AN EXPLANATORY NOTE
The most brilliant young economist in America?the one so deemed, at least, by a jury of his elders?
brakes to a stop at a traffic light on Chicago?s south side. It is a sunny day in mid-June. He drives an
aging green Chevy Cavalier with a dusty dashboard and a window that doesn?t quite shut, producing a
dull roar at highway speeds.
But the car is quiet for now, as are the noontime streets: gas stations, boundless concrete, brick buildings
with plywood windows.
An elderly homeless man approaches. It says he is homeless right on his sign, which also asks for money. He wears a torn jacket, too heavy for the warm day, and a grimy red baseball cap.
The economist doesn?t lock his doors or inch the car forward. Nor does he go scrounging for spare
change. He just watches, as if through one-way glass. After a while, the homeless man moves along.
?He had nice headphones,? says the economist, still watching in the rearview mirror. ?Well, nicer than
the ones I have. Otherwise, it doesn?t look like he has many assets.?
Steven Levitt tends to see things differently than the average person. Differently, too, than the average
economist. This is either a wonderful trait or a troubling one, depending on how you feel about economists.
?The New York Times Magazine, August 3, 2003
In the summer of 2003, The New York Times Magazine sent Stephen J. Dubner, an author and journalist, to write a profile of Steven D. Levitt, a heralded young economist at the University of Chicago.
Dubner, who was researching a book about the psychology of money, had lately been interviewing many
economists and found that they often spoke English as if it were a fourth or fifth language. Levitt, who had just won the John Bates Clark Medal (awarded every two years to the best American economist under forty), had lately been interviewed by many journalists and found that their thinking wasn?t very? robust, as an economist might say.
But Levitt decided that Dubner wasn?t a complete idiot. And Dubner found that Levitt wasn?t a human slide rule. The writer was dazzled by the inventiveness of the economist?s work and his knack for explaining it. Despite Levitt?s elite credentials (Harvard undergrad, a PhD from MIT, a stack of awards), he approached economics in a notably unorthodox way. He seemed to look at things not so much as an academic but as a very smart and curious explorer?a documentary filmmaker, perhaps, or a forensic investigator or a bookie whose markets ranged from sports to crime to pop culture. He professed little interest in the sort of monetary issues that come to mind when most people think about economics; he practically blustered with self-effacement. ?I just don?t know very much about the field of economics,? he told Dubner at one point, swiping the hair from his eyes. ?I?m not good at math, I don?t know a lot of econometrics, and I also don?t know how to do theory. If you ask me about whether the stock market?s going to go up or down, if you ask me whether the economy?s going to grow or shrink, if you ask me whether deflation?s good or bad, if you ask me about taxes?I mean, it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything about any of those things.?