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Interestingly, "E Pluribus Unum" was superseded, at least to some degree, by "In God We Trust" and then later, to a lesser degree, by "One Nation Under God."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.