? Anything in here for your next book? Or for voters in November?

I learned that partisanship seems to course as naturally through our veins as any other human trait. This has always struck me, personally, as odd and perhaps counterproductive. But somehow people seem to enjoy defining themselves in large part by what they are not, and will never be.

Did you find the results inspiring? Worrisome?

A bit of both? Something else altogether?

Not worrisome, occasionally inspiring, often entertaining. I think it's wonderful for people to be able to speak their minds so freely, even so aggressively. That is part of what makes our country unique. Some people would argue that free speech can lead to chaos; I think those people are probably wrong: I think free speech is a much cheaper and safer substitute for true civic unrest.

The winner of your contest was "Our Worst Critics Prefer to Stay." Discuss.

While perhaps not outrightly uplifting, I think it's a wonderfully concise acknowledgment of the paradox that a capitalist republic inevitably is: a place that is often well worth complaining about, and which allows you to complain as loudly as you wish. It also reminds me of the phrase used by the great economist Joseph Schumpeter (among others) to describe capitalism: "creative destruction." In other words, you have to break some eggs to make an omelet — just as the noise of our critics is a vital piece of our strength, and yet those same critics have hardly defected en masse.

In an interview on Good Morning America last week, you said that the contest results could be summed up in another motto: "Dead split between patriots and hatriots." Why do you think a playful motto contest became so partisan?

See above re: partisanship as a natural human trait. I tend to be the opposite. A lot of my friends, for instance, have a single favorite football or baseball team, at the expense of all others. To my mind, that really limits their ability to enjoy a random game between any two teams. They pay a steep price for that exclusivity — a lesser degree of enjoyment of the sport they profess to enjoy. I'd prefer to spread my interest around, and also my bets.

What did the results tell you about

the state of American affairs, at least

on your blog?

A lot of people seem genuinely agitated about the state of our own union. This is plainly reflected in the current presidential campaign (unless, of course, I've got the cause-and-effect arrow running backward, and it is in fact the campaign that is producing the agitation!). But anyone who reads even a little bit of U.S. history knows that agitation is a common state of our union — as it is in most unions, frankly. Also, we forget that we are a relatively young country, much like a teenager compared to our European and other elders. And teenagers tend toward drama.

In all seriousness: Given the small

sample size and self-selecting population, what can we actually take away from this motto-writing exercise?

Oh, it's probably worthless. Just as we argued in Freakonomics that a child's name has no influence on his or her life outcome, I'd say that a motto has no influence on how the citizens of a country live their lives. On the other hand, as a writer, I was thrilled to have a chance to invite people to express themselves so freely on a topic that so many of them plainly took to heart. I think that good feedback is one of the most valuable and rarest commodities in the modern world — and the blogosphere, for all its shortcomings, is a wildly efficient feedback machine.

Editor's note: The book of six-word memoirs wasn't Stephen Dubner's only inspiration for the Freakonomics motto contest. Another was a recent trip to London. Not long ago, the British government briefly and seriously considered formulating a British "statement of values," that is until the Times of London mocked the concept with a motto contest. (Remember, the British didn't even write down their constitution.) The winner was "No Motto Please, We're British." Others included "Once Mighty Empire, Slightly Used" and "At Least We're Not French." By the way, Dubner has proposed his own six-word memoir: "On the seventh word, he rested."

From the Freakonomics guys, a new motto for America, in six words 04/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 9:36am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Review: Mumford and Sons shower Amalie Arena with love in euphoric Tampa debut


    There are releases, and then there are releases. And minutes into their concert Wednesday at Amalie Arena, Mumford and Sons gave Tampa the latter.

    Mumford and Sons performed at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Sept. 20, 2017.
  2. FEMA to open disaster recovery center in Riverview


    The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will open a disaster recovery center Thursday in Riverview for Hillsborough County residents impacted by Hurricane Irma.

  3. Life sentence for man convicted in killing of brother of Bucs' Kwon Alexander


    An Alabama man who shot and killed the 17-year-old brother of Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander in 2015 was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday, the Anniston (Ala.) Star reported.

  4. Remember him? Numbers prove Ben Zobrist is one of greatest Rays of all time

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The first foray back to the Trop by the best manager the Rays have had obscured the second return visit by arguably the second-best player in franchise history.


    Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist (18) grounds into a double play to end the top of the third inning of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
  5. GOP's new repeal bill would likely leave millions more uninsured, analyses suggest


    WASHINGTON — The latest Republican bid to roll back the Affordable Care Act would likely leave millions of currently insured Americans without health coverage in the coming decades, and strip benefits and protections from millions more, a growing number of independent studies suggest.

    Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the Graham-Cassidy health care bill during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]