by Kieran Healy on May 23, 2005

Via “Brian Leiter”: I see that the very smart “Kieran Setiya”: now has a blog. Kieran is a moral philosopher at the “University of Pittsburgh”: We were in graduate school at Princeton at the same time, where each of us was known as “the other Kieran” to different portions of our semi-overlapping social network. At least, I’ve always assumed _both_ of us were designated as such at various times –maybe I just routinely came in second.

Paul Ricoeur has died

by Henry Farrell on May 23, 2005

Via “Russell Arben Fox”: I see that Paul Ricouer has died at the age of 92. “Le Monde”:,1-0@2-3230,36-652552@51-633431,0.html, the”Telegraph”:;sessionid=BBIWUSDSJHP2RQFIQMGSM54AVCBQWJVC?xml=/news/2005/05/23/db2301.xml&site=5 and “Guardian”:,3858,5199672-103684,00.html have obituaries. In addition to Ricoeur’s direct philosophical legacy, he had a very substantial indirect influence on the social sciences through Clifford Geertz, whose arguments about culture and its study are informed by Ricoeur’s hermeneutics.

Update: As “Scott McLemee”: points out, it’s already Tuesday, and

bq. nobody in the American media has insulted Ricoeur yet. What’s going on? Have our pundits lost their commitment to mocking European intellectuals and the pointy-headed professors who read them?

Is something wrong? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Steven Levitt Seminar – Introduction

by Henry Farrell 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 Q 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 Farrell 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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More on Uzbekistan

by John Q on May 23, 2005

The NYT has survivors’ accounts of the massacre in Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, on last night’s ABC News[1], I saw the commander of the US base in Uzbekistan interviewed. He said something like “The host country military are doing a wonderful job protecting the base and we have had no trouble from the disturbances”. That’s the same host country military that was murdering hundreds of its own people a few days earlier. I can’t find a link to this on Google news, so I’d be grateful to anyone who can point me to a transcript.

Bush’s friendly relations with the Uzbek dictator Karimov have been unshaken by this, and any stated opposition to Karimov’s use of torture and murder is meaningless: it’s an open secret that a good deal of it is being done on behalf of the Administration, as part of the policy of extraordinary rendition.

The blogospheric right has mostly been either silent or supportive, along with much of the pro-war left. But some cracks are emerging. Here’s a piece by Stephen Schwartz and William Kristol from the Weekly Standard. And on the pro-war left, there are some good pieces from Eric the Unread and Harry’s Place.

fn1. That’s the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the American network of the same acronym, but I assume they got the clip from one of the big international networks.