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, FreakonomicsExperiments.com. 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. :)

Comments: 5400 • Responses: 48  • Date: 

trashitagain1880 karma

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!

levitt_freakonomics1225 karma

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

allothersnsused1092 karma

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)?

levitt_freakonomics2240 karma

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.

christocarlin754 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics1858 karma

I hate "too big to fail"

SonofaSven498 karma

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!

levitt_freakonomics741 karma

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.

Caltron3000473 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics999 karma

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

I think Dubner and I together, would massacre him.

no mercy

BadFengShui446 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics718 karma

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!

109876232 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics902 karma

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.

yootskah44 karma

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.

  • edit - More links.

Here is Nature's take.

Union of Concerned Scientists

Even business friendly Bloomberg.

levitt_freakonomics86 karma

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.

Ayos408 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics690 karma

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.

TheDuskDragon346 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics1023 karma

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.

juror_chaos310 karma

Do you have an opinion on Bitcoins?

levitt_freakonomics471 karma

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

uncertainness307 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics599 karma

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.

Pixelated_Penguin101 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics86 karma

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

kirils1283 karma

Will there be a third freakonomics book?

levitt_freakonomics582 karma

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.

Vinovidivici280 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics676 karma

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.

Reddit_Unchained1290 karma

Hopefully you had better aim on your honeymoon.

levitt_freakonomics1290 karma

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

compuhyperglobalmega267 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics365 karma

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:


kaptainkayak251 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics309 karma

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

actorintheITworld200 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics944 karma

The difference between correlation and causality.

VeniVidiPhotographi151 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics211 karma

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.

kavorka2148 karma

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)?

levitt_freakonomics306 karma

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.

alyb02140 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics366 karma

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.

wheredoiliveagain136 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics344 karma

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.

DaronTheGreat132 karma

what was your grade in real analysis?

levitt_freakonomics156 karma

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

EnderBoy100 karma

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?


levitt_freakonomics294 karma

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

tlease18195 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics206 karma

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.

sm0286095 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics206 karma

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.

foshizol91 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics248 karma

Neither of us own guns.

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

LogicallyFallacious86 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics168 karma

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.

saxmaniac198782 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics248 karma

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!

doctor--whom79 karma

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 ?

levitt_freakonomics317 karma

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.

aceskye66 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics175 karma

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.

isanybodylistening59 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics452 karma

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.

just_unmotivated57 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics308 karma

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.

gordanbombay12355 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics90 karma

I liked Scorecasting by Toby Moskowitz.

intjlogin52 karma

Are you a redditor beyond this AMA?

levitt_freakonomics136 karma

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

jonnyoptions42 karma

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?



levitt_freakonomics116 karma

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

yootskah42 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics48 karma

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


kevonw34 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics87 karma

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.

jefenumero134 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics68 karma

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

drummer932 karma

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?

levitt_freakonomics72 karma

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.

empw28 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics55 karma

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.

Firelordbob23 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics34 karma

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.

drewbietech11 karma

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

levitt_freakonomics28 karma

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!

Brikton6 karma

What are your thoughts of Tim Harford?

levitt_freakonomics13 karma

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