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‘The Today Show’

Levitt and Dubner were on The Today Show this morning (Wednesday), discussing Freakonomics. Click here for a video link. Here’s a transcript:

HEADLINE: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discuss their book, “Freakonomics.”

MATT LAUER, co-host:We’re back at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning. Coming up in this half-hour, what the heck is “Freakonomics”? It’s a book about economics, don’t worry, this one isn’t going to put you to sleep. It’s by a New York–or it’s a New York Times best-seller and it asks questions like `what do real estate agents have in common with the Klan?’ and `why do drug dealers live with their mothers?’ It’s a way of–of looking at certain subjects and then turning them on their end and asking different kinds of questions. It’s fascinating. We’re going to talk to the authors just ahead.

KATIE COURIC, co-host: OK, sounds fun.


BODY:MATT LAUER, co-host:What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Not the kind of question most economists would ask themselves, but Steven Levitt is no–is not most economists. He and his co-author, Stephen Dubner, have written an economics book that’s a far cry from anything you read in school. Their best-selling book is getting a lot of buzz these days, it’s called “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.”Gentlemen, welcome back. Good to see you.

Mr. STEVEN LEVITT (“Freakonomics”): Great to be here.

LAUER: Before we talk about the theme of the book, and I think you guys both admit there really is no theme of this book, let me talk about you. You’ve been described as brilliant, a maverick economist, and yet you say you’re not good at math and you don’t know much about economic theory. So what’s your area of expertise

Mr. LEVITT: Well, it’s true I’m an economist, but I’ve never cared about interest rates or currencies. I like the riddles of everyday life, of modern life. And I’m–I’m a data detective, I…

LAUER: You’re–you’re kind of a puzzle solver.

Mr. LEVITT: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. You know, the kind of questions I’m interested in: is your realtor ripping you off; is the name you’re going to give your child, is that going to hurt their life outcomes; is campaign spending as important as everybody thinks it is?

LAUER: So what’s freakonomics, technically?

Mr. LEVITT: Well, freakonomics…

Mr. STEPHEN DUBNER (“Freakonomics”): Well, you know, fr–the idea is that, you know, he’s a data guy and I’m a writer, and together we use data to tell stories about real life that have the added advantage of actually being true. So whether it’s the fact that, you know, money doesn’t buy elections, we can–we can show that, or that child car seats aren’t really all that they’re cracked up to be, and so on.

Mr. LEVITT: One thing…

LAUER: Ba–basically, you like to take a subject and turn it around and look at it from a different point of view. So instead of asking the question `why is there so much crime?’ you ask the question `why isn’t there a lot more crime?’ Why is that an important question to ask?

Mr. LEVITT: Well, the way you frame the question often leads you to the kind of answers you have. So one thing that economists have going for them is we’re not worried about morality, we’re not worried about political correctness, so often answers that are–are–are–are too hard for other people to find because they’re tied up in the ethics of an issue. The data sometimes tell us the truth, even though we may not want to hear the truth.

LAUER: Why is crime important? Because you write about it quite a bit in the book. Why is it important to economics?

Mr. DUBNER: Well, I think, you know, one thing that Steve’s really good at that he’s too humble to say is that asking the right question is–is often the hardest part of any kind of study. So with crime, for instance, he saw that crime in the ‘9–in the early ’90s started to fall and fall and fall, no one could come up with all the reasons for it. So he was able to look at the data and, for instance, showed that the New York City police miracle that we all wanted to believe, and I’ve lived in New York the whole time, it didn’t really do what we all thought and hoped it did. And so, therefore, you can upset conventional wisdom, which in “Freakonomics” we try to do as much as we can.

LAUER: And upset some people in the process.

Mr. DUBNER: Yeah.

LAUER: You write in the book about crime, quote, “Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness. Unwantedness leads to high crime. Legalized abortion, therefore, led to lex–less crime.” I mean, you raise a lot of eyebrows with that comment. Is it quantifiable?

Mr. LEVITT: I think it is. I mean–but you really have to stress this is not a moral statement, we’re not saying abortion’s good or bad, right or wrong, we’re saying it happened. And–and after legalized abortion, a lot of women took advantage of choice and those women were disproportionately young women, single women, women who–who–who didn’t want their babies. So fla–fa–fast forward 20 years, those are the children who would have been at greatest risk–greatest risk for crime.

LAUER: We don’t have enough time in the segment, perhaps not even in the whole show to go over the list of reasons why people are going to be upset with that comment. So what do you say to your critics who say that is a sensational stretch?

Mr. DUBNER: Well, it’s important to understand that, you know, two–two things. One is it’s an argument–or it’s not even an argument, it’s–it’s a thesis based on data. And based on data in “Freakonomics,” we show very clearly how you kind of march through it and come to the conclusion that this is probably right. The other thing that’s important to look at, as abortion happened, or anything that happens leaves behind a big data trail and what we’re trying to do is kind of look at things backwards, not see things the way you want to see things, but see what actually happens.

LAUER: I’m running out of time. I just want to mention some other things. You–you have a chapter called “What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?” And the short answer there is incentives. You talk about cheating among teachers to have better test scores and then be seen as better teachers, cheating among sumo wrestlers to win tournaments so they can go on to the big money tournaments. What do you want your readers to take away from this book?

Mr. LEVITT: Well, I–I think there’s an avalanche of information coming toward people now and how do you sort it out? And so this is a book about simple ways, using the ideas of economics and arming regular people with the kind of tools they’ll have so that when they get–you know, next study that says that broccoli eliminates cancer they can look at it and say, ‘well, is that right or is that not right?’ and have an educated guess at it.

LAUER: ‘Let me ask the right questions.’

Mr. LEVITT: Yeah.

LAUER: Stephen, Steven, nice to have you both. Dubner, Levitt. Thank you very much for being here. The book is called “Freakonomics.”

Mr. DUBNER: Thanks for having us.

LAUER: And you can read an excerpt from “Freakonomics” by logging onto our Web site. The address of that, of course, is