Did Steven Levitt really believe in 2008 that Obama “would be the greatest president in history”?

by Andrew Gelman on January 3, 2013 · 20 comments

in Media

In the interview we discussed a couple months ago, Steven Levitt said:

I [Levitt] voted for Obama [in 2008] because I wanted to tell my grandchildren that I voted for Obama. And I thought that he would be the greatest president in history.

This surprised me. I’d assumed Levitt was a McCain supporter! Why? Because in October, 2008, he wrote that he “loved” the claim by conservative University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan that “the current unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is not alarming.” I’d read that at the time, perhaps incorrectly, as Mulligan making an election-season pitch that the economy was doing just fine (Mulligan: “if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 percent of you are not), don’t worry”) hence implicitly an argument for a Republican vote in that year (given the usual rules of retrospective voting that the incumbent party gets punished by a poor economy). And I correspondingly (and, it seems, incorrectly) read Levitt’s endorsement of Mulligan’s statement as a small attempt to derail the “the economy is crashing” narrative which was dooming the McCain candidacy.

The other reason I thought of Levitt as politically conservative is his snarky claim that he had not seen “any evidence in the last decade that [Paul Krugman] still has any sense of humor.” Krugman is always making corny jokes, it’s obvious he has a sense of humor. I figured that anyone as anti-Krugman as Levitt must have a political angle.

But back to politics and Levitt’s retrospective Obama endorsement. What do I think now, given Levitt’s statement that he thought Obama would be the best president ever? What was he doing endorsing a the-economy-is-just-fine claim the month before the 2008 election and then slamming Krugman a couple years later?

I think it’s a combination of factors. First, I’m guessing that Levitt was reading Mulligan’s op-ed back in 2008 not as a part of the McCain campaign but rather as an anti-TARP argument. In loving Mulligan’s article and saying “things are just not that bad,” Levitt was, perhaps, loving Mulligan’s argument that the government should not step in and interfere with the financial markets. I’ll leave the merits of this argument aside, as I know nothing about it; my point is that, as a political scientist and election-watcher, I interpreted Mulligan and Levitt as attempting to defend the George W. Bush economic legacy, whereas perhaps they were just making a generic endorsement of free markets. In neither case do you have to take either Mulligan or Levitt at their word and think they really believed as of October, 2008, that “things are just not that bad”; rather, they just saw financial regulation as a greater evil and hence thought it politic to downplay the financial and economic crash that was happening. My guess is they were saying something they didn’t fully believe, but in service of an economic-policy goal, not a partisan-political goal.

This is all consistent with Levitt’s statement that he thought Obama “would be the greatest president in history.” Os of October, 2008, it was possible to view Obama as an economic conservative of the Chicago-school variety. Sure, he’d made some populist noises during the campaign, but his campaign was funded by a lot of rich financial types. In fact, around that time I myself spoke for money to a roomful of rich people in Chicago (yes, these are the things that rogue statisticians such as myself do from time to time) and I recall they were cautiously optimistic that the future President Obama would follow business-friendly policies that they could live with.

“Greatest president in history” still seems a bit strong, but hey, that’s how people talk sometimes. Just a few weeks ago, the New Yorker characterized Obama as being, before he was president, an “uncommonly talented” senator. Whatever. I guess it’s not enough to just say you wanted to vote for the guy, he has to be “uncommonly talented” as well.

And what about Levitt’s silly slam on Krugman? My guess is that Levitt doesn’t read Krugman, he just has friends at U. Chicago who hate the Krugmeiser. Hanging out in an environment in which Krugman is treated as a big joke, Levitt just wrote his blog without really thinking about it. Hey, everybody knows Krugman is strident, right? So if you don’t read the guy’s writings, it would be natural to just assume he has no sense of humor.

That said, I have to admit to some skepticism about Levitt’s claim that in 2008 he thought Obama “would be the greatest president in history.” My guess is that Levitt thought Obama would do a good job, now he’s disappointed in Obama and he’s retrospectively scaling up his disappointment by raising his evaluation in 2008. But I could be wrong, that’s just my guess based on the evidence I have.

Why care?

This question has arisen before when I’ve written about Levitt. I have two answers. First, to much of the world, the Freakonomics franchise represents economics and, more generally, quantitative social science. So it’s always worth understanding how they’re thinking. Second, on a more personal level, Levitt’s career tracks closely with mine. We both have establishment Harvard-MIT credentials, we’re both tenured professors who are solidly in the mainstream of our fields yet have somewhat rebellious or “rogue” attitudes, we both like to publish on fun topics and enjoy media attention (obviously Levitt’s had a bit more success along those lines than I have, but not for lack of trying on my part!). So when Levitt does something particularly mysterious from my perspective, I end up spending some time trying to puzzle it out. One difference between us is that Levitt is much more fascinated by business than I am, while I care a lot more about politics (no surprise that he became an economist and I’m a political scientist). To Levitt, saying that someone would be “the greatest president in history” is just an offhand remark that doesn’t mean the same thing that it would mean to a political scientist.

P.S. Commenter zbicyclist offers a plausible explanation here.

{ 20 comments }

WhateverBro January 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm

There is an easier explanation for the anti krugman snark.
Krugy had slammed the sequel to freakanomics for its anti global warming touch.
Take the personal disdain people in Chicago econ have for Krugy, combine it with a personal turf battle and you get the snark.

Steve January 3, 2013 at 12:38 pm

I think that last sentence is missing a link.

zbicyclist January 3, 2013 at 12:53 pm

I think Michael Berube summed up this rhetorical device as “I used to be a Democrat, but ever since 9/11 I’ve been outraged by Chappaquiddick.” Levitt, in this cynical view, is a Republican supporter like Mulligan, but doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as one — so he presents himself as having had contrary opinions at other times.

Vance Maverick January 3, 2013 at 12:55 pm

(I confess that was me, attempting to compound the confusion in Andrew’s reference to a commenter)

Alan T. January 3, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Levitt once said (at eight minutes into this moving video) “Chicago economists are the most heartless, unloving people who ever existed.” Whether or not this is true, Levitt probably didn’t mean it seriously. So perhaps some of the other things he says shouldn’t be taken literally.

Perhaps Levitt has read some of Krugman’s op-ed columns but not his blog. I read Krugman’s blog every day, and I generally ignore his columns, because the blog is full of humor and the columns aren’t.

RobC January 3, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Wait a minute, you don’t think Obama was an uncommonly talented senator and could be the greatest president in history? Drink the Kool-Aid already. It’s conveniently located in the silver punchbowl at the Columbia Faculty Club.

Andrew Gelman January 3, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Rob:

1. I could see someone thinking, in 2008, that Obama might become the greatest president in history. The nation was in economic crisis and there was a hope held by many that Obama would transcend partisanship. In retrospect this hope was not realistic (it included a mix of conservatives who believed that Obama was fundamentally conservative and would move the country to a comfortable position on the center right, and liberals who believed the reverse), but I can see how someone could believe it. What I was surprised by was Levitt’s claim of believing it, because I’d (wrongly) assumed he was a McCain supporter in 2008.

2. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone, at Columbia or elsewhere, argue that Obama was an uncommonly talented senator (except for the political talent required to get elected president so quickly; that indeed involves talent but I don’t think that’s what the New Yorker writer was talking about). That’s what struck me about that throwaway comment in the New Yorker: yes, someone wrote it but I don’t think the author of the statement reflected upon it before (or after) writing it.

Vance Maverick January 3, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Many (like me) will say that he’s uncommonly talented at a variety of things, and was a good senator. But he wasn’t there long enough to excel as a senator.

Andrew Gelman January 3, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Hey, Vance. Is that you? Hi!

P.S. Regarding your comment: yes, I think the New Yorker writer was writing on autopilot. “Uncommonly talented” senator sounds like a good thing, right?

Vance Maverick January 4, 2013 at 12:37 am

Hi Andrew, it’s me indeed, commenting into the void. There’s an affinity in this phrase between the participial phrase and the noun, which wouldn’t arise with, say, “left-handed senator”. (There’s no claim that he was a senator in a particularly left-handed way….)

JPL January 5, 2013 at 5:53 am

“…an uncommonly talented senator…”
This phrase is ambiguous: 1) parallel to, e.g., “an uncommonly handsome senator”, and 2) “an uncommonly efffective senator”. In the first sense he could be talented as a politician, not necessarily as a senator; in the second he would be talented AS a senator. Context would disambiguate, but I don’t have the original full sentence. (E.g., an appositive “I met Barack Obama, an uncommonkly talented senator…” vs. attributive predication “He had proven himself to be an uncommonly talented senator…”.

Dan Nexon January 3, 2013 at 4:58 pm

The fact that Levitt would even *claim* to have once thought that is disturbing. And I’m a Democrat who happily voted twice for Obama.

Nadia Hassan January 3, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Leavitt was a big fan of Obama’s Audacity of Hope, and that might be key to what he thought in 2008

alex January 5, 2013 at 2:22 am

Here is a really, really radical theory.

Perhaps the reason Levitt “loved” that particular claim about the unemployment rate is because…he found the evidence for it convincing.

Perhaps Levitt doesn’t choose his beliefs on the basis of who they score points for in the partisan debate, but based on how he evaluates the evidence for and against them.

Andrew Gelman January 5, 2013 at 8:36 am

Alex:

I’m guessing that Levitt endorsed that claim not because he found the evidence for it convincing, but because Mulligan is a friend and colleague of his. Also perhaps because Levitt perceived Mulligan’s column as ant-TARP rather than a defense of the economy under president Bush’s tenure.

I’d guess that Levitt’s view on Krugman’s humorlessness is not based on actually reading Krugman but rather is an echoing of the attitudes of his friends who find Krugman annoying.

And perhaps, as suggested by commenter Nadia above, Levitt’s view that Obama would be the greatest president in history came from his reading of Obama’s autobiography.

Positing that Levitt’s beliefs are based on his evaluation of the evidence is like positing sincere voting–it’s fine, but it just pushes the problem back one step, in this case reconciling the 2008 Levitt’s evidence-based attitudes on the economy and Krugman with his evidence-based belief of Obama’s future greatness.

alex January 6, 2013 at 5:53 am

I fail to see what needs to be “reconciled.” There is no logical contradiction between the statements

1. Obama will be the greatest president in history.
2. Paul Krugman has no sense of humor.
3. An unemployment rate of 6.1% is not alarming.

If you wish to explain to me how a belief that Obama will be a great president logically necessitates the belief that Krugman is funny, I’m all ears.

Andrew Gelman January 6, 2013 at 11:02 am

Alex:

Indeed, there’s no logical contradiction, nor did I claim otherwise. I was speaking probabilistically. To believe each of items 1, 2, and 3 is unlikely (regarding item 3, you can click through the links; Mulligan was not merely making a claim about the unemployment rate, he was stating that (in Levitt’s words), “things are just not that bad” in the economy, a belief that very few people outside the McCain campaign seemed to hold in October, 2008. Levitt endorsed Mulligan’s claim that “The current unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 percent.” But not too many people at that time thought the unemployment rate was headed to 5.9 percent or anything like it. In fact, just a few months later the incoming Obama economic team was (rightfully) mocked for an optimistic prediction that the unemployment rate might peak at only 8%.).

Not only are each of statements 1, 2, and 3 hard to believe on their own, I wouldn’t expect opinions on all of them to be positively correlated. In particular, I’d expect that belief in 2 or 3 would be negatively correlated with belief in 1 (at least among the segment of the population that has views on 2 and 3).

Given my earlier thoughts and what I’ve seen in the comments, I do have a plausible explanation in Levitt’s case:

1. Levitt was a big fan of Obama’s book and may even have been a personal acquaintance of Barack and Michelle Obama.

2. Levitt hadn’t read much of Krugman and was relying on overheard remarks on Krugman by his (Levitt’s) more conservative colleagues.

3. Levitt doesn’t have strong opinions on the macroeconomy and was willing to trust something written by his partisan colleague (and, I assume, friend) Casey Mulligan.

So, yes, it all makes sense. But it wasn’t easy. Lots of pieces had to be put together. If Levitt disbelieved 1, 2, and 3, that would require no particular explanation at all, as believing in any of those statements is a bit of a stretch. The low-probability event of him believing all three, that needed an explanation.

alex January 6, 2013 at 6:37 pm

To summarize: Levitt holds some beliefs which are typically held by conservatives and some which are typically held by liberals. This baffles the hell out of you. You react by “speaking probabilistically,” coming up with a “model” which “explains” it with a slew of unverified hypotheses about Levitt’s personal acquaintances and his trust in them.

Two reactions on my part:

1. The use of scientific jargon is completely nonsensical in this context. There is no need to look for explanations of why one person out of the roughly 300 million that live in the United States forms opinions which are statistically unusual.

2. This post reveals far more about you than it does about Levitt. The fact that you find it incomprehensible to see a man forming opinions seemingly without caring about the points they score in the partisan debate tells me a lot about the process *you* use to form opinions.

Andrew Gelman January 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Alex:

You write, “Levitt holds some beliefs which are typically held by conservatives and some which are typically held by liberals.” That may be true of some of his opinions but not, I think, items 1 and 3 above. (1) I don’t think that liberals typically thought that Obama would be the greatest president in history. Voting for a guy doesn’t mean you think he’s that awesome. (3) And, no, I don’t think that conservatives typically thought in October 2008 that the economy was doing just fine. Thinking that the Democrats would mess things up further is not the same as thinking things were OK at that time.

My point is not that Levitt is neither a pure liberal nor a pure conservative. In fact, as Delia and I wrote in our article in the American Journal of Sociology, the vast majority of Americans hold mixed political views. What surprised me was that Levitt held these two strong and unlikely views (also the odd bit about Krugman). I agree of course that in a country of 300 million we’ll see people with just about every combination of views. But I was particularly talking about Levitt, not merely about the existence of some people. As I noted above, Levitt’s opinions are not logically incompatible, they’re just an odd and surprising combination.

Also, you can put “speaking probabilistically” in quotes all you want; it happens to be how I think. I’m a statistician, I think probabilistically rather than expecting people’s beliefs to follow a logical relation.

As to your point #2, I agree that this post tells you more about me than about Levitt, no surprise given that I wrote it! But your last sentence happens to be wrong.

In any case, it’s good to have such a careful reader of the blog!

alex January 9, 2013 at 1:43 am

I was indeed imprecise to say “typically held by conservatives” and “typically held by liberals.” If I can get the last word here , and sorry about the overgeneralization – I think that holding views that are odd (in the sense of being statistically unlikely among the general population) is not uncommon among people who think for themselves.

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