Thursday, January 28, 2010

Memphis Freakonomics

A rogue theory of optional schools, skate parks, and politics.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 28, 2010 at 4:00 AM

This is a book plug, a rip-off, and a suggestion.

The book is Super Freakonomics, the follow-up to the best-selling Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The rip-off is some of what follows. And the suggestion is that Memphis might profit from Oprah-style group readings of these works.

Among other things, the authors help explain optional schools and skate parks.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a great title is worth a thousand words and a thousand dollars, or in the case of Freakonomics, many thousands of dollars. If you have read this far, you probably have a general idea of what these books are about. If not, it's an unconventional way of looking at human behavior and incentives and questioning numbers. The full title of the follow-up is Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.

(On that last part, the short answer is that it throws off the terrorist profilers. The witty and talented authors are not shy about dispensing a thimble full of common sense in a gallon jug.)

Freakonomics has become a franchise. The authors and various contributors also do a freakonomics blog on The New York Times website. Dubner is a former New York Times Magazine writer and editor, and Levitt is an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Funny is hard. They are both funny and well-informed. And they don't flinch at risqué topics like prostitution and specific acts of prostitution. One of their sources is a Chicago prostitute who earns $400 an hour. How she got into the business and set her price is a story not to be missed.

So much for the plug.

Now the rip-off and the suggestion. If there was ever a city that lends itself to freakonomics, it is Memphis. Hard attitudes. Seemingly unsolvable problems. Racial divides. A genuine desire to do better. A gritty culture. Mistakes often repeated. A city of entrepreneurs. Home of the super-duper freakonomics idea, FedEx.

A few years ago, there was a reading fad. Communities chose a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, and lots of people read it at more or less the same time in the name of betterment, bonding, and literacy. The idea was not new, but Oprah's Book Club helped nudge it along. Group readings of the freakonomics books might nudge Memphis out of its ruts and get people thinking differently.

Take optional schools. Every winter for at least 25 years, hundreds of bundled-up parents have lined up at the Memphis Board of Education to get into the optional schools of their choice.

This behavior is easy to misinterpret. The line is not an endorsement of Memphis City Schools in general. More like the opposite. It is an endorsement of certain schools by certain people. In my day as a young parent, a phone call would announce that "the line" was forming and you better get your ass over there. Once your place in the line was secured, you had to hold it by reporting for roll call every morning until the actual sign-up day. Then your kid got into Grahamwood or White Station or John P. Freeman, and you and your younger children were set for years, thanks to a legacy rule.

Some years the line was unnecessary. There were more spots than candidates. But the mere rumor of a shortage was enough to start the line. Take no chances when your kid's school is at stake and you don't want to pay $10,000 a year for private school.

Of course, if you missed the line you were screwed, if demand exceeded supply. Merely calling more schools optional did not work. The game was rigged in favor of two-parent families who didn't work the night shift and knew the rules, which were not exactly written on stone tablets. In response to complaints, 20 percent of the spots are now awarded by a lottery. But 20 percent is less than 80 percent. "The line" lives. It still pays to pay attention.

Skate parks are another example of more going on than meets the eye. The concept barely existed in Memphis 10 years ago. A small number of proponents worked the media and the Park Commission to generate awareness, support, and funds. Last week, a skate-park story made news when city councilwoman Wanda Halbert objected to its proposed location.

At this point, you might say "huh?" Why the interest? Why the opposition? And what the hell is a skate park? In a word, it's freakonomics.

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