|EVEN ECONOMISTS GET FREAKY.|
|Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything answers questions you never even thought to ask. Why do drug dealers live with their moms? How does the name you give your child affect his future? Freakonomics also pokes conventional|
wisdom in the eye; you can stop thinking that the crime rate plummeted in the 1990s because of the economic boom, for example. And your real estate agent probably isn't doing all she can to sell your home -- it's just not worth the effort.
Spawned from a couple New York Times magazine articles written by Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics sets out to explore the joyfully creative mindscape of Steven D. Levitt. Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, won the John Bates Clark Medal in 2003, given every two years to the best American economist under 40.
Because The Black Table has a stronger affinity for words than
economics, we talked to Freakonomics co-author Dubner.
BT: You first wrote about Steven Levitt for the Times magazine in August 2003. What initially brought him to your attention? How did you initially pitch the story to the Times?
SJD: I can't claim credit for pitching: it was the Times who came to me. My then-editor, Hugo Lindgren [now at New York], saw that Levitt just won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is a sort of junior Nobel. At the time, I was researching a book on the psychology of money and had been interviewing scads of economists. So I must have seemed a sane choice. I remembered the controversy over one paper that Levitt wrote, linking Roe v. Wade to a huge drop in crime years later. (This had made a particular impression on me because my mother was a Right to Life activist in New York, one of the first states to legalize abortion, and I had spent many a childhood evening stuffing envelopes for her.) I told Hugo no thanks, two or three times. I thought, stupidly, that Levitt's work had already been adequately covered. I also thought, only slightly less stupidly, that since his research didn't jibe with my current work on the psychology of money, I should just stick to my book. Hugo, however -- thankfully -- was persistent. After just one day in Chicago with Levitt, I called Hugo and told him how astonishingly creative and brilliant this guy was. So I stayed in Chicago a while longer.
BT: How did you and Levitt write together? If he were to explain his ideas in person, would the explanation be similar to what's in the book, or did he lean on you to provide the layman's explanation?
SJD: Second question first: Yes, if you heard Steve give a lecture, it wouldn't sound too different from the book. That's partly because he's an excellent storyteller to start with; it's also because he and I have by now undergone a thorough mind-meld. The shape of our collaboration changed along the way. In the beginning, we would sit together at a computer in New York or Chicago and rough things out, which was a lot of fun but extremely unproductive. In the end, the best method proved to be long phone conversations. He'd say something like, "Well, we could start the chapter on crack dealing with a profile of Sudhir" -- Sudhir Venkatesh, the sociologist who lived for six years with a Chicago crack gang -- "and then we could talk about how a crack gang is essentially a tournament." So this would lead to some reporting by me (interviewing Venkatesh, et al) and some straight journalism, which would then bleed into Steve's analysis and clever problem-solving. I'd write a few pages, email it to him, he'd reply within an hour, I'd write some more, etc. It was the best collaboration I could dream of. I've learned more -- as a writer -- from working with Steve Levitt than I have from any other editor or writer I've worked with. If I spend the next 20 years co-writing books with Steve Levitt, I think I'll be very happy.
BT: You admit in the epilogue that there is no "unifying theme" to Freakonomics, that the book offers no hard solutions but instead a way of looking at the world. What do you and Levitt hope is the ultimate "takeaway" for the reader?
SJD: Well, we make the argument that morality represents the way that people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents how it actually does work. In other words, an economist -- whose science is less a subject matter than a science of measurement, of proving cause and effect -- is in a position to see through all kinds of clutter, from the cultural to the ideological. I'm always leery of hearing about a book that promises to make you smarter -- but I do think that Freakonomics may lead people to think for themselves in a new way that's actually as fun as it is important.
BT: Did working with Levitt change your mind on any of the issues covered in your book? What were you most surprised about?
SJD: Oh, sure. One of his best papers is called "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not." He is so very good at taking a complicated scenario (in this case, the rise and fall of crime) and stripping it down to separate elements and then finding an absurdly clever way of measuring the impact of each element. So I was someone who thought, 'Sure, the booming economy of the late 1980s must have helped drive crime down.' And in about three seconds, Levitt shows how that can't possibly be true.
BT: Levitt's ideas at times venture into unpopular (i.e., not politically correct) territory regarding race and poverty. What kind of criticism has he faced?
SJD: Well, the kind of economics that Levitt practices offers a huge advantage: It is devoutly apolitical. He isn't trying to make any ideological points, even though he's writing about the hottest-button issues: guns, race, cheating, etc. He's just looking for true stories that lie buried in the data that, for most people, are far too intimidating to trifle with. So yes, he has come up with plenty of conclusions that might make a liberal squirm (and plenty more that would make a conservative squirm), but if you look at those conclusions with your mind even half-open, it isn't hard to see that he's just explaining how the world actually works.
BT: How is Levitt's thinking applied to real world economic problems? Knowing the financial and management structure of drug dealers is fascinating stuff, but how can we use that information to quash drugs or crime?
SJD: He would argue that he's never had a big thought in his life, and he almost ridicules the pop appeal of some of his stuff. But he approaches every subject -- whether it's cheating in sumo wrestling or the economics of baby names -- with an economic rigor that, in and of itself, is a sort of testament to intellectual integrity. And since so many arenas of public life -- politics and business, to name just a pair -- are so lacking in intellectual integrity, I think that his methodology, even more than his subject matter, can inspire anyone to live his life on a slightly higher plane.
BT: Your two previous books were infused with a heavy dose of memoir. Freakonomics is certainly a departure from that. Do you find that you prefer one writing experience to the other? What have you learned as a writer and reporter by working on this project?
SJD: I'd written two memoirs while I was still in my thirties. That had to stop. I was desperately sick of myself. The memoirs had come about by accident -- through journalism, really, but journalism that wound up concerning myself. I think the first article I ever wrote in the first-person was the Times magazine article that led to my first book, Turbulent Souls. So I was a sort of accidental memoirist. And after two books, I was very eager to get back to narrative third-person writing. Levitt was a godsend for me: a volcano of ideas who has also become a close friend through the writing of this book. We're going to start writing a regular monthly column for the Times mag., and, perhaps, try to winnow down our two dozen book ideas into just the right one to follow Freakonomics.
Aileen Gallagher is a managing editor of The Black Table.