Frames and Conventional Wisdom

I read Freakonomics last fall, and it was a seriously bizarre book, but I really liked it. It was another one of the books that I needed to read because a student had chosen it for the reading analysis assignment, and it was thoroughly readable.

I was tempted to start this new year with his argument about how legalized abortion deserves the credit for declining crime rates in the 1990s, more than increases in policing or any of the other, oft-cited causes (seriously; he makes a really fascinating and persuasive case there–check it out!), but I decided to focus on the theme that really runs through the book instead–how, when we’re willing to challenge prevailing frames and rethink what we’ve always taken for granted, we can often find surprising solutions to the social problems that plague us.

And that, I guess, is one of my greatest hopes for this new year: that social work advocates and others of like spirit will find the courage and the creativity and the outright audacity to turn ‘conventional wisdom’ (which, of course, is often quite unwise) on its head and, in the process, find rays of light out of some of the tunnels in which we currently find ourselves. This will require asking the right questions, because all too often we are debating the ‘right’ answers to questions that we should never be asking (see current discussion of whether or not to drug test Food Stamp beneficiaries) or failing to ask the hard, even odd questions that could yield the greatest promise (what if we developed a whole new way to invest in nonprofits, outside of the grant structure?).

Check out the book–it’s worth reading for the great example of the civil servant who comes up with the idea to require Social Security Numbers for dependents, which revealed (and recouped) more than $14 billion in additional tax revenue from cheaters in five years alone–and then consider making one of your new year’s revolutions a commitment to unorthodoxy. If we start looking in the right places, talking to the right people, and daring to question those who (like the KKK example that Levitt also uses) seek to control and distort with selectively-presented misinformation, we just may be surprised at what we find: sumo wrestlers and public school teachers have something in common.

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