When Stephen Dubner was 4, his mother praised the way he set the table.
Dubner’s family was large, and he didn’t want to make too many trips to and from the kitchen table. So he developed a route that combined several short trips into one long route.
“I remember my mom looking at me and saying, ‘Stephen, that was very efficient,’ ” he recalled.
Efficiency was important in the Dubner household, where money was scarce and there were eight children to feed. His parents placed a great emphasis on running errands efficiently, so as not to waste gas. They hosted weekly family meetings in which anyone who came up with an idea for improving household efficiency was given a nickel.
“It was entrepreneurialism on a tiny, tiny shoestring,” Dubner said.
Today, Dubner occupies a very different world from the one in which he was raised.
Against the grain
A Duanesburg native who grew up on a small farm that included gardens, a cow and chickens, Dubner, 48, is now a writer and intellectual best known for his work on the popular Freakonomics franchise, which has produced two books, 2005’s “Freakonomics” and 2009’s “SuperFreakonomics” that have sold more than 5 million copies in 35 languages. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is married to the documentary photographer Ellen Binder and counts writers and intellectuals among his friends. But he credits his childhood with fostering his interest in ideas and writing.
The Freakonomics books use economic theory to explore topics that are not usually discussed by traditional economists, often in ways that cut against conventional wisdom, delve into and even embrace pop culture and lead to provocative and unexpected conclusions.
In the first book, one chapter looks at cheating among sumo wrestlers and teachers, while another focuses on the role legalized abortion has played in reducing crime.
Dubner co-authored the Freakonomics books with University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, whom he met when he wrote a New York Times Magazine profile of him.
The two have also been featured in the 2010 documentary “Freakonomics,” and maintain a Freakonomics website and blog; Dubner also hosts Freakonomics Radio. Recent blog posts examined physical activity during the recession — people are engaging in more voluntary exercise, but exerting themselves less — and whether it’s better to measure poverty through income or consumption.
Growing up, Dubner lived in the hamlet of Quaker Street.
His father was a newspaperman who worked at three local papers — the Troy Record, the Albany Times Union and the Daily Gazette, where he served as a copy editor. His mother stayed home with the children — Dubner was the youngest. He and his siblings were encouraged to make money any way they could, and all of them worked at either the local market or diner.
“We were poor, but we didn’t really notice,” Dubner recalled. “We scraped. We learned to make do on very little.”
Even so, his childhood was a happy one.
“I was a content little guy,” he said. “I didn’t know any different. It was a different world.”
The writing bug
Dubner’s father died when he was 10, but he credits his father with instilling an interest in writing and journalism.
“The reason I became a writer is because my father worked at a newspaper,” he said. “I thought that was neat. He would come home with a pencil tucked behind his ear and a notebook in his pocket.”
But writing was also an activity Dubner did at home and at school. Along with his siblings, he put together a family newspaper called the Quaker Street Quacker — “we were the kind of family that valued writing” — and when he was in high school he revived the dormant school newspaper. “I was fairly obnoxious,” he recalled. “I wrote half the paper myself.”
Dubner graduated from Duanesburg Central High School in 1980, and attended Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where he wrote for the campus paper. From there, he went to New York City, partly because of a girl, and partly because his rock band, the Right Profile, signed to Arista Records. He played keyboards for the band, which took its name from a song on the classic Clash album “London Calling.”
In 1988, he left the Right Profile to focus on writing, and received a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University in 1990. He had planned to become a professor and write novels for a living, but teaching freshman composition changed his mind.
“I realized I didn’t like teaching much,” he said. “I felt like the kids were so much brighter than me.”
At the Times
Dubner got a job at New York magazine after graduation, which led to an editing job at the New York Times Magazine, where he was allowed to write one cover story per year.
His first piece was about his parents, Jews from Brooklyn who converted to Catholicism against their parents’ wishes, and moved to upstate New York. The magazine piece also examined how more Americans choose their own religion, as well as his decision to return to the religion of his ancestors. Dubner turned the piece into his first book, “Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family.” The book was named a notable book, and was a finalist for the Koret National Jewish Book Award. It was republished in 2006 under the title “Choosing My Religion.”
It was Dubner’s research that inspired him to practice Judaism.
“I was taken with the degree of argumentation [in Judaism], with the tradition of challenging authority,” he said, in a phone interview. “Moses is repeatedly challenging God. Rather than a top-down set of rules, there’s a constant argument about the best way of doing things.”
Dubner’s second book, “Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper,” came out in 2003. Also a memoir, it focuses on his boyish devotion to Pittsburgh Steelers great Franco Harris, while also exploring the whole concept of hero worship, and the relationship between hero and fan.
Dubner left the Times to focus on writing books, and he was working on a book about the psychology of money when he was asked to write a piece about Levitt for the magazine. He initially turned the assignment down, because it didn’t relate to the book he was working on. But he eventually changed his mind, “impressed by [Levitt’s] cleverness.”
The magazine piece, which ran in 2003, included the following description of the man who would become Dubner’s partner in Freakonomics:
“Steven Levitt tends to see things differently than the average person. Differently, too, than the average economist. This is either a wonderful trait or a troubling one, depending on how you feel about economists.”
Dubner said he was eager to start writing about ideas, and leave memoir writing behind.
“I never wanted to be someone who wrote about myself,” he said. “The fact that I had published two memoirs before the age of 36 was somewhat embarrassing. I never wanted to be a person who said, ‘Here’s a book that’s interesting because it’s about me.’ . . . It was a real relief to get back to the type of writing I’d always wanted to do.”
Remembering the family
Duanesburg resident Annie Burnett lived next door to the Dubner family, and worked with many of the Dubner children at Gibby’s Diner.
She described the Dubners as a nice, quiet family who attended Mass every week. “Mr. Dubner was very religious, and he made sure the children went to church,” she said. “As the boys grew up, he came to the diner and got them jobs as dishwashers. They were mannerly, and did what they should.”
The family also produced much of its food — in a New York Times Magazine article, Dubner describes a home operation that involved milking the cow, slaughtering chickens, baking bread, tapping maple trees and diligently canning, freezing and pickling. “They were quite self-sustaining,” Burnett said. “But that’s common out here. Everyone had a garden back then, and everyone had some animals.”
Burnett said she read “Freakonomics” and enjoyed it. “It was interesting,” she said.
Dubner said his Duanesburg childhood taught him to be self-reliant. “When you have so little to do externally, you do a lot internally,” he said.
He occasionally visits the area, where two of his sisters still live.
“I love being in the country,” he said. “I spend a big chunk of the summer in the country. I miss having grass under my feet.”
Of his success, Dubner said, “It still feels like a fairy tale. “It’s nice to have written things people read. Most writers grow up wanting to be read by someone, somewhere.”
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