Rising-star economist reaches masses


Steven Levitt looks the part of the University of Chicago's next rising-star economist as he weaves his way down Michigan Avenue, his tie flapping in the wind, his cell phone humming.

His dark suit says Wall Street, but after several days of too many airports and too many public appearances, his youthful eyes resemble those of a boy who needs a nap

Levitt has been crisscrossing the nation promoting his new book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, which delves into the decidedly unconventional economic turf of human frailties such as cheating, corruption and crime.

"I am puzzled by the response to the book," Levitt says without a hint of sarcasm. "Frankly, I didn't think so many people would want to read it."

The statement is vintage Levitt. He is the disarmingly humble but brilliant academic who made a name as a Columbo-like sleuth who has brought regression analysis to the masses.

Levitt is the economist that ordinary mortals are not afraid to talk to. His knowledge of his field is commanding but when he speaks, an endearing childlike lisp often invades his sentences. As he dissects complicated research in the plainest of English, he is more a storyteller than a technician, often touching his eyeglasses as if trying to capture a thought that might slip away.

A thinker of Harvard and MIT pedigree, Levitt - at age 38 - is considered one of the pop culture oracles of a brand of economics that finds the human condition with all its contradictions much more appealing than technical topics like interest rates and trade deficits.

Among the unusual topics in his new book:

What do cheating schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

Why would drug dealers who work in a supposedly lucrative illegal trade still live with their mothers?

Did the legalization of abortion bring down crime?

And why did the Ku Klux Klan falter as an organization in America?

These questions are dangerous topics for polite dinner conversation because they are packed with issues that are ethical and moral land mines.

The nature of his research may be the key to Levitt's widespread appeal.

Freakonomics unfolds much less like a typical arcane economic treatise and more like the type of detective story that has you reading late into the night. In love with or disgusted by Levitt's findings, you are compelled to read on.

Levitt and his co-author, former newspaper editor Stephen Dubner, slowly pull back the layers on questions covering issues that only Levitt would be bold enough to ask and answer.

His book has climbed to No. 2 on The New York Times best-sellers' list for hardcover nonfiction. Nearly 200,000 copies have been sold in the book's two-month run.

'Ingenious studies'

"He has had some very ingenious studies," said Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, of Levitt's work. Becker, a University of Chicago legend who was a trailblazer in bringing economic rigor to the study of issues such as the family, and crime and punishment, is Levitt's role model and friend.

Named a tenured professor in 1999 after just two years at the the university, Levitt has garnered a stream of accolades in his short career and made an impact with his quirky, sometimes obscure studies in a storied economics department known for its conservatism and focus on free markets. Most significant, in 2003 he won the John Bates Clark Medal from the American Economic Association. The honor is bestowed every two years for the nation's most outstanding economist younger than 40.

Raised in Minneapolis, Levitt says he developed his independence and widespread curiosity in a highly educated and highly unusual family.

"I had a super-rational medical researcher father and a paranormal mother," Levitt said recently. "Who knows how one turns out the way we do?"

He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and spent two years in management consulting before enrolling in MIT's doctoral program. He said it was at MIT that he made a pivotal career decision.

"I am not a big thinker," Levitt said, raising his arms as if he were surrendering. "I am not someone who is going to change a paradigm. The thing that I am good at is taking a lot of data and asking some interesting questions and teasing something out of the data. I am not revolutionary. I think I am incremental. But I don't mind being incremental.

"I think most economists never had the revelation that I had when I was a graduate student, which is that I discovered it is a lot more fun to write about topics that you are interested in than to write about something that you think is economics."

Levitt, who lives near the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, is a father of four who on most days prefers khakis and loafers to business suits. His wife, Jeannette, says he "multitasks" well, making it home for dinner most nights.

The two met in Cambridge on a blind date when their hairdressers, who worked in the same establishment, arranged for them to meet. "My hairdresser thought he might be a nerd," Jeannette said. "But he seemed like such a nice guy."

In keeping with the diverse projects that have distinguished his career, Levitt's current investigations span the globe - from analyzing records at a foreign bank with hope of discovering ways to catch terrorists to looking at whether doping can be found among Tour de France racers.

The CIA asked him to come in briefly to talk about terrorism. Levitt also went out to Las Vegas recently to talk with casino owners about gathering data to determine what it takes to make a good blackjack dealer.

Levitt also has a secret project that he is fascinated with. He talked animatedly but wouldn't reveal the research publicly because: "It is something that is right under your nose. This could have a huge impact. The data is there. But no one has bothered to study it."

His work has attracted President Bush's team, although Levitt said Bush's handlers never called him back after he told them to first read his study on abortion and crime. That research investigation has generated more controversy than all of Levitt's work.

In the paper published with John Donohue in 2001, Levitt and his co-author argued that Roe v. Wade accounted for as much as a third of the precipitous drop in crime since the early 1990s. "Legalized abortion led to less unwantedeness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime," they argued.

That simple statement dropped like a bombshell.

Critics posed such questions as: Was Levitt advocating abortion? Is he a racist proposing a form of eugenics?

"Certainly, we were not politically savvy," Levitt said as he waited to talk with students on a recent day. "What we didn't realize because we are economists through and through is that many people were unable to put aside issues of morality and ethics and right and wrong."

Some critics, however, including Ted Joyce, an economics professor at Baruch College in New York, questioned Levitt's research findings. "What Steve really picked up in his data was a precipitous decline that was caused by the waning of the crack epidemic rather than abortion," Joyce said.

Others rallied to Levitt's defense.

Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh said Levitt's research was sound, but that it was just a highly charged topic. "Steve's approach is that he is going to be driven entirely by science, not the political ramifications of the question or the result," Venkatesh said.

Raising the volume

With this topic and as with many others, Levitt has a way of raising the volume in a field that has long been considered as dry.

"He has made a reputation in the wider world in as nontechnical a way as one could imagine," said Daniel Hamermesh, a labor economist at the University of Texas, who has used Levitt's studies in his undergraduate courses. "His studies have worked because they are an illustration of the breadth to which economics can be applied."

For example, Levitt concluded that Japanese sumo wrestlers and Chicago public schoolteachers have something in common - some in both groups would cheat if the right incentives were in place.

Levitt developed a method that determined that sumo wrestling matches were often rigged, and he also created a set of algorithms that uncovered that some teachers cheat, even doctoring standardized test sheets, to boost student performance on exams.

Chicago school officials embraced the findings and fired some teachers.

Even with all the attention, Levitt still says the spotlight is not his natural home.

"The last thing I ever wanted to be is a public intellectual," he said. "And in some sense, what I am is the anti-intellectual."

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