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S.H.A.M.E. / June 8, 2012

Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist, gained nationwide fame and prestige after co-authoring Freakonomics, a pop economics book based partly on Levitt’s original economic research. Published in 2005, Freakonomics became an instant #1 bestseller and spawned an entire Freakonomics media franchise that included a branded Freakonomics blog (hosted on the New York Times website until 2011), a regular segment on the National Public Radio program Marketplace, a Freakonomics movie and, alas, a Freakonomics business consulting company (now called the Greatest Good).

In 2006, Time magazine solidified Levitt’s “thought leader” status by naming him one of “100 People Who Shape Our World.”* But despite Levitt’s high profile, very little has been written about his academic and ideological background. Generally Levitt is assumed to be a harmless, quirky pop economist for trivia nerds. But is that really the case?

As Steven Levitt’s S.H.A.M.E. Profile demonstrates, Levitt is a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago School neoliberal who believes in the sanctity of “the market” and a small government whose function is restricted mostly to protecting property rights. He has used “objective” economic research and mainstream credibility as cover, while attacking teachers’ unions, advocating for the privatization of prison labor, spreading crude climate denialism and promoting rank “free market” ideology that sees human labor as a resource to be extracted for maximum profit. Levitt has also developed a nasty habit of misrepresenting the research of other scientists in order to reach predefined ideological conclusions, and has failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest.

But perhaps the most disturbing thing about Levitt is his enduring interest in researching and “proving” the effectiveness of authoritarian and, some would say, borderline eugenicist policies. Aside from doing studies on the positive effects that incarceration has on society (we benefit to the tune of $15,000 per inmate per year if inmates are packed into overcrowded conditions), he published a paper that argued that an increase in abortion rates among black women in the 1970s was the main reason for a drop in crime in the 1990s. The methodology and data of his research were discredited by other economists, but Levitt stuck to his original conclusion linking race and crime: fewer African-American children correlates to less crime. Levitt’s explanation wasn’t just wrong, it was extremely sinister, reinforcing a racist stereotype of the worst kind with a seemingly modern “scientific” explanation.

Eugenics theory: alive and well in Freakonomics, the movie.

There’s one aspect of Steven Levitt’s career the profile did not have the space to delve into too deeply: Levitt’s ties to Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Education Secretary and the former head of Chicago’s public schools system.

In Freakonomics, Levitt presents Duncan as a do-gooder and a reformer whose “allegiance was with the children, not with the teachers and their unions.” One thing was true: Duncan did not like unions.

A notorious anti-union activist and crusader for school privatization, Duncan has been credited with doing more than anyone else to help bring the privatized neoliberal nightmare to Chicago’s impoverished and mostly nonwhite public schools. “Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools and fired entire school staffs,” according to a great 2008 TruthOut report.

And Steven Levitt was right there along with Duncan. Working hand in hand with Duncan, Levitt devised a statistical method that allowed Duncan to catch and fire unionized public school teachers who supposedly cheated on standardized tests. Firing and terrorizing public school teachers—this was clearly a point of pride for Levitt. He took personal credit for sacking at least a dozen teachers, 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.”

You hear that cheatin’ teachers? There’s a new neoliberal sheriff in town and his name is Steven Levitt!

Retired public school teachers protest against Duncan in Cupertino, California

Levitt was extremely impressed with Arne Duncan’s assault on Chicago’s public education—so much so that he published a post on his New York Times Freakonomics blog titled  “Nobody Better Than Arne Duncan” when he heard Obama was tapping Duncan for secretary of education in 2008: “I’ve interacted with Arne a few times, and in a variety of settings. I always walk away dazzled. He is smart as hell and his commitment to the kids is remarkable. If you wanted to start from scratch and build a public servant, Arne would be the end product.”



*The Time magazine entry that announced Steven Levitt’s induction into the “Thought Leader Hall of Fame” was written by none other than Malcolm Gladwell.

Read Gladwell’s S.H.A.M.E. Report


Yasha Levine, President of S.H.A.M.E., is an investigative journalist and a founding editor of The eXiled. His work has been published by Wired, The Nation, Slate, The New York Observer and many others. He has made several guest appearances on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan Show.

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  • 1. DtD  |  June 17th, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Aw, yall had to drop the hammer on Punjab? He’s not so bad. A lot of his comments are heartfelt and generally accurate.

    Then again, to even be noticed, nay, to be TOUCHED by the divine AEC, is a privilege that some of us can only dream about. Keep your chin up, Punjabi, for you have made a sufficient splash in the pacific ocean of the Exile to attract the godling’s attention. You must be saying something of substance that is interesting and/or retarded.


  • 2. Jacob  |  June 18th, 2012 at 10:43 am

    The vilification of Milton Friedman is justified. Read his signature book “Capitalism and Freedom” that was written in the 60s, and then compare it to ANY freshman economics textbook that’s use at ANY community college or university in the United States. There is no difference. What does that say? Yes, we have been taken over by the Friedman-pods. Milton Friedman might have rubbed the wrong way the quasi-communist and quasi-marxist lefties of the American liberal arts academia and earned their hatred forever—which is totally justified. Even his own mother hated him. Dumped him in a trash bin right after she pulled the little monster out of herself. However, you can call Friedman a mainstream economist by today’s standards. And that’s scary. Not left, not right, simply standard mainstream economist. Double scary.

    As for being anti-labor, you definitely not joking. There is a strong agreement among today’s economists that organized labor, the way it exists today, is a necessary thing. You don’t have to be economist to see that. You have already witnessed the near bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler, which was as a result of CEO/executive plunder of the company, requiring the government to bail them and UAW out. You can also see the derelict school system with the lowest test scores among developed countries, which is a result of the defunding of education, and the local and state governments that are being bankrupted by Wall Street bloodsuckers through debt and bonds. Organized labor is a MONOPOLY FOR THE PEOPLE. I agree that we should hate the monopoly if it’s a private business, but not the monopoly power of unions.


  • 3. LuisManaceFrance  |  June 18th, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    #52: I can tell you from personal experience,in most economics departments Keynesianism is taken seriously only in a very watered down version(basically what pass for “keynesianism” is the neo-classical synthesis,far more Samuelson and Hicks than Keynes) and Milton Friedman is still a sort of demigod,”The Father of Us all” like one of my professor said.

    Most modern economics is primarily ideology dressed in the garb of science.

  • 4. Jacob  |  June 18th, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    It seems like someone improved and un-reversed the meaning of every sense in my post #52. Man, I don’t know what to say. [AEC KNOWS WHAT YOU CAN SAY. HOW ABOUT A BIG FUCKING THANK YOU, FOLLOWED BY A FAT JUICY DONATION.] After having been a web bagwhore for 13 years, I have never seen my comment improved–man it changed my life!–and you guys didn’t even get hacked, right?! Awesome, dudes! Thank you thank you thank you. If it is confirmed that the AEC, who lords over this holy web site and dispenses righteousness, is behind editing of the comments, I must say that this web site must have just hit an all time high for me, and I was reading since around 2001! So you know that high is REALLY high! It was great, but it seems like all good things must come to an even gooder greatness, and its time for us to move on and make that donation!

  • 5. Jesse  |  June 19th, 2012 at 5:42 am

    He’s just another cheerleader for greed.

    Every society vitally depends on many individual volunteer acts of solidarity. But there are always shirkers. Sometimes acting or refusing to act in private, hidden ways. But they also can become bold and shout their justifications for refusing volunteer service. They like to feel righteous in their shirking and they gain strength and comfort from banding together. But their success is ultimately their undoing. When fewer and fewer people volunteer for the common good, the social atmosphere becomes less and less pleasant. In the end, each man walls himself up behind individual security and life becomes social hell.

  • 6. darthfader  |  June 19th, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    You can tell a class-obsessed “liberal” pseudo-intellectual apart from a respectable human by listening for his distinctive call: “Freak-freak-freakonomics! Planetmoney! Planetmoney!”

  • 7. slaptboggwithrottedcheese  |  June 20th, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Why are you complaining about this guy? You Obot fucks should love this guy.

  • 8. Kevin  |  June 23rd, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Levitt has never advocated for eugenics policy. I know you guys want to believe this stuff, but there’s no substance behind it.

    In his paper, Donohue and Levitt write:
    While falling crime rates are no doubt a positive development, our drawing a link between falling crime and legalized abortion should not be misinterpreted as either an endorsement of abortion or a call for intervention by the state in the fertility decisions of women. Furthermore, equivalent reductions in crime could in principle be obtained through alternatives for abortion, such as more effective birth control, or providing better environments for those children at greatest risk for future crime.

    True, in their paper, Donohue and Levitt also write:
    “Fertility declines [due to legalized abortion] for black women are three times greater than for whites (12 percent compared with 4 percent). Given that homicide rates of black youths are roughly nine times higher than those of white youths, racial differences in the fertility effects of abortion are likely to translate into greater homicide reductions. Under the assumption that those black and white births eliminated by legalized abortion would have experienced the average criminal propensities of their respective races, then the predicted reduction in homicide is 8.9 percent.”

    But just because they write that aborting more black babies means less crime, doesn’t mean that they’re saying aborting more black babies means less crime. Ergo, there is no reason for the New York Times and others to write about accusations of eugenics. Yep, that makes sense all right!

  • 9. Epsilon  |  July 8th, 2012 at 11:05 am

    In order:

    The Chicago School of Economics is the official religion on Wall Street (and the US’s congress). The word of Saint Friedman is law. Nobody that criticizes it gets too far in there.

    Which is why the Keynesians vs. Austrians debate is so pathetically irrelevant.

    Anybody that says “private prisions are good” is a fucker. Period.

    Ultra-creepy pro-eugenics arguments like “overpopulation” and “the childrens of poor people” are a good way to detect people that you don’t want in a political movement….or anywere close to you.

    The swift crushing of anything resembling an actual Labor Union is what makes the American mainstream “Left” a funny parody, that wastes it’s time with stuff as relevant as angels dancing in the head of a pin.

    While Galtic Warrior is a very obvious troll, I believe that Liberal Arts are scams ran by monsters that would rather let a pedophile run amok than doing anything to endanger their gross amount of advertising money due to the above.

  • 10. Bob  |  March 13th, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I’d love to have my faith in Levitt restored somehow. I’m going to pretend that I didn’t read this, it pains me.

  • 11. TooFunny  |  May 6th, 2015 at 11:29 am

    I stumbled upon this site purely by accident. So many of these comments are so hilariously misinformed that I thought that the comments might be satire at first. Thanks for the entertainment everyone and continue to run away from everything that doesn’t confirm you existing beliefs!

  • 12. Danny Boy  |  October 20th, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    It’s hilarious that my liberal friends chided me for liking a right-wing rag like the exile.

    I vaguely remember reading this article when it came out and forming a bad opinion of Levitt. Now I come back here to be reminded of why and I realize all the objections here are ideological. And very left-wing ideological.

    There is some vague accusation that he does bad statistics. That’s substantiated by nothing. The rest is a screed coming from Levine’s super brilliant sensibilities.

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