Levitt Discusses Unlikely Route to Economics

Author of “Freakonomics” reminisces about life as an undergrad

Steven Levitt
Beth Drucker

Steven Levitt, author of popular books "Freakonomics" and "Superfreakonomics" answered questions after giving a lecture as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study.

When he entered Harvard, he had scored a two on the Calculus AP exam, failed a French placement test, and was unsure of the difference between derivative and partial derivative notation, but Steven Levitt ’89, author of New York Times best-seller Freakonomics, has come a long way from his undergraduate days.

Addressing a packed room of students and Cambridge locals at the Radcliffe Gymnasium last night, Levitt spoke about his path from opening week of his Harvard freshman year to becoming one of Time Magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World. He was the third of four speaker’s in the 2009-10 Dean’s Lecture Series, a program of the Radcliffe Institute’s Academic Engagement Programs.

“I’m not going to be too academic today; mostly, I’m just going to tell stories,” Levitt began.

During the speech, Levitt, who was awarded the 2004 John Bates Clark Medal as one of the most influential economists under the age of 40, cheekily thanked the institutional barriers in place to prevent students from failing out of college, and claimed his acceptance to MIT was a “complete and utter mistake.”

He “never dreamed [he’d] be an academic economist,” Levitt said.

The economist half-jokingly cited his father as inspiration for studying off-beat economic issues.

“I have no talent, you have no talent. If people like us are ever going to succeed in a profession, we have to find a topic that no body else in the world is willing to study, so you can be the best at it,” Levitt recalled his father telling him.

He took his father’s advice, going on to research topics such as sumo wrestling, cheating, and names people give their kids. He decided, he said, not only to concentrate in economics, but “breathe economics into everyday life.”

The talk concluded with a discussion of some of the topics covered in his books, including the inner-workings of a crack cocaine gang, alternative strategies for climate change, CIA and terrorism, and the business side of prostitution.

Levitt’s speech elicited diverse reactions from the audience. Diego Ibarra, a Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Design, said he thought Levitt’s solutions for climate change presented moral problems because, he said, they would increase carbon emissions, which are the root cause of climate change.

Others said they thought the talk was inspirational. “It was great to hear how he thinks, to hear personal anecdotes, and what makes the man who comes up with such great economic discoveries tick,” said Samuel F. Himel ’12.

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