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Economic mischief 

Careful what you believe Steven Levitt may prove you wrong

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University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt is the people's economist. While colleagues research lofty, largely inaccessible ideas on trade deficits and the like, Levitt concerns himself with the questions of everyday life.

If dealing drugs is so lucrative, why do drug dealers live with their moms? Based on name alone, what will TomKat's daughter Suri's personality be?

The answers to these curious questions are often surprising. A drug gang is run much like a standard capitalist venture, with only those at the top raking in the big bucks. And Suri would likely turn out the same had she been named Crystal.

Many of the questions that Levitt and co-author Stephen Dubner ask in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything actually are quite controversial.

Levitt is perhaps best-known for proposing a link between the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision and the dramatic drop in crime in the 1990s when the first legally aborted children would've reached maturity. Unwanted children, he asserts, are more prone to becoming criminals.

But even issues that appear less incendiary can cause a stir. Levitt also found that the swimming pool in your back yard is 100 times more likely to kill your kid than the gun in your house, and that child car seats might not be safer than seatbelts.

"If you start saying that car seats don't work much better than adult seatbelts, then people stop inviting you to cocktail parties, because they don't like you. You're violating the religion of parenthood," he says. "But on the other hand, when you look at the data, it just seems like it's right. ... I just try to follow the data and see where the data leads. And sometimes that takes you to places that make people feel very uncomfortable."

While he willingly tackles questions that challenge morality and the status quo, he says he is apolitical and without an agenda. He simply proposes questions that spark his imagination, acquires the data and observes. He has no investment in the conclusion.

Still, he admits there's more to his questions.

"I like finding the bad guys. I like [exposing] cheating and corruption," he says. "I like showing that something everybody believes turns out not to be right. I think there's a little bit of mischief in it."

Levitt's empirical mischief has landed Freakonomics atop the New York Times bestseller list, earned him multiple TV appearances and awards, and even caught the attention of the Bush administration, who asked him to advise them on crime. He referred them to the aforementioned Roe v. Wade paper.

Levitt says he is primarily concerned with incentive in his studies, and has found that people aren't always motivated primarily by the bottom line. And while his techniques may mark him a "rogue," he is not alone.

"There's a real movement within the profession of economics to move away from economics as being a subject matter, to more of a set of tools for understanding the world," he says.

Will the rogue economist be bringing his toolbox to the White House?

"I don't think I'll ever hear back from them," he says.

capsule

Steven Levitt lecture

CC's Shove Chapel,

1010 N. Nevada Ave.

Tuesday, May 2, 7:30 p.m.

Free; call 389-6607 for more information.

  • Careful what you believe Steven Levitt may prove you wrong

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