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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.