Possible models for Freakonomics 3

The sequel is already assured of box-office success, so now’s the time to start thinking about what’s gonna be in volume 3. Here are a few models that Levitt and Dubner could consider, in no particular order:

Paul Krugman: Used to be an equal-opportunity offender, wrote an earlier book slamming industrial-policy-style Democrats and took gratuitous swipes at liberal icons such as John Kennneth Galbraith. In recent years has shifted to a partisan line and pretty much only criticizes Democrats for not being partisan or Keynesian enough. But he’s kept his credibility by tying his opinions to his acknowledged expertise on macroeconomics. Being a micro-econ, incentive-empahsizing version of Krugman seems like a real possibility for Levitt. Maybe he could start at Slate magazine and work his way up from there. Levitt’s location at the University of Chicago could help him to this end–if he’s short of op-ed-worthy topics, he could talk with his colleagues in the economics and sociology departments to get ideas. But first he’s gotta decide whether he has policy objectives he’d like to push, or if he’d rather just focus on telling interesting stories.

Malcolm Gladwell: Careful to spread his targets. Generally takes a liberal line but isn’t averse to the occasional contrarian stance. Keeps one step ahead of the curve: willing to be make mistakes, he’s also likely to be interesting. When he’s on top of his game, Gladwell doesn’t follow the zeitgeist, he is the zeitgeist. I don’t know that Levitt could become a Gladwell even if he wanted do, and, well, if Dubner could be a Gladwell, he wouldn’t have needed Levitt.

Tyler Cowen: Freakonomics without the statistics. Interesting and fun speculation. Lack of data analysis paradoxically makes him less vulnerable to attack: he’s only claiming to be interesting, not to be necessarily correct. Has an ideological stance but mixes things up a bit; you don’t always know what’s coming next. Cowen’s distinguishing feature: he doesn’t just have an opinion on everything, he has thoughts on everything. If Levitt wants to go in this direction, he’ll have to take blogging a lot more seriously. Posting every day isn’t enough; he also needs to be willing to seriously engage with others in open debate.

Greg Mankiw: A unabashed partisan. With a clear low-taxes stance, he can make his points without needing to be cute or do the “I used to be a liberal until…” gambit. Not a bad way to go at all if you have strong convictions that you’re willing to stand by. The go-to guy for reasoned conservative economic arguments. For Levitt to go this route, I think he’d want to set up a base in one of his research areas and go from there. For example, he could become an advocate for community policing, or charter schools, or whatever. (I don’t think it’s enough to pick a lightweight issue such as legalization of drugs; it’s gotta be something that closer to the center of political debate. And, no, becoming a climate-change activist won’t work; to become a Mankiw, Levitt has to write about something that he (Levitt) is an expert on.)

Steven Landsburg: Tyler Cowen’s style without the thoughtfulness. Good writer but clearly takes his positions ahead of time and then follows up with whatever arguments are at hand. Warning to Levitt and Dubner: this is a path you really don’t want to take.

Tim Harford: What Steven Landsburg might have been were he not so ideological. Not really an option for Levitt/Dubner, though: Harford is the sort of person who might write about Levitt’s work; it would be a strange step for Levitt to move from original research to explication. I mean, sure, people do it all the time, but I think it would destroy Levitt’s brand for him to shift from “brilliant rogue economist” to “excellent economics journalist.” On the other hand, this is the past of least resistance as suggested by the direction taken in many of the chapters of Freakonomics 2. Again, the difficulty is that it’s hard to see why Levitt would want to do this, and it’s hard to see that Dubner could do it on his own.

E. O. WIlson: Another path for a public intellectual. While making occasional forays into hot-button issues (if not actual punditry), he’s covered his back by doing universally-respected scientific work. In many ways, this is the route that Levitt has already been taking. He might consider dropping the Freakonomics blog, not because it’s taking too much of his time–I suspect he’s a better organizer of his days than I am–but because the silly things on the blog might very well be diluting his well-deserved high reputation as a scholar. Really, he could just spend the next 10 years of his career following up on stuff he’s already done and he’d be fine.

James Heckman: Lots of controversy, but all about academic matters and mostly below the waterline. Blows his top all the time in private settings but is much more careful in his public pronouncements. Levitt could possibly follow this path if he were to focus more on deepening some of his major research efforts.

Why do I keep writing about this?

Some of it is the fascination of watching a slow-motion train wreck. And, as usual, blogging has the irresistible attraction that it takes the place of working, a similar activity that requires much more effort. Beyond this, much of my interest in following Levitt, or Mankiw, or Krugman, is that their career paths are so similar to mine. They represent alternative paths for my own life. To put it another way, when quantitative social scientists get in trouble, well, that hits close to home.

Another way to say this is that controversy sells books. And with controversy you’re likely to piss somebody off. It’s extremely rare to be a Stephen Hawking and sell lots of books while remaining universally respected in your field. You’re more likely to be a Stephen J. Gould and be hated by some. In that sense, Levitt and Dubner got incredibly lucky the first time round, with all the money and the fame and little of the backlash. But it’s hard to keep that sort of thing going forever.

22 thoughts on “Possible models for Freakonomics 3

  1. Rumor has it that List is working with Dubner on the sequel. Of course, there was a chapter on List in the current work; but he's got a lot more stuff. Other models:

    1) Business route. Levitt has a consulting company, focusing on controlled experiments and the like.

    2) Charity. Levitt and List already do a lot of studies on charitable donations, they could go further into development economics and figure out 'what works.' Or just recruit Oster directly.

    3) Go into macro/finance. Everyone seems to agree that macro people have gotten it wrong, and empirical micro is the model.

    4) Education. We know little about what interventions affect learning.

  2. Wow! Very harsh, and accurate . . .

    [I]f Dubner could be a Gladwell, he wouldn't have needed Levitt.

    This was so cruel that I was afraid someone else had taken over your blog. You are so nice in person . . .


    I predict major linkage for this post.

  3. David: I wasn't meaning to be harsh at all! After all, I'm one of the many Levitt wannabees (in my case, the attempt came in writing Red State, Blue State) who did not achieve anything close to Levitt-like success. It's great for Levitt that he has a talented Dubner to promote his work and make it lively for the masses. Gladwell is great, but Levitt didn't need a Gladwell; Dubner was the perfect man for the job (at least for Freakonomics 1). To point out that Dubner != Gladwell is no more a criticism than to point out that Ringo != Max Roach (or, for that matter, that Lennon doesn't have the nice voice that Suzanne Vega has).

  4. hmm – why couldn't Steven Levitt become the old Steven Levitt again – see this nice post at free exchange:

    I think the problem with him becoming Krugman (or Mankiw) is that both of them don't just have a position, they hold it credibly and passionately. I think having voices that combine economic knowledge with political passion is very valuable in public discourse – but Levitt has too much cultivated his image as being anti-political to be able to do this.

    And I think he can't become Tyler Cowen because the reason Tyler Cowen is so much fun is that he knows so much about so much: Food, Literature, art, classical music – that's just not Levitt's comparatice advantage.

  5. They can also write about this blog, showing how leftists pursue its agenda by saying that what they do is statistical modeling.

  6. Rodolpho: Ya got me. What really surprises me, though, is that it took so many years for anybody to figure it out!

  7. I think you're on the money with some form of E.O. Wilson.

    He can minimize the blog and just hit spots he wants to hit. There are a lot of guest bloggers and probably no trouble finding more candidates. It's a bully pulpit for somebody like Wolfers who can carry his weight but otherwise would likely blog in obscurity.

  8. These are all great. I love it.

    On Mankiw, I think you are right but I get the feeling that he considers himself non-partisan, especially when tackling economic policy issues.

    A Heckman route is impossible. A Heckman would have little respect for the route already taken by Levitt so far.

    And you've captured Landsburg quite well. I sometimes get the feeling that the guy does his best to live up to the caricature of an economist.

  9. You could also have mentioned Steven Pinker as a path not to take. "The Language Instinct" was just so awesome, a work clearly written by someone with extensive knowledge of the subject matter. And then he followed up with "How the Mind Works", which was tolerable as a science-for-the-layman book but I felt like any good science journalist could have written it. And it's been downhill from there, to the extent that I would be more likely to read a new book by an unknown than a new book by Pinker. Perhaps there's just an overwhelming desire to take advantage of your fifteen minutes of fame by churning out the new books as fast as you reasonably can—after all, to build another Language-Instinct-sized body of insights would take eight or ten more years, and who wants to wait that long? It's understandable, but I still find it disappointing.

  10. I would say that Levitt has a long way to go to match up well against E.O. Wilson.

    1. Wilson started out by becoming the world's leading expert on ants.

    2. Then when he was stunned by William D. Hamilton's 1964 explanation of altruism in social insects (which he initially dismissed on the grounds that if it were true, he, the world's leading expert on ants, would have thought of it first, but 18 sleepless hours later was convinced, Saul on the road to Damascus-style), Wilson spent years retooling his intellectual tool set (e.g., learning math) to get up to speed with Hamilton, then pulled together a huge amount of recent work in the encyclopedic "Sociobiology" in 1975.

    3. To respond to the political attacks by the mellifluous prose stylist Stephen Jay Gould, Wilson taught himself how to write like a literary intellectual, winning himself the Pulitzer for "On Human Nature."

    4. Wilson then moved into political activism, publicizing the term "biodiversity" to save the rainforests.

    In contrast, Levitt's most famous theory, abortion-cut-crime, is wrong (due to a couple of technical errors he made).

    No, I think your comparison of Levitt to Gladwell is more accurate.

  11. Are there blogs about blogs about blogs? Or blogs about blogs about blogs about blogs? Or …. Surely there is much scope to extend this all endlessly?

  12. Steve: I didn't say that becoming E. O. Wilson was easy! But, for example, I could imagine Levitt writing a tome about incentives and jobs, building upon the work on sumo wrestlers, hookers, etc., but interviewing people and analyzing data from dozens of jobs–truck drivers, nurses, accountants, farm laborers, etc etc.–and putting it all together. This would take a lot of work over years or even decades, but I think Levitt could do it if he really wanted to. And then, once he puts this all together, he could re-emerge as a public intellectual.

    Nick: I think it's always been the nature of blogs to link and to comment on other blogs. If anything, blogs are probably less link-y and more essay-y than they used to be, no?

  13. Steve: Yes, I realized that, which is why I mentioned Hawking and Gould in the same paragraph. Would've mentioned Pinker too had I thought of him. But I've never heard of Jones or Rose: they obviously have to get to work on the whole publicity thing.

    Jonathan: Robin Hanson's great, but he's just about the opposite of Levitt. Hanson's an outsider with big speculations and not much data. (No criticism of Robin there; he likes to speculate about topics on which not much data are available, and he might even argue that his advocacy will motivate people to gather such data.) In contrast, Levitt is an insider who, at his best, stays close to the data and lets the speculations come from there.

  14. On becoming Mankiw – I used to read his blog, back before comments were shut down. IMHO, he turned off comments because he was losing debates on economics to commenters. This wasn't because he doesn't know economics, but because he was picking GOP positions first, and trying to support them economically.

    On becoming Heckman – not only would this be a 180 degree switch from Freaknomics, but Levitt probably missed that boat several years ago, when he didn't dedicate his career to that early on.

  15. But I've never heard of Jones or Rose:

    Steve Jones and Stephen Rose are big in the UK in the evolution / human sciences field. Rose, for example, was the primary demonizer of James Watson two years ago.

  16. Levitt & Dubner have their money — particularly Levitt will continue to make more money on books and textbooks, and for whatever they are getting for the Freakonomics blog.

    Dubner clearly has a desire to push a conservative political agenda, but I don't really see Levitt as having any desire to be a serious public-intellectual type, or that he gives two shits about society…

    I expect him to take more vacations and live off the fat of the land… he's probably nearing the end of actual research, not wanting to endlessly debate all the mistakes made in his past research.

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