Illinois State University had a talk with Steven Levitt this evening.
Levitt is a microeconomics guy, hugely popular and controversial. The Wall Street Journal describes him as “the Indiana Jones of economics”. It’s not necessarily a compliment: Indy’s a lousy scientist, and Levitt spent the first ten minutes trying to impress us with how bad he is at math.
But he is a very funny guy. His tales of crack-gang and prostitute research make for excellent stand-up comedy. And you just had to be there for the part about the Chicago police. Humor may be the best approach to questions of human microeconomics anyway.
While I’m laughing, though, I also feel uncomfortable that such comedy derives from crack dealers who have a 7% fatality rate per year, while making less than they would make at McDonalds. Human life is capable of getting caught in tragedy with no apparent escape.
I also take issue with his apparent conviction that the his altruism experiments say anything about human nature. Possibly they say something about college students’ willingness to donate to other college students who are no worse off than they are, and who surely know the IRB committee wouldn’t really let any participants get ripped off even if they did “steal” the other participants’ money. We have, after all, heard of the infamous Stanford prison experiment, and of Stanley Milgram at Yale.
In the Q&A period, many people asked macroeconomic questions like “How likely is it that the recession is over?” Did they just not understand that he doesn’t study questions like that? His answer consisted of first disclaiming any authority to speak on such large-scale issues, and then disagreeing strongly with Ben Bernanke on the recession.
He also felt that “Cash for clunkers” was a stupid program and a waste of money, which is certainly an arguable point of view.
We’ve heard some really interesting people at ISU, some of them also very insightful.