Authors Dubner and Levitt Discuss Freakonomics
Authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt asked the readers of their blog, www.freakonomics.com, to fire away with questions. As you’ll see, they responded with vigor, and the authors didn’t hold back, either.
Q: Can you tell us about subjects that you researched but didn’t write about, possibly because the data didn’t tell you anything, it was too controversial, etc. I’d like to hear what was left behind on the editing room floor. —Mickey a: If you think we would leave something out because it is too controversial, you obviously don’t know us very well! Maybe you will be convinced after reading our second book, SuperFreakonomics, where we write about prostitutes, terrorists, global-warming hysterics, and profit-seeking oncologists. There are countless research projects for which we couldn’t find the right data, or where the results just turned out not to be very interesting. For every 10 research ideas, only 2 will turn into academic papers and only 1 will be interesting enough for a book like this. Some readers assume that we can go out and answer any question we want, but it doesn’t work that way. The downside is that all kinds of fascinating subjects have eluded our grasp (so far); the upside is that readers know the stories we do tell are supported by data rather than just opinion or whimsy.
"There are a handful of economists who feel that he violated the secret handshake of economics by showing the outside world that what economists do really isn’t that hard or complex. They will never forgive him."
Q: How much of the book’s success do you believe can be attributed to your choice of title? a: Levitt’s sister, Linda Jines, came up with the title; she is the real creative genius in the family. It’s hard to know how important the title has been, but our guess is ... very. On the other hand, as we write in the book, the name you give your child has no discernible effect on that child’s life outcome. So should we expect the same from a book title? Perhaps not; a book and a person have different qualities. Still, it’s worth noting that some commercial ventures have succeeded wildly despite having names that, at first, must have seemed a detriment. Do you really think the first producers of Oprah had an easy time with that name? And what about ESPN?
Q: Tell us about the criticism you have received from traditional/ academic colleagues over Freakonomics.—J. Plain a: Levitt’s academic colleagues tend to react in one of three ways. The majority of economists thought about it like economists: the success of Freakonomics probably increased the number of students wanting to take economics courses, and since the supply of economics teachers is fixed in the short run, the wages of academic economists should rise. That makes economists happy. A second group of economists decided that if Levitt could write a book that people would read, surely they could too. So there has been a flurry of “popular” books by economists— some good, some not so good. And then, inevitably, there are a handful of economists who feel that he violated the secret handshake of economics by showing the outside world that what economists do really isn’t that hard or complex. They will never forgive him.
Q: Of the examples discussed in the book, which have gained the greatest traction in the popular/political discussion? —Rick Groves a: There has been a lot of talk about the relationship between legalized abortion and the crime rate. And some governments have cited the low wages of street-level drug dealers as an incentive to young people to go legit. But on a day-to-day level, the part of the book that’s probably spurred the most change is our discussion of real-estate agents. The standard fixed-commission, full-service realtor model is gradually melting away. Even the White House weighed in, with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, which is meant to increase transparency between realtors and their customers.
Q: Why are there so few economists in politics, as it is one of the most important issues in a country? Is it that they’d rather become professors, work in the private sector, become advisers or work in the Treasury, or do they think it is too compromising? —Neil a: You ask an intriguing and important question. Many countries around the world have elected economists as president. In the U.S., however, economists generally do not fit into the political framework. Why? One guess is that they are trained to think rationally and tell the truth about data. As any observer of U.S. politics knows, rationality and unvarnished data are practically forbidden on the campaign trail. Politicians (and, presumably, voters) are much more interested in emotion and rhetoric. That said, some administrations (Obama’s, for one) hold economists in far higher regard than others.
Q: While many of the stories and conclusions in Freakonomics are fascinating, there seems to be no clear methodology or set of principles that profit-maximizing executives can use in managing their business. Have you ever considered distilling the lessons (such as they are) into a handbook for the manager interested in exploiting the “hidden side” of business? —Drew a: Drew, have you considered becoming a literary agent? (Also, we admire your ability to simultaneously flatter and condemn.) Here are the facts. For reasons that remain unclear, our publisher initially called Freakonomics a business book. This led to certain expectations—nearly all of which, surely, were dashed the moment any credible businessperson read the book. You are right: we do not lay out any profitable methodologies at all. That said, in recent years Levitt has done a lot of research in the business arena, which we feel may someday yield a good book that does indeed explore the “hidden side” of business.
Q: How much is all the tea in China really worth? —Dave F. a: About $1.5 billion. But just imagine how much more valuable it would be if, like marijuana, it were illegal. (Note to selves: corner the market on Chinese tea, then bribe the government to criminalize it.)