People just love things that claim to explore the hidden side of other things. I'm no expert, but if I had to take a guess, I would guess that this is a large portion of the success of Freakonomics, the book by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner.

Dubner came to speak at Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium last week, and because I love the hidden side of things just as much as the next person, I went. He talked about extra hidden sides, and hidden sides of the hidden sides, so it was definitely worth my time.

As my friend pointed out, though, what Dubner and Levitt do is not really economics. Rather, it's basically sociology with numbers. Dubner and Levitt would probably argue that the two are interchangeable. That's because Dubner and Levitt are convinced that money drives every human interaction.

They have a lot of evidence for this belief. They've studied doctors washing their hands, rat infestations, sumo wrestlers and real estate agents. And just about every time, the hidden side is money.

I don't have anything against money. In fact, if I had it my way, I would have more of it and so would you. But I have a fundamental problem with money. See, money isn't real. It's a fiction. Money isn't like air or water or sunlight. It might be a commodity, but it's an artificial one.

I was reminded of this fact while listening to a recent This American Life called The Invention of Money. There was a story about an island Yap where the inhabitants use big stones as money. The stones never move, but ownership changes similar to how money would normally be exchanged.

If members of a rival tribe want a prisoner back, they might trade one of their giant stones. The stone stays where it is, but now the opposite tribe owns it.

At first, this story seems slightly ridiculous, and we scoff at its simplicity. The truth is, though, that our idea of money is not really any different. Today, most of our money is online anyway. It never exchanges hands; we hardly ever see it. Our money might as well be giant stones.

I'm wary of being convinced that all human interaction is driven by a fiction. Maybe I have too much faith in mankind, or maybe I think people are smarter than they actually are; but I think life is way more complicated than nickels and dimes.

I suppose if pressed, Dubner would admit that life can't be simplified down to money. He would say, though, that life can be simplified down to incentives, which is only a step above money and probably just as fictitious.

Incentives are often arbitrary and imagined, especially when you follow a chain of incentives. For example, I study for a test to get an A in the class. I want an A in the class so I can be happier. But will an A really make me happier? It's debatable.

So, yes, the hidden side of quite a few things can be explained with numbers and money, but does that really mean that the hidden side of all things can be explained with numbers and money?

Spencer Smith is a sophomore studying philosophy and English and a columnist for The Post. Want to trade nickels and dimes for stones and pebbles? E-mail him at

4 Opinion

Spencer Smith

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