No matter how bad the global financial turmoil seems, don’t worry — there is no doomsday looming on the horizon, Freakonomics author Steven Levitt says.
Levitt, known for his startling and provocative observations about human behavior, has comforting words for those alarmed about Europe’s debt crisis and the sluggish US economy.
“It doesn’t feel like ‘The End,’” said Levitt, 44, a leading professor of economics at the University of Chicago, who was on a lightning 48-hour trip to India for a speaking engagement.
“The US economy is even growing a little,” Levitt said, referring to a 2 percent expansion in the past quarter.
In fact, “economies around the world have grown so much since World War II, — unless there’s something horrific on the horizon which I don’t see — people will look back on these days as nothing more than a blip,” he said.
“We’re certainly not looking at something like the Great Depression,” added Levitt, who co-authored the best-selling Freakonomics and its much-acclaimed sequel SuperFreakonomics.
Levitt, who revels in the tag of a “rogue economist” challenging conventional wisdom, said people were also far too worried about terrorism.
While governments across the world pump huge resources into tackling terrorism, it is only a “minor problem in the larger scheme of things,” he said.
“We can’t ignore the fact that many more people die in car crashes each year — in fact it really puts to shame [the casualty toll from] terrorist attacks. It is only our reaction to terrorism that is so extreme that it makes the problem look bigger than it actually is,” said Levitt, who in 2003 won the John Bates Clark Medal as the most influential economist in the US under the age of 40.
Despite his successful career, he says he has “never been proficient in math” and had to struggle with the subject all through school.
When he was admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to do his doctorate, he realized “a terrible mistake had been made” because he had such trouble doing the math.
“But they had had a problem with student suicides at MIT and didn’t like to flunk anyone,” he said. “Also, failing someone involved a lot of paperwork, which professors didn’t like, so they kept tossing me on to the next year.”
Levitt says he has an enormous appetite for probing the riddles of life and decides his subjects through personal experiences and the incongruities that he sees around him.
“I just follow my nose to look at events and circumstances and draw conclusions,” he said.
He is known for applying economic reasoning to unusual real-world topics and coming up with counter-intuitive conclusions, such as that many drug dealers live with their mothers because they just do not earn that much.
He also created a stir by suggesting that the elimination of unwanted pregnancies helps reduce the population of would-be criminals.
He compares his interest in “freakonomics” with the work of his father — a world-renowned medical expert in intestinal gas who is known in some quarters as the “King of Farts.”
His father was told he did not have much talent for medical research, but there was one area desperate for scientists — intestinal gas — and so he applied himself in that field and became a leading voice.
“When you’re not good enough to compete on an equal footing with other people, you’ve got to find that niche nobody else wants to take up. What I do [in economics] parallels my father’s career in gas,” Levitt said.