Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Is Steve Levitt ruining economics?

A student asks me about this article on Steve Levitt and his influence on economic research. The author, Noam Scheiber, questions whether "all the cleverness has crowded out some of the truly deep questions we rely on economists to answer."

Scheiber is right that more young economists today are doing Levitt-style economics and fewer are studying the classic questions of economic policy. That is disconcerting, to a degree. It could be especially problematic twenty years from now, when President Chelsea Clinton looks for an economist to appoint to head the Federal Reserve, and the only thing she can find in the American Economic Association are experts on game shows and sumo wrestling.

But I am not really worried. All research programs run into diminishing returns; eventually, all the cleverness in finding natural experiments and off-beat identification will seem less clever than it did at first. Moreover, the profession has a healthy enough set of incentives that people will keep coming back to the big questions, as long as they think they can make progress on them. Papers on the big questions eventually accumulate more academic citations--the ultimate measure of intellectual influence. It is noteworthy that while Steve's work is highly respected (he won a Clark medal), it is not particularly highly cited for someone of his stature. The citation leaders tend to address the big questions, and that fact should help focus the attention of the next generation of economists.

Meanwhile, Steve's book Freakonomics has made many laymen appreciate that economics is a broader discipline than they had thought, and it has attracted many students to the field. That is a great service. On the first day of ec 10, I asked the students who had read Freakonomics. About a third to a half raised their hands.

In any event, I don't especially trust Scheiber's judgment on important matters. After all, he was the journalist who once accused me of having a big nose.

Addendum: Here is a great talk by Levitt that I posted a while back.