What’s it like to be a so-called ‘populariser’ of economics after Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics hits town? To be honest, the feeling of inferiority is depressing after a while. I recently spent a week alternating between assuring my publisher that my book would be just as exciting as Levitt’s, and assuring my editor at the FT that my profile of Levitt would be as masterful as Dubner’s. The truth is that is that Levitt and Dubner have made the rest of us look like C-list econopundits.
The cognoscenti have two reactions to the Freakonomics buzz. One is gushing enthusiasm. That’s not entirely unjustified. Levitt is a brilliant thinker and asks questions which are sometimes fun, sometimes important and often both. Dubner is a wonderful writer.
The second reaction is the irritation at all this ‘freak’ business. Levitt joins Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, Ken Arrow, Gary Becker, Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and the rest as a John Bates Clark medallist ; he’s editor of the Journal of Political Economy. Are we really supposed to believe that he’s a ‘rogue economist’? I’ve had a moment or two of annoyance myself as I try to convince anyone who will listen that there were a few interesting pieces of economics before Steve Levitt came along.
Levitt’s public persona is certainly designed to pull in the crowds, and he is not afraid to admit it. Some of his best work is sidelined in Freakonomics and in most profiles of him because it’s not quite freaky enough, and that feels like a shame to those who know and admire it.
Our grumbling, however, is misplaced; it’s the bittersweet teenage resentment that comes when the band that you once followed alone suddenly makes it big. It seems that deep down, we really loved the obscurity of economic thinking. Perhaps for that reason we have created such an appalling reputation for economics that the more you deny that you’re an economist, the more books you can sell. This is not simply some trick cooked up by Levitt and his publicists – it’s unique to economics. Popular science books sell very well but you won’t catch Stephen Hawking claiming that he’s a ‘rogue physicist’. Popular philosophy is in vogue too. But the success of Freakonomics and the deliberate distance it places between itself and ‘normal’ economics simply reminds us that popular economics remains an oxymoron. There’s no reason why that has to be true. Even before Thomas Schelling and Gary Becker got to it, our field encompassed, without any freakery at all, wealth, poverty, choice, desire, politics and shopping. If Levitt needs to disown that to sell books, we should blame ourselves, not him. The next bright young economist with a book in him should be eager to be associated with his own subject; that won’t happen unless we do a better job of showing ordinary people why they should care.
We owe Levitt another debt of gratitude for reminding us that economics can be fun for its own sake. Freakonomics celebrates that fact, but it is nearly alone in the field. The best popular economics books of recent years have been out to make a serious point – Martin Wolf’s In Praise of Globalization and John Kay The Truth about Markets (in the US this became Culture and Prosperity) are outstanding examples. The books are wise and good to read but neither Wolf nor Kay has written to convey the sheer fun of the subject. Steven Landsburg often conveys the spark of economic thinking brilliantly, but with a punkish insistence that his outrageous conclusions be politically or emotionally dislikeable. (For most economists, the fun is trying to work out why Landsburg is wrong – never easy. I always wonder whether non-economists get the joke, funny though it is.) David Friedman’s Hidden Order is just as much fun, but it’s packed full of graphs – the textbook I wish I’d had as an undergraduate.
Levitt and Dubner, for all the elaborate efforts to distance themselves from mainstream economics, have given other economists an unprecedented opportunity. Maybe, just maybe, economics isn’t just a tedious jumble of failed forecasts, mechanical macroeconomic reporting and libertarian sneering. Maybe Steven D. Levitt isn’t the only economist with something fun to say about everyday life. He’s led the way – it’s up to the rest of us to follow.