Steven Levitt


American Economist, Author of Freakonomics

Author Quotes

Many of our findings may not be very useful, even they may be inconclusive. But that's okay. We try to start a conversation, not having the last word. And that means that in the following pages can be found a few things I disagree. In fact, we found them not disappoint.

Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents how it actually does work.

Most of us want to fix or change the world in some fashion. But to change the world, you first have to understand it.

No CEO in the world, therefore, is so delusional as to expect his employees to show up every day and work hard for no money. But there is one gigantic workforce asked to do exactly that. In the United States alone, they number nearly 60 million. Who is this massive, underpaid throng? Schoolchildren.

Once people are asked to donate, the social pressure is so great that they get bullied into giving, even though they wish they?d never been asked in the first place. Mullaney knew that number 3 was important to Smile Train?s success. That?s why their millions of mailings included a photograph of a disfigured child in need of cleft surgery. While no fund-raiser in his right mind would ever publicly admit to manipulating donors with social pressure, everyone knew how strong this incentive was. But what if, Mullaney thought, instead of downplaying the pressure, Smile Train were to highlight it? That is, what if Smile Train offered potential donors a way to alleviate the social pressure and give money at the same time? That?s how a strategy known as once-and-done was born. Here?s what Smile Train would tell potential donors: Make one gift now and we?ll never ask for another donation again.

One thing we?ve learned is that when people, especially politicians, start making decisions based on a reading of their moral compass, facts tend to be among the first casualties.

For every clever person who goes to the trouble of creating an incentive scheme, there is an army of people, clever and otherwise, who will inevitably spend even more time trying to beat it.

Ideas nearly always seem brilliant when they?re hatched, so we never act on a new idea for at least twenty-four hours.

It is well and good to opine or theorize about a subject, as humankind is wont to do, but when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight.

For every intelligent person who bothers to create an incentive scheme, there is an army of intelligent or not people will inevitably spend even more time trying to outwit them.

If life on death row is safer than life on the streets, it's hard to believe that the fear of execution is a driving force in a criminal's calculus.

It seems that part of the human condition to believe in our ability to predict ... and quickly forget how bad our predictions proved.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg understood this. In medicine, or in science, [if] you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don?t have to go down that path again, he said. In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government.

If morality represents how people would like the world to work, then economics shows how it actually does work.

It turns out, petty crime?s a terrible way to make a living.

From 2002 to 2008, the United States was fighting bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; among active military personnel, there were an average 1,643 fatalities per year. But over the same stretch of time in the early 1980s, with the United States fighting no major wars, there were more than 2,100 military deaths per year. How can this possibly be? For one, the military used to be much larger: 2.1 million on active duty in 1988 versus 1.4 million in 2008. But even the rate of death in 2008 was lower than in certain peacetime years. Some of this improvement is likely due to better medical care. But a surprising fact is that the accidental death rate for soldiers in the early 1980s was higher than the death rate by hostile fire for every year the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems that practicing to fight a war can be just about as dangerous as really fighting one. And,

If the consequences of pretending to know can be so damaging, why do people keep doing it? That?s easy: in most cases, the cost of saying I don?t know is higher than the cost of being wrong?at least for the individual.

It was announced that any parent arriving more than ten minutes late would pay $3 per child for each incident. The fee would be added to the parents? monthly bill, which was roughly $380. After the fine was enacted, the number of late pickups promptly went?up.

Go out and collect data and, instead of having the answer, just look at the data and see if the data tells you anything. When we're allowed to do this with companies, it's almost magical.

If you add, for example, all men and women on the planet, check that, on average, the average adult human has one breast and one testicle.

It was Klan custom, for instance, to append a Kl to many words. (Thus would two Klansmen hold a Klonversation in the local Klavern.)

Good social media is authentic. What makes social media work is actually having something to say.

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.

Just because you?re great at something doesn?t mean you?re good at everything. Unfortunately, this fact is routinely ignored by those who engage in?take a deep breath?ultracrepidarianism, or the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one?s knowledge or competence.

Have fun, think small, don?t fear the obvious?these

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American Economist, Author of Freakonomics