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Why I Like Writing About Economists

Over the years I have had the opportunity to write about a great many interesting people. My mother had an extraordinary (and long-buried) story to tell. I’ve interviewed Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; the rookie class of the N.F.L. ; a remarkable cat burglar who stole only sterling silver. But lately I have been writing about economists — and, most fruitfully, with the economist Steve Levitt. This is a whole new bag, and here’s why. A non-fiction writer like me, trained equally in journalism and literature, is constrained by what his subjects tell him. Yes, I am afforded great latitude in surrounding a subject — if Ted Kaczynski won’t discuss his trial, for instance, there are plenty of others who will — but I am gravely limited by what people will tell me and how they tell it. The obvious fact is that when most people are being written about, they present themselves as well as they can. They tell the stories that make them look good, or noble, or selfless; some of the cleverer ones use self-deprecation to convey their excellence. Which leaves the writer in an unpleasant situation — dependent on anecdotes that may or may not be true, or complete, and which are told in order to paint a biased picture. Here is where economists are different. Instead of using anecdotes to distort reality, they use data to assert the truth. That, at least, is the goal. Some of these truths can be uncomfortable. After I wrote about Roland Fryer, he was assailed by fellow black scholars for having underplayed the degree to which racism afflicts black Americans. Steve Levitt’s work with John Donohue on the link between Roe v. Wade and the drop in violent crime has made people of all political beliefs equally queasy. But for me, the writer, this kind of thinking is a godsend — a way of looking at the world that’s far more long-sighted and unbiased than journalism typically affords. Levitt likes to say that morality represents the way that people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents the way it actually does work. I don’t have the mental horsepower to be the kind of economist that Levitt and Fryer are; but I feel lucky to have found a way to hitch my curiosities to their brains. In the parlance of economists, my skills and Levitt’s are called complementarities. Like most of the language of economics, the word itself is an ugly one; but, like a lot of economics itself, the concept is grand.