From the category archives:

Levitt seminar

Steven Levitt Seminar – Introduction

by Henry on May 23, 2005

Steven Levitt’s work is familiar to many Crooked Timber readers. He’s a professor in the University of Chicago’s Economics Department, a winner of the John Clarke Bates medal, the editor of the Journal of Political Economy, and the author of a rather terrifying number of peer-reviewed articles. He’s also just co-authored a book with Stephen J. Dubner, a New York Times journalist who wrote a widely cited profile of Levitt last year. Freakonomics is currently Number Two on the New York Times bestseller list, and Number One on the Wall Street Journal’s business bestsellers list. In addition to all the above, Steve and his co-author have just started a blog centered on the book, and will soon start writing a monthly column for the Times. We asked Steve a while back whether he would be prepared to participate in a Crooked Timber seminar on freakonomics, economics, and the social sciences; he very kindly agreed, and you see the result before you. We’re also grateful to have the participation of two non-CT regulars. Tyler Cowen is a professor at George Mason University; he blogs at Marginal Revolution and still puts in an occasional appearance at the Volokhs. Tim Harford writes the “Dear Economist” column for the Financial Times. His first book, The Undercover Economist, is coming out in November 2005.

Kieran Healy argues that Levitt and Dubner’s use of the term “incentives” covers a multitude, and examines the relationship between freakonomics, economics, and the social sciences. John Quiggin argues that Levitt’s work is driven unflinchingly by the data, and that it provides evidence that even if incentives work, they don’t work in the ways that their designers might have expected. Henry Farrell supplements Healy’s and Quiggin’s arguments with a comparison between Levitt’s work and Gary Becker’s agenda for a unified economic approach to human behaviour. Tyler Cowen draws out some hypotheses from Levitt’s joint work on the economics of crack cocaine. Tim Harford examines why so few people try to popularize economic thinking. Finally, Steve himself responds to all the above.

As with our Mieville seminar, we expect that the main discussion will take place in comments to Levitt’s reply post. Feel free, however, to comment on individual posts if your comment seems more germane to a specific post or point made therein. As always, please be polite; unnecessarily offensive comments are likely to be deleted.

This seminar is available for reproduction under a Creative Commons license. For those who prefer to read printed text, a PDF is available here.

Update: Have changed the timestamp on these posts to keep them on the main page for a couple of days longer.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

A Wealth of Notions

by Kieran Healy on May 23, 2005

I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes a little at first. Behold the Freakonomist! “Politically incorrect in the best, most essential way,” said the blurb. A “rogue economist,” who goes out of his way in the first few pages to say he is “afraid of calculus” and doesn’t know how to do theory. Amazing! Incidentally, he trained at Harvard and MIT, was at the Harvard Society of Fellows, won the John Bates Clark medal and teaches at the University of Chicago. Now there’s a sociologically interesting kind of maverick. If only my own fear of calculus had propelled me towards the same peripheries. But this is unfair. Steven Levitt does first-class work that’s reliably provocative in the most productive sort of way. The packaging of the book—the silly title, the song-and-dance to make Levitt himself seem a little, well, freakish—seems mostly the result of getting a journalist and a marketing department on board and turning out the goods a little too fast. The product is a bit thin. But the underlying material is terrific.

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Getting the data to talk

by John Quiggin on May 23, 2005

Among the many fascinating contributions in the latest contribution to the popular literature on economics is a chapter defending the (mildly surprising) conclusion that having a black-sounding name like DeShawn is not a disadvantage in the US, once you take account of the class, education and family backgrounds variables typically associated with such a name. Having named their own baby Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner must be pretty confident on this point, and their high ranking on the New York Times bestseller list would appear to bear them out.

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… and then listening to it

by Henry on May 23, 2005

Steven Levitt’s work, as summarized in Freakonomics and the original articles on which Freakonomics draws, is eclectic in both subject matter and methodology. In the best sense of the word, it’s problem-driven research. Levitt has an extraordinary knack for finding interesting problems and interesting data that can be brought to bear on those problems. This is a large part of its attraction to the broader social science community – when you read something that Levitt has written or collaborated on, you get the sense of someone who is genuinely excited at discovering more about the ways in which the world works. His work is driven by curiosity, and it shows. As Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon says, an awful lot of academic work consists of “funereal parade[s] of yawn-enforcing facts,” that throw “pseudo-light” on “non-problems.” Not Levitt’s articles. Insofar as thirty-page chunks of social science can be fun, they’re fun.
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Crime and Crack

by Tyler Cowen on May 23, 2005

Economists should be forward rather than backward-looking, so I will consider Steve’s new paper—"Measuring the Impact of Crack Cocaine," co-authored with Roland Fryer, Paul Heaton, and Kevin M. Murphy.

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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.
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by Steven Levitt on May 23, 2005

I’m not sure whether it says more about my own shortcomings, or the quality of these five commentaries above on Freakonomics, that I gained a great deal of self-awareness from reading them. It was a surprising reaction for me. There have been many published reviews of Freakonomics, and not one of them has given me the slightest insight into myself. Strangely, though, I felt like I understand my own motivations and goals better than I did a few hours ago. For me, that has always been one of the greatest benefits of inter-disciplinary interactions. Self-awareness is a scarce commodity, and a valuable one, so I am quite grateful for this remarkable gift that Tyler Cowen, Henry Farrell, Tim Harford, Kieran Healy, and John Quiggin have given me.
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