Steven Levitt

February 19, 2013

I am Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics. Ask me anything!

I’m Steve Levitt, University of Chicago economics professor and author of Freakonomics.

Steve Levitt here, and I’ll be answering as many questions as I can starting at noon EST for about an hour. I already answered one favorite reddit question—click here to find out why I’d rather fight one horse-sized duck than 100 duck-sized horses.
You should ask me anything, but I’m hoping we get the chance to talk about my latest pet project, Nearly 10,000 people have flipped coins on major life decisions—such as quitting their jobs, breaking up with their boyfriends, and even getting tattoos—over the past month. Maybe after you finish asking me about my life and work here, you’ll head over to the site to ask a question about yourself.

Proof that it’s me: photo

Update: Thanks everyone! I finally ran out of gas. I had a lot of fun. Drive safely. :)

Will there be a third freakonomics book?

we debated forever, but finally decided to write a third freakonomics book. but it will be different. I think people were getting tired of us after the second book. And for good measure, we are also writing a fourth book, on golf! with Luke Donald and his coach Pat Goss. Believe it or not, that is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I like the name Threekonomics

That is what my sister Linda thought we should name it.

Looking at the Freakonomics Experiment it seems like there is a large potential for self selection out of the sample if people decide they don't like the result of the coin flip, how do you account for this in the results?

Even if people don't follow the coin toss (we know not everyone will), our experimental design is fine as long as people will still fill out our follow-up surveys. That's why we are offering all sorts of Freako swag, even all-expense paid visits to Chicago to have dinner with me, and thousands of dollars, so people will fill out the surveys.

What is the biggest decision on which you decided to flip a coin?

The biggest decision I've ever made with a coin toss is whether or not to do this ask me anything!

My most eventful coin toss was on my wedding day. My best man gave me a quarter and told me to make a wish and toss the coin into a fountain. I flipped the coin into the fountain, and it hit a rock, and richocheted back at me onto the ground. We didn't take that as such a good omen for my marriage.

Hopefully you had better aim on your honeymoon.

that is funny. well done. eventually we had 3 kids.

What do you think of the studies attributing the decline in crime rates beginning in the 1990s to removal of lead in gasoline?

With respect to lead and crime, I looked into that about a decade ago. I sure couldn't find any evidence. I wrote up my thoughts on the issue on the freako blog a few years back:

A lot of "Freakonomics" focuses on finding hidden variables that influence data when we wouldn't expect so. What is your favorite "hidden variable" you've ever found (published or otherwise)?

One of my all-time favorite Freako insights was that drunk walking is seven times more dangerous than drunk driving. It is pretty obvious once you think about it, but nobody ever did before us.

MADD and SADD were not big fans, however.

Still an active member of our society that dies because he walks back home drunk, impacts us in many ways.

We should all take a cab.

yes, take a cab, or don't get drunk in the first place!

but as strange as it sounds, if the only two options are walk or drive, I say drive

The failure of that argument is your assumption that 1 in 140 miles are walked drunk simply because 1 in 140 miles are driven drunk.

I was very excited about your result until I noticed this.

Do you think more than 1 in 140 miles are walked drunk? If anything it is less than that, strengthening our argument. Nobody walks long distances drunk.

Trying to show a relationship isn't the same as trying to introduce doubt to that relationship. It doesn't have the same standards of evidence. The skeptic isn't proving anything false; he's demonstrating uncertainty.

Agreed. Nice comment.

Hi Steven,

My friend graduated with a bachelors in Economics 5 years ago and is flipping burgers at McDonald's. I feel like he has given up hope. Do you have any suggestions for him as far as the best jobs to take starting out or something he can pursue in that field?

My basic feeling is that businesses just dont use economic thinking at all. If you can think like a freak, but do it in a business setting, you will have great success.

But you need to get into a job where somebody will listen to you. My best advice is to figure out what you love, and then just be singleminded in your attempt to somehow do something related to it. Even if you don't make a ton of money, at least you will have fun along the way, which is the most important thing in my opinion.

You've generated a lot of backlash for some of your work: is there anything you regret researching/publishing?

My only publishing regrets are the couple of times that I made coding errors in papers so got the wrong answers. What a nightmare.

I don't regret tackling global warming. I'm sure we are right on that one. I just regret that we lost the media battle on the topic!

Forgive me... what were your findings on global warming?

On global warming, we argued that there was no way that moral suasion was going to win the day. (this was right before the Copenhagen conference.) We argued that cutting carbon is too costly, too slow, and it is already too late. Instead, we believe that ultimately the answer to climiate change will be geo-engineering. We believe it makes sense to invest now in experiments that will help us learn how to save the planet when we decide we need to.

I think your work is definitely thought provoking and interesting. However, I think you made a little too much effort to be "thought provoking" when it came to your discussions of climate research.

Your pithy style works well for a lot of the "correlations" you note and dive into. Climate research is a very mature and widely expansive field of knowledge and it was a mistake to try and treat it similarly.

Here is an article written about the controversy.

Here is Nature's take.

Union of Concerned Scientists

Even business friendly Bloomberg.

I still say that in 20 years, I will be right. Let's reconvene at that time and see what history has to say about it.

You also made a lot of claims about the efficacy of photovoltaics, which appear to have been savaged after publication:

Here are a couple links relevant to that real climate attack and the general smear campaign that was undertaken against us. Read them and decide for yourself!

Who'd win in a fist fight; you, or Malcom Gladwell?

That is a great question. I think I could actually take him.

I think Dubner and I together, would massacre him.

no mercy

Universal healthcare. Seems like a no-brainer for a strong civilization. What is your take, not for short-term profits - but for long-term viability of a nation?

I'm not so sure about universal healthcare.

what i think we really need is for people to pay a big chunk of their own health care costs so the whole system starts to act more like a market and less like an entitlement. when health care is 20% of GDP, we can't treat it like an all you can eat buffet.

If you could change one thing about the United States financial policies what would it be and why?

I hate "too big to fail"

Does that mean you hate the phrase "too big to fail" or the sentiment behind it?

I hate the sentiment. You can't allow companies to take big risks or make terrible decisionis and not pay the consequences.

Either you can't have big banks, or big banks need to do such mundane things that there is no risk of failure.

Dr. Levitt, thanks for doing an AmA! If you don't mind sharing I'm sure several of us would be interested in your opinion on setting the federal minimum wage at $9-$10/hr. (Will it help create/destroy jobs, inflation, etc.) Thanks again!

Honestly, I don't think the minimum wage matters all that much to the economy. Not that many people actually work for the minimum wage these days. Also, people can always cheat to get around it.

I thought your take on gun control was pretty interesting; have you ever been asked to speak at a panel or debate in which you were asked about your work with gun control statistics? How did it go?

I've spoken a lot about gun control. It is one issue where I tend not to make people that mad, because I don't take either side. I say I like guns (which I do), but I also offer ways to punish bad behavior with guns.

My statistics class just recently finished reading your book, so thanks for doing an AMA! One of the things we were discussing about was if government's current view on guns is a misconception on their part. Do you think the promotion of gun safety awareness or removing guns from stores will cause a drop in gun violence in the near future?

EDIT: I didn't know you have already talked about this subject, but can you nonetheless answer this question for those who don't have current access to the podcast?

My view, which basically has to be true, is that NOTHING that the government does to the flow of new guns can possibly affect gun violence much. There are already 300 million guns out there! They will be around for the next 50 years. The cat is out of the bag.


There is no sillier public policy than gun buybacks. you hardly get any guns, and the ones you get are not the ones that would be used in a crime.

I know you received considerable criticism from the car seat industry and the Obama administration. Did you ever make any progress on the child's car seat research?

Were you able to ever reproduce a rigorous study on the effectiveness of child safety seats?

we published some studies on car seats. But we never made any headway on public policy.

I did get the Secretary of Transportation to blog about me. Basically he said I was an idiot and refused to give authority to his 100 statisticians to use his own data to see whether maybe we were right.

What is your response to the criticism that you haven't taken into account appropriate use (i.e. that the problem with car seats is that they are used incorrectly most of the time, whether because they are not installed correctly in the car, the child is not strapped in properly, or they are being used for children who don't meet the age/weight/height requirements)?

Being one of those rare parents who actually has read the manual and the best practice recommendations, I'm horrified at how few parents I see personally using car seats correctly... and worse yet is those that cite Freakonomics as a reason not to bother. Are you concerned that people might misunderstand your contentions and put their children at greater risk?

If car seats are so complicated that people misuse them in every day life, then it tells me we need to change car seats!

Who are your favorite and least favorite high-profile economists? Who has inspired your work, and whose work do you find overrated?

Here are some of my favorite economists: John List, Daron Acemoglu, Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy.

My friend Erin won't let me list my least favorite ones.

Dr. Levitt, I'm an undergraduate economics student and your work is what first sparked my interest in the subject. What advice do you have for someone who wants to work in economics? Where do you find inspiration in the field?

the sad fact is that if you want to succeed in academic economics these days, the most important thing is to be good at math. I think that is a terrible development...economics should be about the ideas, not the math. But very few of my colleagues agree with me.

Me and my girlfriend listened to hours of freakonomics on a recent road trip. We got hooked!

I remember one episode where you said that you don't fully believe the Stanford prison experiment, that the outcome of a study depends on who administers the study. Have you ever thought about administering a study while pretending to be a psychologist to test this?

Great idea! I do know that everytime I have ever tried to replicate what the psychologists get, I never get the same thing.

After listening to your show on gun control. I was wondering if you guys are gun owners?

Neither of us own guns.

I like guns. I would have one, probably, if my wife would let me. But she won't.

Can you explain why your article "Hoodwinked" was found to be inaccurate?

The guy Stetson Kennedy, who had purportedly infiltrated the Klan, hadn't really done it himself. I think he got caught up in his own stories and decade by decade they got more exaggerated. When we got wind of this, we felt we had to lay bare our mistake.

How would you feel if by using your website and flipping a coin, someone were to do something amoral or criminal ?

Dubner proposed the idea that someone might use it to decide on whether to kill or not, and the legal ramifications, but what would your emotional response be ?

But what if the coin came up tails and they didn't kill because of it?

As you can probably tell, I'm not a very emotional person, for better or for worse.

Do you believe we can use big data to reliably predict the nature of human relationships and our impact on the world and the global economy?

I think big data is definitely the future. I'm not sure it holds the key to human relationships, but I do think it holds the key to big profits for the firms that figure out how to use it. It is amazing how bad companies are right now in this dimension.

would you rather eat 100 orange-sized apples or 1 apple-sized orange?

In one sitting, I would take the apple sized orange.

Your coin flip website just told me not to join a gym and continue my current health routine. I've already ordered a pizza and opened my morning beer.

Thank you! I'm so grateful to you right now!

In return, make sure you fill out the 2 month survey!!

If you were King of the United States for a day, what changes would you put into place? What laws/policy changes are incredibly obvious to economists but contrary to public/political popular opinion?

I touched on part of this earlier:

1) People have to pay a big chunk of their own health care.

2) we should have a flat tax or something like it.

3) We should allow/encourage talented immigrants to come to the US.

I think every economist believes in those three things.

what was your grade in real analysis?

I never took real analysis, but I'm not sure I would have done that well if I had taken it.

What kind of state do you think the Global economy will be in over the next decade, 50 years etc?

I don't know anything about it, but basically I'm an optimist. The world economy has been growing for a long time, and probably that will continue.

Dr. Levitt, if you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

I don't know if this counts as a superpower, but if I could do one thing consistently, it would be to putt like Luke Donald.

And if that is too difficult, I would like to be able to travel back in time and undo my mistakes.

What is your favourite economic/business book (e.g. Liar's Poker, etc)?

I liked Scorecasting by Toby Moskowitz.

Do you have an opinion on Bitcoins?

I am utterly confused by bitcoins. It seems like a bubble to me. But I don't know much about it, honestly.

What was your favorite or most enjoyable theory to research and write about? Were there any conclusions that absolutely baffled you?

My favorite research project was probably the work on gangs and prostitutes. I learned more about the world on those than anything else I've done.

What is your response to your profile on the S.H.A.M.E. Project regarding conflicts of interest, support of SOPA, anti-union activity, use of flawed data, and other allegations?


I just looked at the top few things. Looks pretty accurate to me. Am I supposed to feel bad about it, because I dont.

Care to elaborate on why you supported SOPA? This is definitely a relevant issue to many people here.

This is what I wrote about SOPA. I don't think i supported it or was against it:

Mr. Levitt, In one of your blog posts you state "For every mile walked drunk, turns out to be eight times more dangerous than the mile driven drunk."

Now, I understand the mathematics behind this. I also understand completely that you are not condoning drunk driving. But I always found the logic behind this to be suspect. Drunk driving doesn't just hurt you. In the case of an accident, it also potentially hurts or kills those in the car with you, and those in any automobiles that you crash into. These factors aren't present with the drunk walker.

If you posit simply a lone driver on an empty road, your conclusion makes sense. But that's not the case in the real world. So I'm curious. Do you still stand by your conclusion and, if so, how do you account for the extra factors present in a drunk driving situation that aren't present in a drunk walking scenario?


surprisingly, about 80 percent of the drunk driving fatalities are of the drinking driver him/herself. we already factored that in.

Thanks for doing this!

There's been a lot of controversy over your arguments presented over Roe v. Wade and its effect at lowering crime rates two decades later. Have any of the arguments presented against this idea changed your mind or altered your position in any way?

No. I think time has only strengthened our arguments.

To put it frankly: Just how fucked are we? What does that average person need to do to ensure their financial security?

go to college and graduate, for starters.

I just read that 40 percent of young African American males who didn't graduate from high school are in prison. More in prison than employed!

If you could teach everyone in the world 1 thing, what would it be?

The difference between correlation and causality.

Dr. Levitt, thanks for doing this AMA. I have two questions for you.

1) I am enrolling in an economics PhD program this coming fall. Any advice?

2) Which economists inspired you to be an economist?

Edit: looks like you already answered #2

My advice to incoming PhDs is to start doing research ASAP.

You get a job based on what you write, not how you do on problem sets.

What was something that surprised even you during the writing of the book?

how great a writer Dubner is. He can turn the most boring academic stuff into something readable.

Are you a redditor beyond this AMA?

I've never been on reddit before today, but that doesn't mean I won't start!

I remember hearing you say somewhere that you think the government should have no place in regulating education. Could you elaborate on this please?

that does not sound like something I would say. I don't really like government very much, but education and diefense are two areas where governments are good to have.

If you weren't a writer and economics professor, what would you be doing?

I'd be golfing. Probably an assistant golf pro at a third-rate club. I'm not as good as I'd like to be. maybe shagging balls at a driving range.

Or else I would be betting on horses. that is the other thing I like to do.

I really enjoyed both of the books as well as the movie. My question is what we're you like in college. What were your hobbies then and what are your two favorite things to do to relax now. Thanks

In college, I didn't work hard at all. Mostly I played wiffle ball, hearts, and street hockey. And I drank way too much.

My favorite things to do now? Golf and harrass my kids.

You love economics, but where do you think it falls short? What is economics missing?

I think that the basic ideas of economics are incredibly powerful. But what disappoints me is that the academic side of things is so abstract and mathematical. There currently is very little taste for creativity or ideas.


Tell Patrick he didn't fill out our consent form right--he has to be 18!

If you had a 5 year old born in June-July-August, would you redshirt them for Kindergarten so they are the oldest kid in school or youngest? What if they were gifted (top .1% IQ tests)?

I don't think it makes any real difference to the kid. The teacher would probably have a better behaved 5-year-old than an immature 4 year old, though.

Where you should really consider doing this is for sports. Being a year older as a senior in high school will make him or her more likely to be the star of the soccer team.

Can we get more of you in the podcast? Also what kind of tattoo should I get? (Your website told me to get one.)

I think you'll be hearing more of me in the podcasts. We may even put you on our podcast if you get a Freakonomics orange/apple tattoo!

What are your thoughts of Tim Harford?

I really like Tim. He is a great mix of economic knowledge and great writing.

This interview was transcribed from an "ask me anything" question and answer session with Steven Levitt conducted on Reddit on 2013-02-19. The Reddit AMA can be found here.