Only a University of Chicago Economist

A few weeks back, just as I finished up my stint as a journal editor, I asked a former University of Chicago economics professor to serve as an anonymous referee on a paper.

Usually I wouldn’t ask someone in his eighties to be a referee, but the last time I used this fellow (when he was just a young turk in his late seventies), he wrote one of the most insightful referee reports I ever received. He took a paper that I had a hard time understanding, distilled it, and then explained how it could be redone much more simply to accomplish the same goal. I made the authors redo the paper exactly along the lines the referee recommended.

In fairness, the referee should have been a co-author.

Anyway, when I asked the octogenarian economist if he could referee a paper for me, here is the response I received:

Much as I would like to do a review of this paper, my schedule looking ahead for as much as a year is just too crowded. Maybe next time!!

I hope when I am in my eighties “too busy” is the reason I am turning things down!

Paul Koenig

In 2001, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wizard (Frank Herbert) and his wife. They both said one of the great joys of their retirement was only working 40 to 60 hours a week.


I had the good fortune of getting feedback on a paper from one of the elder statesmen of the Chicago school as a graduate student. I can only hope that I am half as sharp as this wonderful gentleman. I hold out little hope because he's quicker on his feet today than me even now. It was truly an honor.


Prof. Levitt, you ought not to be surprised. An academic who takes the time to simplify a paper and let's others take the credit for it while in his 70s would certainly be very busy for the rest of his life. There should be an alternative to the John bates Clark medal for such an Octogenarian.

Chuck B

As much as I want to have lots going on when I'm in my 80s, I'm already thinking about how to minimize how severely my absence will affect the people I case about - and I'm only 46. That is the first thought that popped into my mind when I read this. But I suppose that it's possible to be quite busy making valuable contributions, without a potential disaster if the contributions stop suddenly.

Bill W.

Gary Becker? Lucas? Fogel would be busy, but I can't imagine him refereeing too many papers. The smart money is on Becker.

Mike P

Perhaps a Chicago professor in his 90s might have enough free time to referee the paper. Did you try Ronald Coase?

Joe R.

Just tell us what the paper is about already so I can predict an episode plot for "The Wire", should they ever bring it back on the air.


This blog entry inspires a suggestion: Perhaps a brief explanation of what it means "to referee a paper"? I'm sure a lot of Freakonomics readers know what it is, or can infer it from what you describe here, but a (brief) explanation might be in order for the uninitiated.

Perhaps additionally a more general explanation, for non-academics, of how papers get selected, edited, and published in journals? Again, I don't think it needs to be extensive, just an outline of the steps in the process.

People might then have a sense of the value academic papers have, when they're mentioned here (which is frequently).


Steven Levitt,

You said that you normally wouldn't ask an 80-year-old. I suggest that what some of our elders may now lack in intant recall (it's slower now) and fast talking, they MORE THAN MAKE UP in distilled wisdom, experience, and knowledge.

If I were a CEO, I would make it a point to hire LOTS of elders. They know about hard work, aren't afraid to tell it like it is, and have a greater depth of experience and ideas to draw from.

In fact, if it were up to me, you'd have to be at least 50 (preferably 60) to be President. That means you've seen the horrors of war, know the folly of man to a certain degree. At least one would hope.

And though I am a strong conservative, I have the utmost respect for Senator Byrd. He, almost alone it seems, understands that the Senate doesn't work FOR a President, but WITH a President. He "gets" the Constitution. And for any flaws I may see in him, I esteem him as one of very greatest Americans.

Hooray for the old guys!



"Much as I would like to do a review of this paper, my schedule looking ahead for as much as a year is just too crowded. Maybe next time!!"
really means
"The first time I refereed a paper for you, you lifted all of my notes and they ended up in the paper. Didn't you address cheating in that book of yours?"

Alex Esguerra

Steve Levitt is one of the great economic genius that our youth today should begin to study. His financial wiz is a tale in growing someone's business model.


Eighty is the new sixty! My father (age 88) just got married last week. In the last year he has vacationed in Croatia and Costa Rica as well as numerous places in the US.

I hope I'm as active when I'm that age.


Nominate that man for mensch-hood.

Good feedback is very, very hard to find.

Anyone who provides it - and provides it in their 80s no less - should be set forth by the profession as one to emulate.

Please say "thanks" to this person, even if only from an anonymous internet poster.


Becker and Lucas are both still a few years under eighty. It has to either be Fogel (81) or Arnold Harberger (83) which is a destinct possibility for a public finance paper.


This just goes to show that if you want to be active well into your old age (as long as you're lucid) and not be pressurised into retiring, academia is the way to go. There's also politics, if you have the stomach for it. If you're lucky and have the talent, the arts are also an option - I once knew a highly successful artist who worked till the day he died, in his mid-80s.

Michael Carrington

80.s is old, I am a securities broker and I come a cross investers that are old and by law i must make sure they are compitient before I can take there investment. In doing this I have learned much more about my industry from older wiser gentleman, some of my cliants have ivy leauge educations Yale, Harvard , chicago. Myself , I am a drop out due to the poor educational system in america. In order to protect my self from the violence I had to drop out unfortunatly educating my self was the only option, because of this. I turned out smarter then most ivy leauge educated people. only because I am more apt to question teachings. So is the man in his 80s. I would take the advise of a man in his 80s before i would a man in his 30s
Michael J. Carrington