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Steven D. Levitt

Co-author of #1 Bestseller Freakonomics; Economics Professor at the University of Chicago

Named one of Time magazine's "100 People Who Shape Our World," Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, is generally assumed to be a harmless, quirky pop economist for trivia nerds. However, Levitt has a history of attacking teachers' unions, advocating for the privatization of prison labor, defending online gambling and occasionally crossing over the fringe-right line by promoting climate change denialism and, some have argued, racial eugenics. A dyed-in-the-wool Milton Friedman neoliberal from the same “Chicago Boys” network that brought you the "shock doctrine," Levitt’s idea of economics Utopia is a world in which "the market" solves all our problems and government is restricted to protecting property rights.

The recovered history of Steven D. Levitt

  • While a PhD student at MIT, Levitt published a counter-intuitive masterpiece whitewashing corruption in politics by "proving" that corporate campaign donations do not influence election outcomes. Levitt argued that “campaign money has about one-tenth the impact as was commonly accepted,” according to a 2003 New York Times Magazine profile—a stance that helped land him a tenured job at the University of Chicago.
  • At the University of Chicago, Levitt's mentor was Gary Becker, another of the “Chicago Boys” who supported Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Gary Becker developed the theory of “human capital” which treats human labor as just another resource to extract profit from. Levitt's mentor also proposed the creation of a deregulated human-organ commodities exchange, arguing that it would actually help the poor. Levitt said of Becker, "More than any other economist, he has been my inspiration and role model."
  • In 1999, Levitt co-authored a paper arguing that an increase in abortion rates for black women in the 1970s was the reason for falling crime rates two decades later. "Basically, we had aborted the generation of criminals who would have been active in the 1990s," he told Esquire magazine. His research led to accusations of racial eugenics, according to the New York Times. The study has been debunked and exposed in numerous academic studies over the years—one study by Federal Reserve economists proved Levitt used badly flawed data, forcing Levitt to apologize for the "embarrassing" errors. Nevertheless, Levitt stuck to his original conclusion linking race and crime: fewer African-American children correlates to a drop in crime.
  • In 1999, Levitt presented a paper for privatizing prison labor at a symposium hosted by a private prison consulting firm, arguing: “I would privatize prison industry. As long as the government is in charge of prison industries, it will be difficult if not impossible to avoid decisions being made with political rather than economic justifications.” Thirteen years later, Levitt’s privatized-prison-labor dream is a reality: Some 1 million state inmates are slaving away for wages averaging between $0.93  and $4.73 a day. African-Americans make up over 40% of the U.S. prison population.
  • In 1995, Levitt published a paper which "proved" that packing prisoners into increasingly-overcrowded prison cells translates into a net $15,000 positive effect on society per overcrowded cell inmate.
  • Levitt has played a role in busting teachers' unions by devising a method that claims to catch teachers cheating on standardized test results. Levitt took personal credit for firing at least a dozen teachers he claims to have “caught,” gloating in his book Freakonomics that, as a result of his method, “Chicago Public School system began to fire its cheating teachers. The evidence was only strong enough to get rid of a dozen of them, but the many other cheaters had been duly warned.”
  • Levitt is a paid corporate speaker regularly hired by investment banks, financial services companies, venture capital firms as well as various anti-labor "human resource" outfits. One corporate union-busting association, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), gushed over Levitt's performance: "We received numerous compliments about your remarks from our attendees, well over 500 participants . . . We applaud the valuable work that you are doing." Recently, SHRM opposed legislation that would have made it easier for workers to join union and lobbied to defeat a law that would have protected women against gender-based wage discrimination.
  • Levitt's second book, Superfreakonomics, contained a section that "debunked" climate-change science, asserting that CO2 does not cause global warming. One of the scientists cited and used to back up Levitt's climate-change denialism, Jeffrey Severinghaus, accused Levitt of "flat-out misrepresentation" of his work, telling the Boston Globe“Asserting that CO2 doesn’t cause warming at this point is tantamount to saying cigarette smoking doesn’t cause cancer. It’s just laughable.” Levitt responded with a bizarre non-retraction: "The sentence may be poorly written, but I do not think it is factually inaccurate.”
  • In 2011, Levitt published a paper proving that poker is a game of "skill" and not "luck," and used the Freakonomics website to advocate for legalized online gambling. The Chicago Tribune noted that Levitt's support for the industry coincided with a federal crackdown on online gambling companies for fraud and money laundering, noting that Levitt's "research could not be more timely." Levitt did not disclose his financial relationship with the online gambling industry, which included working to develop a set of tools to catch cheaters for an online poker company in 2007.
  • Levitt came out in support of the hugely unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), RIAA-backed legislation that would have given U.S. law enforcement unprecedented power to shut down and censor websites without due process. The reason Levitt supported SOPA? Because he believes one of the few things that government should do is "protect property rights."

Updated on December 13, 2012

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