Steven Levitt on his controversial new book, Super Freakonomics

Levitt: It's not about partisanship, it's about the truth

In 2005, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times columnist Stephen J. Dubner co-wrote Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. A surprise hit, Freakonomics sold four million copies. Now comes the highly entertaining sequel, SuperFreakonomics. I conducted an email interview with Levitt, reminding him that he and I went to Saint Paul Academy together, where he enlightened me on the Boomtown Rats and other seminal punk bands.

City Pages: In an explanatory note, you say that your failure to include "everything" in your first book necessitated a second. Would you have written SuperFreakonomics even if the first had not been a success?

Steven Levitt: No way would we have written a second book if the first had not been a success. We never even wanted to write the first book—we only did it because the publisher offered us a lot of money. No one was more shocked than us when people actually wanted to read it!

CP: Did you participate in any of the field studies illustrated? This includes Sudhir Venkatesh's research on prostitutes, which you used to show how hookers are like department-store Santas and pimps are like real-estate agents.

Levitt: If by "participate" you mean did I sleep with the prostitutes, the answer is no. If by "participate" you mean am I one of the authors of the research we write about, the answer is yes.

CP: In comparing drunk walking to drunk driving, you conclude that drunk driving risks fewer lives. Since you acknowledge the drunk walker isn't as likely to kill anyone besides him or herself, how is walking more dangerous?

Levitt: Drunk walking is eight times more dangerous than drunk driving from the perspective of the drunk. And, overall, we find that five times as many people die per mile walked drunk compared to a mile driven drunk. More innocents die if you drive drunk, so in part it is a question of how much you value the life of the drunk versus the life of the innocent.

CP: Did you have an opportunity to see the Azyxxi system? To inform readers, Azyxxi is a patient-information retrieval program, which the authors describe in a chapter analyzing physicians' care (or lack thereof) of patients.

Levitt: I did watch (Azyxxi developer) Dr. Craig Feied using it. He'd say, "Let's see what the last patient who came into the ER looks like," and using the information he could get, make what seemed like a sensible diagnosis. Then he would look up past visits and show how, with this new information, his initial diagnosis was wrong. Based on the data, you hope that you don't visit an ER soon.

CP: In a chapter on apathy and altruism, you examine the 1962 Kitty Genovese murder. This actual case led to a false report by authorities: 38 people witnessed her killing without coming to her aid or calling the police. Thanks to this falsehood, are people more motivated to aid victims of attacks?

Levitt: I fully understand why bystanders don't want to get involved—no direct benefit, potentially large costs. To an economist, what is more surprising is how often bystanders do get involved and try to break up fights or stop criminals.

CP:  Would you say that the media frenzy over child abductions in 2002, when child abductions were actually down, is comparable to the panic over shark attacks in 2001, which you dissect in the introduction?

Levitt: Media frenzies are almost always triggered by blond girls. The media feeds off itself, and politicians are the next to jump in. It isn't news to say that child abductions are 3 percent lower than they were the year before.

CP: In your book you provide reasons why the Americans with Disabilities and Endangered Species Acts hurt rather than helped those they were designed to protect. Some of your theories are liable to give Glenn Beck the jollies.

Levitt: For me, it isn't about politics. Some ideas put forth by liberals are right; some ideas put forth by conservatives are right. I try to figure out what is true or not true; I've got no control over what the answers turn out to be.

CP: Your discussion of Intellectual Ventures' work on global warming inspired accusations of sensationalism on your and your co-author's parts to sell books. Do you honestly agree with IV's rejection of the common wisdom about global warming?

Levitt: What I rail against are the solutions currently being proposed: a single-minded focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. We think that approach is too little, too late, and too expensive.

CP: You had a punk-rock streak in high school. Stephen J. Dubner played in a Clash-inspired band called the Right Profile. Might your next book involve the revolution begat by Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone?

Levitt: I think it is highly unlikely you will see punk rock featured prominently in any future book of mine! I've mellowed with age—I mostly listen to the same music as my nine-year-old daughters. 

 
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