- 07/04/2019 at 6:19 am #1322929EduGorillaKeymasterSelect Question Language :
With the 2005 publication of Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics, the world has come to see that economists can be spectacularly clever. In the search for “clean identification” — a situation in which it is easy to discern the causal forces in play —Levitt has turned to such offbeat contexts as Japanese sumo-wrestling and the seedy world of Chicago real estate. He has studied racial discrimination on a game show, and reflected on whitecollar bagel filching. This has inspired a flurry of imitators, including papers on point shaving in college basketball, under-used gym memberships and the parking tickets of UN diplomats. Within the tedious body of economics scholarship, these papers stand out as fantastically entertaining. Judging from the dizzying sales of Freakonomics and the thousands of lecture halls across the U.S. now bursting with econ majors, they’ve also been wildly successful at ginning up interest in the discipline. But what if all the cleverness has crowded out some of the truly deep questions we rely on economists to answer?
For more than a generation after the Second World War, the economists who dealt with real world data were mostly earnest, stubborn men. They tackled the era’s thorniest questions. Zvi Griliches of Harvard devoted decades to the problem of productivity growth, the chief determinant of rising living standards. His colleague Simon Kuznets spent half his career devising the measure of economic growth we still use today. In the ’80s, however, the data-crunchers had a crisis of confidence. In one famous episode, the eminent economist Gregg Lewis reviewed several studies on unions. Some papers reported that unions strongly increased wages; others reported exactly the opposite. The old approach had been sweeping in its ambition. But what good were ambitious goals if the best you could do was “on the one hand/on the other hand”-style equivocation or plain gibberish?
Many economists concluded that the path to knowledge lay in solid answers to modest questions. Henceforth, the emphasis would be on “clean identification.” “I’ve always been someone who’s thought it’s better to answer a small question well than to fail to answer a big question,” Levitt says. While still a student, he wondered whether money drives election results or if the better candidate raises more money. He ingeniously demonstrated the latter.
Another early paper found that a slight increase in the chance of arrest dramatically deterred auto theft. Levitt discerned this by studying cities that had approved the use of Lojack, a transmitter that leads police to stolen cars. In 2001, Levitt published his most controversial finding: a paper highlighting the connection between the legalization of abortion in the ’70s and the falling crime rates of the ’90s. Levitt argued that unwanted children are most at risk of becoming criminals. Abortion, he concluded, lowered crime rates by reducing unwanted pregnancies. Some of these papers made important contributions. The Lojack paper helped demonstrate that theft is a rational phenomenon and can therefore be discouraged.
A few years later, Levitt debuted a new kind of paper: an investigation into offbeat phenomena from daily life. One pondered the strategies soccer players employ when taking penalty kicks. Another paper studied corruption in sumo-wrestling tournaments as a window onto the power of incentives. Not long after, Levitt conducted an exhaustive inquiry into Weakest Link, a game show in which contestants voted to remove a player after each round of trivia questions. Tallying the voting data revealed that contestants were discriminating against Latinos and the elderly, but not blacks and women. But while the game show provided a pure setting for observing discrimination, there was no reason to think we could extrapolate from Weakest Link contestants to hiring and promotion decisions, where discrimination often intersects with economics. Most such decisions don’t take place in a Hollywood studio before a national TV audience. Levitt’s voice is high, except when it’s trailing off at the end of a sentence.
He leans heavily on the word “OK.” He is lanky and concave-chested and makes little eye contact. But Levitt has a droll magnetism, an anti-charisma, which, combined with his eclectic interests, made a talk he gave at Harvard in 2002 a hit. “He talked about his kick-ass creative papers,” recalls one attendee. “Here are the lessons you can draw to improve your own research, how you can do clever, appealing papers yourself.” As he was wrapping up, Levitt reflected on the choices facing grad students: If you think you can do as well in traditional topics as someone like Marty Feldstein — a giant of the profession — you should pursue that, he said. Knowing laughter broke out. But, he continued, if you don’t feel like you’re up to that, you might want to think about alternative topics. The message resonated.
One student watched classmates spend the next several weeks on high alert for some curiosity of daily life around which they could build a paper. Levitt has become famous for saying that “economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.” What is one to make of a discipline that heaps scorn on its own raison d’etre?
When I raise this with Levitt, he is almost apologetic: “There needs to be a core for work on the periphery to make any sense. I don’t think we would want to have a whole profession with dilettantes like me out doing what I do.” But he quickly adds: “The simple fact is that it’s hard to do good research. To the extent that you can do interesting research that teaches us something about the world, and entertains along the way, that’s not so bad.”It cannot be concluded that many old day economists who dealt with real world data ended up:
- Tackling the era's thorniest questions.
- Dealing with the problem of productivity growth.
- Readying measures for economic growth.
- Tackling modest questions.
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