Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Academic Inspiration

The Probability That a Real Estate Agent Is Cheating You in Sunday's Times discusses the work of Stephen Levitt, an economist at Chicago. The article does much to play up the stereotypes about academics -- nerdy glasses, muscle-less, crappy car, which undermined the whole thing. How much is the author distorting the picture?

But if it is accurate, then economics is getting much more exciting that political science. Here is an except of the article:

In Levitt's view, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions. His particular gift is the ability to ask such questions. For instance: If drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers? Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What really caused crime rates to plunge during the past decade? Do real-estate agents have their clients' best interests at heart? Why do black parents give their children names that may hurt their career prospects? Do schoolteachers cheat to meet high-stakes testing standards? Is sumo wrestling corrupt?

And how does a homeless man afford $50 headphones?

Many people -- including a fair number of his peers -- might not recognize Levitt's work as economics at all. But he has merely distilled the so-called dismal science down to its most primal aim: explaining how people get what they want, or need. Unlike most academics, he is unafraid of using personal observations and curiosities (though he does fear calculus). He is an intuitionist. He sifts through a pile of data to find a story that no one else had found. He devises a way to measure an effect that veteran economists had declared unmeasurable. His abiding interests -- though he says he has never trafficked in them himself -- are cheating, corruption and crime.

With the help of a guy in sociology (that I used to know), they looked at why so many drug dealers live with their moms. They went over the financial records of drug dealers in Chicago and found out that, suprisingly, dealers didn't make all the much money. Amusing, right?

Political science could use a shot in the arm of sexy questions. I'm going to the American Political Science Association's Annual Meeting at the end of the month and am already bracing myself for a snooze-fest. A sample of paper titles:
Dependent Preferences and Over-Time Instability in Survey Responses
Bayesian Inference for Semiparametric Strategic Discrete Choice Models
The Politics of Common Agency: Unitary, Multiple and Collective Principals

I'm actually paying a lot of money to attend this conference. Hard to believe.

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