Author and economist Steven D. Levitt began his talk with a self-deprecating joke, a tone he carried throughout the Opening General Session of the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago on June 28.
ALA President Maureen Sullivan introduced the bestselling coauthor of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by quoting how the Wall Street Journal once described him: “If Indiana Jones were an economist, he’d be Steven Levitt.” Upon taking the stage, Levitt said that he was on cloud nine for about two weeks after that article appeared—until he heard his wife say at a dinner party, “Indiana Jones? I think Jim Jones would be a more apt comparison,” referring to the Jonestown cult leader.
For the next 42 minutes, Levitt entertained hundreds of attendees with jokes and anecdotal stories about his research and his path to economics.
He told the story, for instance, of John Szilagyi, an IRS employee who had been with the agency for some 30 years. In the early 1980s, Szilagyi came up with the idea of requiring taxpayers to indicate Social Security numbers for dependents they claim on tax forms. Before that, some taxpayers were listing fictitious children—even their pets—as dependents for the sake of an exemption. The simple change led to $20 billion in extra revenue, according to Levitt.
If you want to succeed in a profession for which you have no talent, the only hope you have is to take on topics that no self-respecting member of that profession will go anywhere near.
“Now that is brilliance to me. That is genius—to be able to see things other people can’t see,” he said. “That is, in some sense, the heart of what makes this country great: the ability to innovate like that.”
As a teenager, Levitt’s idol was Alan Greenspan. “I wanted to be the kind of economist who, when I made a terrible mistake in judgment, markets got thrown into convulsion and the world got turned upside down,” he quipped.
As it turned out, Levitt—an economics professor at the University of Chicago who in 2006 was named one of Time magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World”—has never been good at math. And yet, he said, “for reasons unknown to me,” Levitt was admitted to the MIT economics graduate program. He considered dropping out until his father offered a piece of advice that influenced his career: “If you want to succeed in a profession for which you have no talent, the only hope you have is to take on a set of topics that are so embarrassing and degrading that no self-respecting member of that profession will go anywhere near it.” (His father, a gastroenterologist known for his research on intestinal gas, was labeled in a profile by GQ magazine as “the king of farts.”)
Levitt went on to talk about his work on climate change and his research of Chicago prostitutes (one of whom he later invited to guest-lecture an undergrad class). He concluded as he began—with a joke: “I don’t know if anything I said is going to help you at all with your job, but I guarantee you this: If you have friends in the prostitution industry, you send them my way, and I guarantee you a big impact on their bottom line.”
Before Levitt’s presentation, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed conference attendees to the city, joking that he had come to McCormick Place because he wanted to see people who were not dressed in red—a reference to the sea of celebrants who had worn Chicago Blackhawks red that morning to attend an outdoor party in honor of the team’s winning the Stanley Cup.