The Dawn of A-List Economics

by Tim Harford on May 23, 2005

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.

{ 9 comments }

1

agm 05.24.05 at 2:31 am

Other fields have just had a head start relative to economics. I’m not sure how well documented, or how factual, it is, but the lore of a lot of fields is that (absenting Einstein, he skewed everything) you get looked down upon if you write popularizations — serious academics publish papers for other serious academics in their field’s journals, they don’t waste it on writing for the public. This is particularly acute for academics on the tenure track, I suspect, since the logical conclusion of such a view on the part of tenure reviewers could be that one is not serious about one’s work. and in fact, one of the things that is considered an impending crisis in physics is that we’ve done a crappy job publicizing the importance of large chunks of the field, leaving people to question why they are paying for it and whether that should continue.

Nothing like imperiled funding to make one’s academic priorities clear.

2

des von bladet 05.24.05 at 4:45 am

I am very grateful for the list of readable popular economics books, of course, but:

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.

Two words: Dolph Lundgren.

3

Andrew Brown 05.24.05 at 8:41 am

I think the “rogue” bit is just general marketing for any popularisation of any discipline now. Bookbuyers want to be reassured that they are not going to be asked to do the hard grind of learning the conventional view of a subject. No longer is it “everythig you ever knew about X is wrong”; now we can save time witht he books that assure us that everything we ever pretended to know about X was wrong anyway.

This entails no disrespect to Levitt — or to tim harford, whom I read to my advantage every week.

4

Sean 05.24.05 at 1:29 pm

Yeah, I think the “rogue” bit is just a good marketing strategy, it’s not unique to economics. Physicists use it too — Joao Maguiego, even Stephen Wolfram.

But it’s important to support people who make academic fields accessible to non-experts. A lot of academics get jealous and touchy about their colleagues’ success in the public arena, but discovering new things is only half of our job — the other half is telling people about what we’ve discovered.

5

kharris 05.25.05 at 10:17 am

Harford’s essay stands our here, not because it’s good – all are – but because it goes farthest in using Levitt to critique economics, rather than economics to critique Levitt. Among all the assertions about Levitt’s appeal, Harford’s leads us closest to this – Levitt has charm because he turns economics, or whatever it is that he does, loose on everyday issues. His conclusion about the relative risks of guns and swimming pools serves as a hell of a public service announcement. There is, however, no big surprise in the question asked – which kills more children, guns or swimming pools? The abortion paper dazzles because of the leap, from one public policy issue to a seemingly unrelated one.

The abortion paper is an oddity among Levitt’s better known works because it addressed such highly politicized issues. Economics seems typically to come in 2 flavors – obstruse musing on theory, modeling and technique, or partisan assertions about public policy that far too often border on dishonesty. Levitt usually avods both. He charms us with kicking strategies, baby names and lots and lots of cheating. This is Bates medal quality economics of an “Economist Reads the Newspaper” sort. We have our popularizers and our great original thinkers. Levitt isn’t a bit of each. Rather, he is the two together. His topics bring economics out of the tawdry realm of lying partisans and the often pointless realm of work-a-day specialization to show us that economics, or whatever it is that Levitt does, can tell us things we want to know.

6

Steve Sailer 05.25.05 at 2:00 pm

“The abortion paper is an oddity among Levitt’s better known works because it addressed such highly politicized issues.”

Right. But it’s also an oddity because it is so much more empirically dubious. I enjoyed most of “Freakonomics,” although its egomania gets on my nerves, but the abortion-cut-crime theory stands out for it’s importance, it’s fame, and it’s weak foundations.

Levitt doesn’t tell you this in “Freakonomics,” but his theory fails most obvious tests of historical plausibility because he failed to look at narrowly defined age-groups when making it up in 1999. For example, the first cohort born after abortion was legalized went on the worst murder and serious violent crime sprees in American history among 14-17 year olds, committing up to three times as many homicides per year as the last cohort born before legalization. Moreover, this huge wave of violent crime among 14-17 year olds in the late 1980s and early 1990s started where legal abortion was most popular first, both geographically and demographically.

There is about as much empirical evidence that legalizing abortion drove up the violent crime rate as drove it down. Large assertions require large evidence, and Levitt doesn’t come close to meeting the burden of proof. Nonetheless, his theory has proven wildly popular in the many softball book reviews he’s gotten.

I realize that many, many academics are rooting for Levitt because they hope to follow him into best-selling authordom and media-celebrityhood, but is it doing the economics profession any long term good to accept without skepticism Levitt’s most famous theory?

To learn what Levitt won’t tell you in Freakonomics about the complex relationship between abortion and crime, please see
http://www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm

7

kharris 05.26.05 at 9:54 am

If one wants to assert that some of Levitt’s claims are thinly supported, this –

“I realize that many, many academics are rooting for Levitt because they hope to follow him into best-selling authordom and media-celebrityhood,…”

is probably not the way to do it. We have what evidence for this judgment?

8

Steve Sailer 05.26.05 at 5:03 pm

Oh, let’s see … How about the title of this blog entry: “The Dawn of A-List Economics”?

9

Steve Sailer 05.26.05 at 11:06 pm

I am shocked, SHOCKED to hear that anyone is implying that economists, of all people, might be self-interested!

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