Archives for Steven D. Levitt



What’s Wrong With Cash for Grades? A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “What’s Wrong With Cash for Grades?”

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

In it, Steve Levitt talks to Kai Ryssdal about whether it’s effective to pay kids to do well in school. Levitt, along with John ListSusanne Neckermann, and Sally Sadoff, recently wrote up a working paper (PDF here) based on their field experiments in Chicago schools. Levitt blogged about the paper earlier; here’s the Atlantic‘s take. Read More »



Levitt Is Ready for the Senior Tour

Steve Levitt has made no secret of his desire to become a good-enough golfer to someday play the Champions Tour, for players 50 and older. 

After watching his amazing performance last week, I now believe Levitt does stand a chance of landing on a senior professional tour. But not in golf.

I was out in Chicago for a couple of days to work with Levitt. After a long day, we went out for dinner at a place called Seven Ten. It has food, beer, and bowling alleys — just a couple of them and nothing fancy. Old-school bowling.

After the meal, I tried to get Levitt to bowl a game or two. He wasn’t interested. Said he was worried about hurting his golf swing. (Puh-leeze.) He said he’d watch me bowl. I can’t think of anything less fun than bowling alone except having someone sit and watch you bowl alone. So I lied and told him that bowling would probably be good for his golf swing — the heavy ball could loosen up his joints, yada-yada, etc. 

He finally agreed when I suggested the loser pay for dinner. Read More »



The Days of Wine and Mouses: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Season 2, Episode 1

We have just released a new series of five one-hour Freakonomics Radio specials to public-radio stations across the country. (Check here for your local station.) These new shows are what might best be called “mashupdates” — that is, mashups of earlier podcasts that have also been updated with new interviews, etc.

If you are a charter subscriber to our podcast (remember this one on the dangers of safety, or this one on the obesity epidemic?), then some of this material will be familiar to you. If you are one of the people who have heard these new shows on the radio and wondered when they’d hit the podcast stream — well, that time is now. We’ll be releasing all five hours over the next ten weeks.

This first episode is called “The Days of Wine and Mouses.” (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) Here’s what you’ll be hearing:

When you take a sip of Cabernet, what are you tasting? The grape? The tannins? The oak barrel? Or is it the price? Believe it or not, the most dominant flavor may be the dollars. Read More »



How Biased Is Your Media?: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

When it comes to politics and media, the left argues that the right is more biased than the left while the right argues that the left is more biased than the right. Who’s right?

That’s what we try to answer in our latest podcast, “How Biased Is Your Media?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) In a way, this episode is a follow-up to a podcast we put out a few months ago called “The Truth Is Out There, Isn’t It?,” which examined how we choose to believe what we believe about a variety of important issues. In this episode, we apply that same idea in a small-bore fashion, going after media bias. Read More »



10,000 hours later: the PGA Tour?

Last spring, I jokingly (okay, maybe half-jokingly) wrote about my quest to make the Champions Tour, the professional golf tour for people over the age of 50.  In that post, I made reference to the ideas of Anders Ericsson, an old friend whom Dubner and I wrote about in our New York Times column back in 2006, and whose ideas later became the centerpiece of a number of popular books.  Anders is the one who thinks that talent is unimportant. Oversimplifying a bit, he argues that with 10,000 hours of the right kind of deliberate practice, more or less anyone can become more or less world-class at anything. I’ve spent 5,000 hours practicing golf, so if I could just find the time for 5,000 more, I should be able to compete with the pros. Or at least that is what the theory says.  My scorecards seem to be telling a different story!

It turns out I’ve got a kindred spirit in this pursuit, only this guy is dead serious.  A few years back, twenty-something Dan McLaughlin decided he wanted to play on the PGA tour.  Never mind that he had only played golf once or twice in his life and had done quite poorly those times.  He knew the 10,000 hour argument, and he thought it would be fun to give it a test.  So he quit his job, found a golf coach, and has devoted his life to golf ever since.  So far he is 2,500 hours into his 10,000 hour quest, which he chronicles at thedanplan.com. Read More »



Is It Time to Start a Strange Name Hall of Fame?

We should probably start a Strange Name Hall of Fame at some point to chronicle all the weird, wonderful, terrible names that readers have passed along to us since we first wrote about names in Freakonomics. This one, from Joyce Wilson, would probably make the cut:

I thought of Freakonomics when I was at a St. Louis area grocery store and saw cut-out paper snowflakes taped to the window with the makers’ names on them. The name I particularly noticed? Demonica.

Levitt’s reply when he saw this e-mail: “Perhaps the little girl’s mother is just a heavy metal fan.”



Why Is “I Don’t Know” So Hard to Say? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

This week’s podcast is a new installment of “FREAK-quently Asked Questions,” in which Levitt and I respond to queries you submitted on the blog. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below; earlier FAQ podcasts can be found here and here.)

You had so many excellent questions! Sadly, we only had time to field a handful. Ty Spalding asked one of the most interesting: “Why do people feel compelled to answer questions that they do not know the answer to?” Levitt replies:

What I’ve found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it’s within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part. I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business — is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn.

Read More »



Misadventures in Baby-Making: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Misadventures in Baby-Making.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript. What’s it about? In a nutshell: for many years, we’ve been wowed by new technologies and policies meant to make childbirth a safer and more manageable enterprise. But, as always: beware the unintended consequences.

Given that the world’s population is approaching 7 billion, we begin the episode with a look back at another landmark moment in population history. In the late 1970’s, as we moved past the then-unfathomable 4 billion mark, scientists were trying to get a handle on population growth. In the Netherlands, Geert Jan Olsder, a math professor at the University of Twente, co-wrote a paper called “Population Planning: a Distributed Time-Optimal Control Problem,” in which he imagined an island nation with no emigration or immigration – just births and deaths. The essential riddle was this: as the population aged, and as longevity increased, what was the right birth rate to prevent the island from becoming overpopulated? Olsder came up with an elegant equation to describe the solution. Not long after, he shared this paper with a Chinese scholar who happened to be visiting the university. Olsder could never have predicted the repercussions of that chance encounter: Read More »