In the Green Room

UCLA’s Frederick Zimmerman

An Economist Who Could Do Without Freakonomics

Frederick J. Zimmerman

Economist Frederick J. Zimmerman is chair and professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, where he studies the effect of the media on children’s health. Before participating in a panel on whether health propaganda works, he explained in the Zócalo green room why, despite its popularity and all the attention it’s brought to his field, Freakonomics is anathema to him.


Q:
When and why did you last get a traffic ticket?

A:
I last got a traffic ticket in 1998 or ’97. I was pulling out of a blind alley, and there are two ways to do it—you either go very slowly or very fast. I went very fast, there was a cop there, and I got a ticket.

Q:
What superpower would you most like to have?

A:
I would like to have amazing musical ability. Not a usual superpower thing, but if you think about it, they say music has charms to tame the wild beasts, so I think it’d be a pretty awesome superpower to have.

Q:
What’s the best children’s television show of all-time?

A:
I love Blue’s Clues. My kids watched it. It’s got drama, it’s got suspense, and it’s got excellent music. I was always charmed by the music. I would recommend it to everyone. They stopped making it, but they put a lot of effort and a lot of research into making sure kids actually learned from it. I also like a show called Peep and the Big Wide World, about these three animated birds, and they go around and they have adventures. The idea of the show is to teach kids about science. It’s great.

Q:
What’s your favorite cereal?

A:
I like my wife’s homemade granola. Her secret ingredient is elbow grease; if you put a little time into making your own food, it almost always turns out great.

Q:
What is your greatest extravagance?

A:
Travel. We spend a lot of money on international travel in particular; that’s where most of our money goes. I was a Peace Corps volunteer, and my wife had traveled widely before I met her, and it’s something we’ve always bonded over. Now we have two little kids, eight and 10 years old, and we take them with us to Europe every summer and around the country when we can. It’s an extravagance for us and a really fun way to spend time with our family.

Q:
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

A:
This is a high-stakes game: I’ve read some really excellent books. The truth is I read the New York Review of Books quite religiously, and I love that. I’m currently reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers [by Katherine Boo], and that’s one good.

Q:
Has Freakonomics been good for economists?

A:
No, it’s terrible. It’s a horrible book. I don’t like it one bit. I think it really trivializes what economics does. I think there’s a lot in there that’s largely free of theory, and I think theory provides the wringer in economic analysis; there’s too much in there that’s loose econometrics. There’s a chapter on which is more dangerous, guns or swimming pools. That’s not good economics because there’s no economic theory there. It’s more like epidemiology, but it’s bad epidemiology. It’s not a sensible question; it’s designed to provoke, and it does provoke, and people like it’s because it’s provocative. But for me that isn’t real science.

Q:
Where do you come up with your best ideas?

A:
While walking. I walk a lot—I roam the hills of the Santa Monica Mountains. During the day I frequently get up to walk around, and that helps to jog things loose in my mind.

Q:
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A:
I wanted to be an airplane pilot, and I thought it would be very exciting to fly all around. I still enjoy flying. I recently reread parts of Cadillac Desert [by Marc Reisner], and in the very beginning of that book he says, Anyone who doesn’t look out the window on an airplane is wasting their money, and I feel the same way.

Q:
Where would we find you at 10 a.m. on a typical Sunday?

A:
In the Starbucks in Brentwood Village. My kids are in Hebrew school, and I go there to work.