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Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner brings signature take on financial literacy to Cincinnati

The Economics Center offers financial literacy programming for Cincinnatians of all ages.

Students and mentors interact during an EC program in Bond Hill.

Economics is adaptable for people of all ages.


Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?
What makes a perfect parent?
What does it mean to think like a freak?

What, you may be asking, do questions like these have to do with economics? Believe it or not, these are actual questions posed — and answered — in Freakonomics, the pop-culture-heavy work of financial nonfiction by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner.

The widespread popularity of Freakonomics hinges on its straightforward, easy-to-digest take on modern economics. (We're not all drug dealers, of course, but that portion of the book explains one business model for paying yourself and staff.)

On April 4, Dubner will bring more of Freakonomics’ signature thought provocation to The Economics Center’s 2017 Annual Awards. The EC event will also provide an opportunity to present the Economic Empowerment Award to this year’s recipient, Cincinnati Reds' CEO Bob Castellini.

Other awards will be given to educators, with this year's recipients including:

- Sheri Renneker, principal, North College Hill Elementary School (Student Enterprise Leadership Award)
- Frederick Douglass Elementary School (STEP School of the Year Award)
- Kathy Baugh, Milford High School (Economics Teacher of the Year Award)

This year, the nonprofit EC will celebrate its 40th anniversary of bringing financial literacy to schools and educators, says its marketing director, Mary Kate Fogarty.

The EC's staff of 14 full-time researchers does research and consulting for businesses and organizations, and has for the past 20 years. Examples from their dozens of economic research projects include helping the City of Cincinnati update its six-year tax revenue plan; evaluating the historical and current economic impact of manufacturing in Hamilton County; analyzing the economic benefits of Cincinnati Works on the region; and looking at the impact of Cincinnati Metro's current routes.

"Our main mission is focused on financial literacy," Fogarty says. "But it's split about 50-50 with economic research."

Dubner was invited to this year's awards ceremony because the Center wanted a different kind of event to celebrate the anniversary, Fogarty says.

"We wanted to bring in someone very well known," she adds. "We've listened to some of his podcasts and he was a very engaging speaker."

For folks not tuned into Dubner, he's a journalist and author who joined with Levitt in 2005 to start writing a series of books using "data, rather than hunch or ideology, to understand how the world works, to learn how incentives succeed (or fail), how resources get allocated and what sort of frictions prevent people from getting those resources," according to one excerpt from the Freakonomics series called Think Like a Freak.

In an interview with IBM prior to a government forum in 2011, Dubner explained his view on economics: "There are about as many definitions of economics as there are economists. One broad way of thinking about it is the study of how people allocate resources. We’ve come up with a looser definition: the study of how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing."

Dubner and Levitt have faced some criticism in their work. According to a 2015 article from The Guardian, a chapter in SuperFreakonomics on climate change "suggested that the efforts of environmentalists today to bring down carbon emissions were ultimately hopeless." That and other comments on the climate prompted criticism from both economists and scientists, a point on which Levitt later reflected that perhaps the authors should have changed the tone of that chapter.

Despite such setbacks, the pair's work has prompted something of a following, with a blog at Freakonomics.com and a series of podcasts called Freakonomics Radio.

Freakonomics co-author Stephen DubnerDubner was also the logical choice as keynote because of his pragmatic approach to finance and economics that has made the Freakonomics series a household name. The EC has helped about 28,000 kids and 26,600 teachers in the region gain a better grasp of real-world money issues. The group estimates that EC programming has reached more than 1,000,000 students and thousands of teachers since 1977.

"We try to attach everything we do to a real-world scenario," says Val Krugh, director of school relations at the EC. "’Why do I ever need to use this?’ We try to answer that question for kids."

The Economics Center’s student enterprise program for grades 3-6 is incentive based, Krugh says. "We provide the school with a store, and students earn school cash that they can use at the store." The store stocks everything from school supplies to headphones or basketballs.

Val KrughStudents in grades 4-12 play the stock market game, where they start with $100,000 of virtual cash to buy stocks. "They know what their peers are buying and they invest in those companies," Krugh says. "They say things like, 'It's almost Christmas time, so I think this (particular product) is going to be hot.’"

Students have invested their virtual cash in real companies like Under Armour, Nintendo and even Green Mountain Coffee.

Through the Economics Center, teachers also get the help they need to work financial literacy into their classroom curriculum.

"Teachers are overwhelmingly busy," Krugh says. "We add value without adding time and energy. We try to make sure it can be used in math, language arts or reading, something they are already doing."

The major goal of the program is to help kids become more informed decision makers, she says. "We use money as our context. We're teaching kids how to make better decisions. Economics is just about choices and choices have consequences."

Want to learn how to think like a freak? You'll have to attend the event April 4 and delve firsthand into Freakonomics.

 

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