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.


You may want to edit your response about adoption before the first mothers who went through the painful decision/coersion process to relinquish children for adoption descend upon you.

The word to be reconsidered is "unwanted." Not all first mothers report life-long grief, but even the ones most at peace with their decision will not say their babies were "unwanted."

I'm not an economist, but even I can figure out that the fact that VERY FEW infants are available for adoption in Austrailia, more in the US, and many more in China has a whole lot more to do with economics than with the desires of mothers.

interested party

I would be interested to know if you have any opinions on the 9/11 conspiracy theories? There are any number of unexplainable occurrences that happened on that day, but isn't that the nature of large scale events and theories of randomness? If I back out of my driveway and hit a car, I could probably research it enough to come up with some pretty questionable circumstances as to why that car was coming down the street at exactly the moment I was backing out. I don't know, any thoughts?


This one is really for Levitt, but Dubner's views might be useful, too:

A couple of years back, Prof. Michael Bailey published a book on feminine characteristics in men, called The Man Who Would Be Queen. Part of the book talks about transsexuals, and explains a theory that they are motivated by sexual drives, instead of the story they tell about "being" the other sex. So you're not a "woman;" you're a very feminine gay man who can't get the kind of partner you want unless you dress and act like a woman.

Some male-to-female transsexuals find this theory very offensive. Astonishingly, instead of ignoring his book (who's going to buy a book about why some males are feminine?), they orchestrated a two-year-long campaign to destroy Bailey (including, apparently, libelous claims that he had sex with "research subjects" and raped his own children).

While this scandal probably isn't known outside of academic circles (because so few people read The Chronicle of Higher Education), people in psychology are probably very aware of it. Do you think that this sort of violent backlash has had a chilling effect on academics? Do you think that fewer people will publish unpopular ideas now? Do you think that fewer people will be willing to study transsexuals as a result, since the "cost" is not just time, but being vilified in public if you give an unpopular-but-supported-by-the-data answer?



Well, as part-time blogger i most likely not being a full economist (even tough i graduate in finance). In my wondering and kind a delusion is what they lately called emission rewards exchange for those polluter to a 3rd world countries. Who's the most benefit from these?

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Stephen M (Ethesis)

If you want to become an economist, learn to love math.


Very good idea to do Q&A on a regular basis!

I have two related questions regarding the influence the names have on the future of the kids:

1) What difference does the alphabetical order of a kid's name make?
There are some obvious observations regarding the alphabetical order of one's name. Throughout our lives our names are being included in countless lists, most of which are ordered (and frequently processed) alphabetically. Depending on where we are ranking alphabetically, we might end up:
- admitted to school A instead of school B
- assigned to regiment X (sent to Vietnam/Iraq/etc.) instead of regiment Y (staying home)
- appearing on the last page of some search results instead of on the first page
- etc.
All this MUST have some implications. Are there any studies done to attempt to evaluate the impact our names' alphabetical order on our lives?

2) What difference does it make if our name is short or long?
I can imagine that people with short (both personal and family) names are easier to remember than the ones with long names. Does that make any difference?




During a "talk of the nation" program, one of the guests addressed the abortion/crime argument.

He claimed that the drop in crime happened in many industrialized countries at the same time but the legalization of abortion was not so synchronous. Therefore, abortion could not be the sole reason for the drop in crime.

He said that no research has found any single cause to be sufficient for the drop under scrutiny. He'd love to know the answer too but no smoking gun has yet been found.

Of course I can't validate his opinion or the Freakonomics theory. Nonetheless, it was a very interesting program for this and other reasons. It's probably still in the NPR archives.

M. F.

Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class - the one other non-Freakonomics economics book that I truly enjoyed. Although many economic history books are enjoyable (new ideas from dead economist etc.)

A. H. Paschal

What advice do you have for someone who wants to become an economist?

Some Random Guy on the Internet

Ok, here's one for the next Q&A:

In Freakonomics, you describe how the crime rate had long been rising and all the experts predicted that it would keep rising, but then it suddenly started falling. You provide a persuasive explanation for why it started falling (the legalization of abortion), but you never discuss why it had been rising. Was there some reason other than an increase in the number of unwanted children that might explain the rise in crime rates that was turned around by the reduction in the number of unwanted children? Is there any evidence that abortions were becoming harder to get in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade or some other factor had been causing an increase in the number of unwanted children before Roe v. Wade?

Some Random Guy on the Internet

Another one:

In Freakonomics, you describe the ineffectiveness of child car seats in reducing injuries. In your analysis, did you make a distinction between the types of car seats and ages of kids? There's the rear facing bucket for very young babies, which I assume would make a big difference. Then there's the front facing but more upright shell, with a harness, which might help some. Then there's the booster, which only helps put the shoulder harness in the right place. I can't imagine the booster type seats being much different than a bare seatbelt.

Jose Merida

How do you explain the rise of multiple pregnancies among celebrities?

Is it just that they are getting pregnant at an older age? Is this something they can request to their doctor? Do they feel it is more "efficient" to be pregnant just for 9 months and get 2 babies?


It's really hard to know how a black kid brought up by middle or upper middle class white parents might deal with things in a decade or more.

Not only do things change over time, but the current political scene is stunningly relevant. If Obama becomes president -- and he's got to be the favorite at this point -- everything changes. There's a role model. There's MUCH great public knowledge of the possibility.

Of course, anyone who was adopting even six months ago should not have expected an Obama presidency.


One thing about the book has always bugged me, and I've always wanted to ask about it. The section on the KKK contained no economic analysis whatsoever. I love that the KKK was made to look silly, but it seemed out of place in this book. Lessons on the power of secret language and closely held information were conveyed much better in your discussion of real estate markets. Why include the KKK stuff? Did it really seem to you to be a good fit with the rest of the book?

Charles D

You've often mentioned in the blog that research can lead to an answer that can't always work in the real world due to the unattached, unbiased solutions that come about. If we can't go by cold, calculated answers but still need reasoning, what boundries do you set for economics coming up with a valid answer and where it should remain just theory?


What would happen to adoption in the U.S. if adoptive parents were prohibited from selecting by race? How much would the adoption rate go down? How would this differ by the race of the parents? What sort of illegal markets would pop up?


"That same sort of racial "all or nothing" choice is not at play for Asian youths in our society."


I think you need to do some further investigation with this because you might be missing much. Here is a good link to get you started... and they have links to blogs of other transracial/asian adoptees.
Honestly any child of a different race than their adoptive parents is going to be at some level of conflict with it, much also depends on the individual child.
To be blunt, you might just find your notion of a happy and compliant chinese child is blown to bits one day.
The belief that asians are more adaptable to being raised in a white community/family (or at the very least not as angry about it)really comes from white and racially biased views.
Whites view asians as more compliant, more at ease with being associated with whites. Whites also tend to regard blacks (most especially males) with more fear and see them as hostile and untrustworthy in relation to whites.
The personality, inherited mental health issues, and how the growing up experience is personally viewed by the child can never be predicted as simply as what (safe) country you choose to adopt from.

I am a white parent of a black child. While I know this journey will demand additional strengths from him (and me) I do not for one second feel he needs to choose to be 'white' in order to choose to love me as his parent.
It really almost sounded as if you are expecting your children to 'choose' to be white, as if they even could or would want to.



Every time a cab driver uses the phrase,"Back in my country, I...", it makes me wonder about the economic dream vs. reality of immigration. While being a microsurgeon or possessing postgraduate paperwork makes green cards easier to come by, does it pan out?

Q: The American dream: opportunity or importunity?


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?


Babies who are voluntarily relinquished for domestic adoption are not necessarily "unwanted." This is just another misguided stereotype that is only further perpetuated by Lifetime-esque type movies, the mainstream media and groups of people who need to believe that adoptive parents are "rescuing" a "needy" child that "no one loved." Birth parents are just people who had to make a very hard decision in a very hard situation. Quite frankly, if the US adoption system would concentrate a little harder on respecting expectant parents considering adoption and their rights, there would be less issues for adoptive parents in the long run.

But the world needs to see birth parents as dysfunctional and "less than" in order to function. Someone always has to be put down in order for someone else to be raised up. Such a sad, sad thing for our society.