The anxiety of influence

Several years ago, in Filthy Lucre (or Economics without Illusions) I provided the following assessment of the book Freakonomics:

Levitt and Dubner repeatedly draw an invidious contrast between “morality” – described as “the way we would like the world to be” – and “economics” – the study of how the world actually is. The message is pretty clear. Morality is for girls. Economics is for tough guys, who are able to stare the world in the eye and come to terms with the way things are. It’s for those who are able to look at a homeless man and notice only his expensive headphones. To imagine that morality counts for anything, in the real world, is to succumb to wishful thinking. The economist is wise to the game. He knows that people are all in it for themselves. Machiavelli put it best, when he observed that “in general,” people are “ungrateful and fickle, dissemblers, avoiders of danger, and greedy of gain.”

When push comes to shove, these unflattering assumptions about human motivation are about the only thing that make Levitt’s work count as “economics.” After all, most of it is plain-vanilla statistical analysis, of the sort done by social scientists in a variety of disciplines. The major difference is that social scientists who take morality seriously are called “sociologists,” whereas those who think it’s all a scam call themselves “economists.”

Then the other day, I read the following blog post over at Noahpinion, which includes these observations:

The original book Freakonomics, by Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner, was a very fun read. But it also slightly annoyed me. Why? Because there’s very little actual economics in it! The quantitative empirical work is mostly reduced-form regressions with natural experiments. That’s a fine and good research technique, but it’s not really special to econ…  an empirical sociologist could easily taken Levitt’s place as the technical co-author of the book, alongside journalist Dubner…

In the intro to Freakonomics, Dubner describes a scene with Steve Levitt:

An elderly homeless man approaches [Levitt’s car]. It says he is homeless right on his sign, which also asks for money… “He had nice headphones,” says [Levitt], still watching in the rearview mirror. “Well, nicer than the ones I have. Otherwise, it doesn’t look like he has many assets.”

If you didn’t know Levitt was an economist, this scene would just make him sound like a rich insensitive jerk. But the fact that he’s an economist imbues the scene with a different meaning altogether – suddenly, Levitt’s clinical detachment seems like a sign of impartiality and rationality.


I honestly don’t know how I should feel about this. Happy to find someone who shares my opinion? Thrilled that he gave Tim Harford’s book a plug?


The anxiety of influence — 2 Comments

  1. I felt the same way!

    It was a perfectly fine book in terms of the stories, but I remember starting it and feeling annoyed immediately, because of one quote in particular.

    From the intro, “As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers, but a serious shortage of interesting questions.”

    I really don’t understand how you could think that there is a shortage of interesting economic questions unless you are a profoundly incurious and myopic person. Do we have a “serious shortage of interesting questions” about the business cycle? About wages? About development? About growth? About taxes and saving?

    It’s bizarre!

  2. As an admirer of your books and a reader of Noah Smith’s blog, I would be astonished if he’d ever run across _Filthy Lucre_. (It might do him good, actually.) I think you should be pleased by this convergence.