The Freakonomics Q&A: Part One

A few weeks ago, we solicited your questions for Dubner and Levitt. The high quality and enthusiasm of your response gave us the idea to make the Freakonomics Q&A an ongoing feature. So starting today, the Levitt/Dubner Q&A will run regularly, and will be based on your first set of questions as well as any new questions that you leave in the comments section of these posts. So feel free to keep asking. The following set of answers are from Levitt exclusively; Dubner will take the next set.

Q: Would you define yourself as an obsessive parent?

A: I’m the opposite of an obsessive parent. Pretty much anything goes when I’m in charge. For instance, my 8-year-old has become quite skilled at 7-card stud high-low. My wife Jeannette is a teeny bit obsessive, so that balances things out.

Q: You once said that you could effectively battle terrorism if you had access to enough data. In a perfect situation, what data would you need? In a more practical situation, what data do you think is available (e.g., to the intelligence community) that you could use?

A: This is one question I can’t answer right now, because I’m actually at work on it. Depending on how things go, we might write about it in the next book.

Q: Does it frustrate you when other econo-bloggers don’t take your work seriously? It seems like they sometimes look at you as a pop commentator, and not as a serious economist.

A: I have never worried too much about what other people think of me, although I must be reading the wrong economics blogs, because the few that I do read are reasonably nice to me most of the time. I can’t really fault someone for not taking me too seriously, because I don’t take myself all that seriously. I think there is room for doing good work and having some fun along the way. Plus, anyone who says I’m not a real economist will have to explain how I happened to win the John Bates Clark Medal.

Q: The “cheating teacher” analysis in Freakonomics was an elegant piece of work. Has it been used outside the original sample space, and applied to the nationwide testing effort?

A: A non-academic friend and I once had the idea of taking my cheating detection tools and turning them into a business to help school districts across the country. It turns out, however, that school districts don’t really want to catch cheaters. Cheating detection makes the districts’ test scores go down, and leads to problems with teachers’ unions. As such, no one wanted to buy our services. It made me realize how lucky I was that Arne Duncan was the head of the Chicago Public Schools. His view, when I first showed him the work, was that cheating was hurting the students, and all he cared about was helping the children in his care.

Even if individual school districts don’t want to catch cheaters, you would think that the state and federal governments would have strong incentives to do so. If I had more time and energy, that is where I would have tried to spread the message. I do know of one good company out there that’s trying to catch cheaters, called Caveon.

Q: Do you consider the primary readership of this blog to be economists (i.e., economics graduates and academics), or just regular Joes? Have you ever decided not to post something because it is too technical or mathematical?

A: This blog is primarily for regular Joes. Well, actually, for well above average Joes, but not really economists. Every once in a while, I report on academic economics gossip that could only be of interest to insiders; but not that often. One beauty of the blog format is that there is what economists call “free disposal.” If a reader isn’t interested in a particular post, he or she can freely skip it and move on to the next one.

Q: Do you believe that any event or behavior (economic or otherwise) could be effectively predicted with enough data and processing time/speed? If so, isn’t this an argument against free will?

A: No, I don’t believe that data and processing speed would allow us to predict any behavior. Partly, this is because the world is incredibly complex, and you don’t just need data to correctly predict an outcome — you need to have the right model as well. We can’t model (or even hope to model) a single individual’s behavior in a truly detailed way. The idea that we could model an entire economy with any level of precision is hopeless. Recognizing this, economists write down simple models that have much less lofty goals (e.g., giving us a general idea of whether some behavior will become more or less common in response to some change in price).

Q: There is a lot of trade in Carbon Credits going on in the world. Is this trade part of the solution for saving the environment, or an international scam?

A: I think trade-able permits are one of the major practical successes of academic economics in the last thirty years. From what I understand of the evidence, the markets for sulfur dioxide have been an incredible success, providing a way to reduce emissions at a small fraction of what the cost would have been if we had followed the usual course of government regulation.

Q: An acquaintance of mine failed his entrance interview to Oxford University’s economics program because he was asked to talk about an economics book he’d read and enjoyed. He chose Freakonomics, and the interviewers at Oxford didn’t consider it to be a “genuine economics book.” What is your reaction to this?

A: First of all, to ask a student to talk about an economics book that he read and enjoyed is basically asking him to lie. How many students have ever enjoyed reading an economics book? I would consider Freakonomics to be a “genuine economics book.” It is being used in dozens of economics courses across the country. If the people at Oxford couldn’t see that, then maybe the student is better off studying somewhere else. On the other hand, if the student couldn’t convince the interviewer that Freakonomics is an economics book, then maybe the student is better off studying a different topic anyway.

Q: What is your opinion on how international adoption affects the economy, race and class divisions, and the widening income gap within the U.S.? What do you think of the argument that children are “readily available for adoption” in the U.S., and, further, that adoption is marketed as a product with benefits?

A: I don’t think international adoption affects the economy in any meaningful way. We are talking about very small numbers of children being adopted from foreign countries into the U.S. each year – perhaps 20,000 children total, compared to the 3 million children born each year in the U.S. Adoption does, however, profoundly affect those families that adopt. My life has been completely changed because of the two daughters my wife and I adopted from China.

You’re right that some people in the U.S. really don’t like foreign adoption. Some have argued that it is a form of subtle racism, in that parents like me will go to China to adopt, but won’t adopt a black child here in the U.S. This is a complex issue – far too complex for me to discuss in all its richness here. But let me at least explain some of the thinking underlying my own decision to adopt from abroad. The first factor was that our son, Andrew, had just died. We were not emotionally prepared to navigate the U.S. adoption scene, which is full of uncertainty for adoptive parents for two reasons: 1) the relative scarcity of healthy but unwanted babies being put up for adoption since the legalization of abortion; and 2) the emphasis on birth parent rights.

We did give some serious thought to adopting either a black child domestically, or adopting from Africa. It turns out that African adoption is extremely complicated, as Madonna discovered the hard way. Ultimately, my own view was that the identity issues faced by a black child raised by white parents would be too difficult. Some of my academic research with Roland Fryer has made clear to me the stark choices that black teens, especially boys, have to make about “who they are.” As a parent, I was not willing to take the chance on loving and raising an adopted child, only to know that when he became a teenager he would have to face the choice of being “black” or “white,” and that either choice would be very costly for him (and also for me). That same sort of racial “all or nothing” choice is not at play for Asian youths in our society.


I am not sure if this has been covered but I ever sense I read your book it has bothered me. When you compared the kids killed by guns vs. kids drowning in a pool it made it seem that because more kids dies in swimming pools that they were more dangerous then guns. The problem I have is that I would bet the % of kids swimming in pools that dies has to be a lot lower then the % of kids who play with guns and die.


Mayur says,
"Thanks for answering my question on Carbon Credits, but what I meant by the question that
'Is it right for a rich company to reduce its carbon footprint by buying carbon credits from a co. which is using measures to produce lesser pollution. Shouldn't these rich companies instead adopt methods to reduce their carbon footprint themselves?' Taking credit for someone else's work is not good or is it?"

Think of it this way: the heavy-pollution company is being fined for its pollution, while creating strong incentives for the more environmentally efficient companies to cut back on their pollution.

Consider the alternative of regulation. If we required all companies to keep their pollution below a certain level, we would be taking a "one size fits all" approach that would NOT create incentives for the potentially most efficient plants to eke out all the pollution savings they can. We (as a society) would be spending a lot of money to clean up pollution at Plant A, while leaving cheap pollution savings unrealized at Plant B.

On efficiency grounds, these trades are wonderful at letting the market find the cheapest and easiest ways to reduce pollution.

On moral grounds, these trades are wonderful at punishing the firms that do a bad job vis-a-vis pollution and at rewarding the firms that do a good job (conditioned on how the permits are awarded in the first place).

On administrative grounds, it would be cheaper just to tax pollution, which creates equivalent incentives but with less regulatory burden, and with the government getting the revenues.



How would you answer the criticism that most of Freakonomics was just statistics, and not economics (even taking the more expanded view of economics of "finding the optimal allocation of resources")?

Doug Wolkon - Author of The New Game

What is your definition of Inflation?

Soo Ok

I read your Freakonomics book a few years ago and found it to be a refreshing objective perspective on American issues. However, your opinion on international adoption is everything BUT objective. Yes, there are probably around 20,000 children adopted from foreign countries per year - but multiply that by $25K each and that is a whopping $500M (most of which ends up in the pockets of officials in the foreign countries and travel/tourism). How much is that $25,000 worth in China, India, Guatemala, Vietnam, etc? I think it would be interesting to see what percentage of their GNP this industry is...

Nicolas S.

Hi there, after reading Freakonomics, I was just wondering whether the same method used to identify cheating teachers (or sumotori wrestlers) could apply to "rogue traders" (and there bosses).
What's your opinion about that?


Q for Levitt: who do you think is the best presidential candidate and why?


Do stimulus packages, as the current one being discussed, actually do any good? Good, in this case, can be in genuinely stimulating demand (the purported goal) or in giving households confidence in economic stewardship through governmental agencies (e.g., to make a recession less of a self-fulling prophecy).


I'm with D- the claim that Asian-adopted youth here don't experience race/identity conflicts is naive- taking a baby from its home country and raising it 000s of miles away is the opposite of natural, and so must lead to identity conflict as the child matures


I am an adoptive mother in an open US adoption and I completely disagree that it is too difficult to adopt within the US or that there is an inordinate amount of emphasis placed on birthparents rights. Birthparent rights should be protected! Is it too difficult to act ethically as a woman or man faces the most important decision of their life (whether or not to parent)? Isn't this the least we can do? Birthparents should be given the help and counseling the need to make the best decision for their child. US laws heavily favor adoptive parents -- in our home state a mother must only wait 72 hours before she can sign the papers relinquishing her parental rights forever. This is a very limited amount of protection. Adoptive parents can promise birthparents anything before the baby is placed with them (that there will be visits, letters, invites to family functions) and then drop off the face of the earth after finalization and the birthparents have no recourse.

I also am frankly offended at the thought that adoptive parents "rescue" their children from some kind of sub-standard existence. As if we, adoptive parents, are saints come down from heaven that take in the poor "unwanted" children of the world! People need to make the best individual choices for their families, but perusing international adoption simply because you don't want to be bothered with the inconvenient fact that the child has another family, is ridiculous to me. Whether or not you see them, your child has a mother and father that exist and mourn the loss of their son or daughter. Anything else is just a denial of reality.



These are for Dubner, right?

Is there any particular style of writing that you enjoy than others? That is, do you prefer writing soft news, feature stories, fiction, non fiction, or is it all the same for you?


Freakonomics is a book containing lots of controversial issues that I assume you and Levitt have similar views on. Could you name a substantial issue that the two of you disagree about?


Also, I think comment number 40 by Kirilius is really interesting. My last name begins with a K, and when younger I was always glad to be near the middle of the alphabet, never having to be the first one to present a project in class.

Clyde Kahrl

I think that the economy in Ohio is tanking because of the incredible rate of arrest, conviction, and incarceration. The rate in my little semi rural county has gone from about 50 felonies a year to over 200. Over half of the felonies are for prescription drug crimes. The rate of Crime really has not changed.
Columbus Ohio has an extraordinarily sick criminal conviction record--they have almost no trials.
30% of the people on the highways in Ohio have no license. (real number--no kidding). There is no public transportation.
If all of the young men are in jail, on probation, or have a felony conviction, how can the economy function? When coupled with Iraq service, no wonder 55% of college enrollments are women. Has anyone done a study looking at the economic blight caused by the inability of young men to work because of jail, probation, suspended licenses, and felony records?


I have to say that I really enjoyed "A mathemetician reads the newspaper," which, as I recall, had a number of chapters that focused on statistical elements.


Within the adoption race issue the black and white is explored. Is their no inferences to be made from the Indian Adoption Project and the subsequent confusion of laws with the Indian Child Welfare Act both in the legality and the "who they are" issues? Also such that some Indian Nations are considered sovereign?

Mike S.

After being required to read your book for one of my economics classes, a group of students attempted to repeat the crime/abortion finding with data they had available to them. They found no correlation whatsoever. Do people often contact you and question the crime and abortion relationship? I imagine that there are at least working papers attempting to show otherwise? Have you updated the numbers and compared to the most recent stats?

world traveler

I don't see how you can forbid choice on race. Parents are given a chance to bond with the child before the adoption is final. Also, it is typical to chose a gender when requesting a child. A placement that doesn't meet the parents wants would be rejected and cover excuse given.

I agree with SL that the birth mother's rights and abortion reduce the number of babies available domestically. However, I think that the increased rights of adoptees is also a factor. An embarassed teenager or a rape victim would be more likely to chose an abortion since there is no possibility of the "problem" turning up in 18 years to find out who he is or to get a medical history.


Did you deliberately avoid giving your true opinion on the carbon credit issue or do you not realize that there are significant differences between emissions trading programs for sulfur dioxide (and other pollutants) vs. those for carbon?

I completely agree with your statement regarding the success of the SO2 trading programs but that has very little to do with the question that was asked.


Academics (like Levitt, except that he mostly uses secondary data sources) have to go through extensive human subjects protocols and consents to do research with humans, at least if they want to use institutional funding or publish in a journal. Journalists (like Dubner) do not, and in fact are often actively encouraged by society when they expose unwitting subjects.

Now clearly what happened in Tuskegee (with syphilis) or Nazi Germany was awful, but:
a) those were medical cases of physical harm; and
b) they should simply be (and already are) illegal -- no need for a separate framework.

So my question is whether or not you think human subjects committees really protect the subjects (or simply serve to indemnify the university), and also whether or not you think there should be different rules for academics. Given the potential harm of not learning more about how the world works, why is the burden of proof on only one side?

See the NYTimes article by Atul Gawande from Dec 30 of last year ("A Lifesaving Checklist") for a stark example of this in a medical setting, much less a social science one.



Justin (15)--

that is an excellent point. i hadn't thought of that. i wonder if the original article controls for that??