Steven D. Levitt

University Of Chicago professor Steven D. Levitt is probably the only economist who can also lay claim to being a genuine worldwide pop-culture phenomenon. His book Freakonomics (written in collaboration with journalist Stephen J. Dubner) has sold more than 4 million copies since its publication four years ago, coining a whole new subgenre of study, while reshaping the very idea of what economics means to most people. Never wary of controversy, Levitt stands by his data even if the numbers point to unpleasant conclusions. While his notion that the legalization of abortion eventually led to reduced crime rates didn’t sit well with some Freakonomics readers, his proposed solutions for global warming are threatening to overshadow his recently published follow-up, SuperFreakonomics.

In a recent visit with The A.V. Club, Levitt sat down to defend geo-engineering solutions for global warming and share some thoughts about terrorism, Rush Limbaugh, and the penises of Indian men. 

The A.V. Club: The chapter in SuperFreakonomics about global warming has come under some tough scrutiny. The Washington Post even charged that your central problem is that you “prefer an interesting story to an accurate one.”

Steven D. Levitt: It sounds like The Washington Post also takes that point of view, that they’d rather have an interesting story than an accurate one. [Laughs.] Our chapter does not deny the existence of global warming. What we do is, we say that the current solution people are proposing is one that involves reducing carbon emissions dramatically. The problem with that solution is, it’s incredibly expensive. The economists who have looked at it think it will cost trillions of dollars in reduced economic output to accomplish it. Also, it requires everyone in the world to get together and suddenly become allies and friends to try and change their behavior, to moderate how much they produce. And even if we do it, because carbon dioxide stays in the air for so long, it will take 50 years to really feel the benefits, or even know if we are getting benefits. So we take a very different approach, which says, “Let’s just say the earth got too hot and we wanted to make it cooler, would reducing carbon emissions be the right way to go?” And we think the answer is no. 

We think there are other ways. In particular, we highlight three different solutions, called geo-engineering solutions, which involve using technology to, in this case, moderate how much sunlight actually reaches the earth. Some guys have a prototype, it would cost $200 million to build it, we could build it in three months, we could put sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, and if it works, the earth can be cooled down in a year. And if it doesn’t work? We just take it down with no repercussions.

I think what’s really strange is that the status quo, when it comes to environmentalism, has decided that we have a problem, but they’re not willing to put reasonable solutions to the problem on the table. That’s the way we’re trying to change the debate, but there are incredibly powerful forces that are trying to keep the debate from being heard. 

AVC: So you’re saying environmentalism is as plagued by internal politics as any other issue.

SDL: Absolutely. It’s called climate science, but there’s as much climate politics as there is science going on. The solutions we’re proposing are repugnant to the people who work in that area, because they say, “Well, gosh, the reason we have so much trouble with global warming is because we’ve been polluting and producing too much.” Then to say that technology, and in some ways more pollution—putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere is going to solve it—just drives people crazy. If you really accept that global warming puts the world at risk, then you think you would be open to any solution that could undo it. 

AVC: Also in the chapter on global warming, you write how we don’t even know “…if even a steep rise means an inconvenience or the end of civilization as we know it.” The “inconvenience” bit sounds like a cheeky dig at Al Gore. Do your own politics seep into the data, affecting the way you present your findings?

SDL: I am sure it can affect everyone. We’re kind of cheeky toward everything, though. I think you don’t want to take this out of context. We’re writing about prostitutes, and catching terrorists, and car seats. I think both of us are best described as apolitical. We’re driven by the data as much as possible. I am a believer when it comes to geo-engineering. I think about the history of mankind, and about the biggest problems we’ve faced, and how we’ve solved them, and the solution has always been technology. I am hard-pressed to think of any time when the solution to a major global problem is to have everybody change their behavior. It’s hard to change your own behavior; it’s hard to change someone else’s behavior. It’s hard to change my kids’ behavior. [Laughs.] To think about how we’re going to get 7 billion people to agree to stop burning stuff that drives their economy, I just think it’s going to be very difficult.

I do think that the standard media is controlled by the conventional wisdom about global warming. We’ve come to believe—from reading a lot of articles and talking to a lot of scientists—that there’s another side to be heard. The problem is that most people who speak out—it’s true of so many issues—have a really firm, strong agenda. A lot of environmentalists have a strong agenda, and the deniers have a strong agenda. We’re the kind of people who don’t really have an agenda. We’re not trying to get anything in particular out of the global-warming debate, we’re just trying to understand it and come to it in the same way we came to controversial issues like abortion and crime or cheating, and shed some light. But what we have said and written has been completely misportrayed. People act like we’re making stuff up. But we have endnotes. We either attribute a statement to a particular scientist, or cite an academic article. I think part of what’s happened is that so many people are reading copies of the book that have been illegally copied and put on the Internet and don’t include the endnotes, and people don’t actually realize that we heavily researched this. We’re not just making stuff up.

AVC: There’s the point you make about solar panels being black and actually releasing more heat back into the atmosphere, thereby canceling out any benefits they may have in reducing global warming. Yet a lot of critics of your book have mentioned that most solar panels are really blue, and your findings don’t add up. 

SDL: The stuff about the black solar panels comes from [an interview with scientist] Nathan Myhrvold. He has a blog post that he put up about how the global-warming extremists have been trying to distort the truth. It’s absolutely true that most efficient panels are black, because they absorb the most. Whether they’re black or blue—in the end, it doesn’t make a big difference. Again, it’s not like Nathan made up the stuff about the solar panels. It is a simple statement of fact that it takes a lot of energy to produce solar-powered electricity plants. It is a simple fact that when you decide you’re going to make one, you start by putting yourself into a carbon deficit, and over time, you work into a carbon benefit. So I just don’t think there’s anything controversial about it. It’s a statement of fact. I don’t think anyone disagrees. I know of three or four academic papers published on the subject that make the same point. And it is inconvenient to people, to society, if we want to move toward a carbon-free society. It’s just going to take time. It’s an investment. We’re not saying that if you wanted less carbon, you wouldn’t want to do it for the long run. It’s just not going to help you in the short run.

AVC: More controversial might be the section of the book where you mention the study about how the ACLU is responsible for increased crime because of its activism against prison overcrowding. 

SDL: Well, you know, it’s funny, because I wrote that paper myself. It was looking at the effects of imprisonment and crime, and what I used are these natural experiments in which the ACLU files lawsuits, and that leads to a bunch of prisoners being released. Then I looked in the data, and sure enough, crime went way up in the places where these suits got filed. What’s interesting is that the ACLU cooperated with me and gave me all the data. This paper was published in 1996. I did this research more than a decade ago. I had always expected that I would get some sort of a nasty response from the ACLU, but I never did. When I wrote this paper, Rush Limbaugh talked about it, but instead of doing what you would expect Rush Limbaugh to do—saying how bad the ACLU is—he just made fun of me. [Laughs.] He said, “Oh, we’ve got a real genius at Harvard that did some new research in which he showed that locking up prisoners lowers crime. Boy, that guy’s really smart! He figured out something that nobody ever knew! No one realized that we locked up prisoners to reduce crime!” So I don’t know. You’d think that would be controversial, but somehow for more than a decade, it’s managed not to attract any attention from anyone. But maybe you’re right. Maybe now things will change. [Laughs.]

AVC: You write in the book that an American in any given year has about a one in five million chance of dying in a terrorist attack. In this way, “freakonomics” can be seen as an anti-terrorism method, because if you know the facts and can’t be terrorized, then terrorism doesn’t work so well.

SDL: I certainly think the Israelis and the British have succeeded in that domain. When the IRA was bombing all over England, people just kind of figured out that it wasn’t actually that risky, and they went through their daily lives. The same in Israel, so now bombs go off and it turns out that the people who ride buses, and the bus-drivers—they just keep on doing things when a bomb goes off on a bus. They don’t even worry about it. It turns out tourists won’t go to Israel, and Americans are terrified of terrorism, but people who live with terrorism eventually come to realize that the odds are just not that bad. Now, how you convince yourself of that in the abstract, well, that’s harder. But I like your idea, that if you think like a “freakonomist,” you’re not going to be scared by the wrong things. If we’re not successful in catching the terrorists with the tools I’m trying to use, then we can weaken them simply by being logical. I think that’s a great point. 

AVC: Writing about the unforeseen trickle-down effects of 9/11, you mention how terrorists can succeed even by their failures. You talk about how the shoe-bomber was unsuccessful, yet we all still take off our shoes at the airport. It has fundamentally altered the behavior of millions of people at the airport, yet it’s based not just on illogic and improbability, but the fact that the intended act was a failure to begin with.

SDL: The TSA—the people who protect our safety at airports—they’re in a tough position. It’s a thankless position, because if they do their job right, then there won’t be any terrorist attacks, and people just grumble. But if something slips through, then everyone reviles them. I think the facts are that we’re fighting the last war when it comes to terrorism. If I’m a terrorist, there’s just no reason why I need an airplane. There’s a thousand other things that I can do. We put all of our resources into protecting airports, and we leave a million other targets open. That’s why we write in the book that trying to play defense against terrorists is an incredibly difficult thing, because the imagination is the only limit on where they can go after you. My view is that if you really want to go after them, you’ve got to go on the offensive, doing what we’re trying to do, which is to pore through terabytes of data trying to find the little hints here and there where the terrorists might be hiding, so we can catch them before they have a chance to act.

AVC: Did you worry that you might actually be giving terrorists new ideas?

SDL: We thought about that, but these guys aren’t dumb. They spend all day long thinking about how they can terrorize us, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that there are all sorts of simple ways, easy ways to disrupt us. But I think ultimately what it tells me is that the terrorists’ goal—they don’t want to just disrupt American society, they’re going for the home run. The way they score is by impressing the folks back in the Middle East, and they don’t want to hit singles and doubles, even though they could do that all day long. They want 9/11. They want something they can brag about.

AVC: Well, then, do you have any second thoughts about including the study that essentially reveals that six out of 10 Indian men have the world’s smallest penises?

SDL: [Laughs.] What’s amazing to me is that people actually do that research! That someone actually took the time to measure the penises of all these Indian men—that wouldn’t be at the top of my list of research projects to undertake. It might turn out to be a mistake, because we sold a lot of books in India the last time around, and I’m guessing that’s going to hurt our sales to Indian men. It might actually pick up our sales to Indian women. A lot of the books we sell in India are sold on the street corners—they’re bootlegged copies that have been printed on a Xerox machine—so we’ll see whether they leave those pages out.

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