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

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.

15 Comments

  1. sarang says:

    I am not sure your defense of Krugman’s sense of humor is to the point. When X accuses Y of being humorless what X usually means is something like, “Y is apt to pounce on throwaway / careless / speculative remarks and worry at them obsessively.” (It means something like Y should lighten up, not that Y is incapable of making corny jokes.) I have very little sympathy for this sort of accusation of humorlessness; it seems the province of people who’ve been caught out being sloppy, as Levitt and his co-bloggers often have. I remember that during the Sokal affair various Science Studies defenders accused Sokal and analytic philosophers in general of lacking a sense of humor; obviously Bertrand Russell can be funny at times but this was not what they were talking about.

    • Andrew says:

      On a slightly related point, George Orwell was said to have a good sense of humor, and it comes through a bit in his novels, but in his essays he seems humorless to me. Krugman is maybe the opposite: he shows a sense of humor in his throwaway pieces but maybe not in his books.

      • Wayne says:

        From what I read of Krugman in his editorials and popular pieces, he’s intensely partisan and doesn’t hesitate to treat everyone who disagrees with him as either an idiot or miscreant. People who do that tend not to be able to step outside of themselves or their situation to laugh (particularly at themselves). And that ability to laugh at yourself or “your side” is the core of a sense of humor, not the ability or desire to tell a joke.

        Not saying he is or is not “humorless”, as I don’t know him and don’t follow him closely. Just saying the impression I get — and that he perhaps cultivates to pump his op-ed readership — and to mention that a sense of humor goes beyond jokes.

        • Andrew says:

          Wayne:

          Here’s the thing that Levitt wrote a couple years ago:

          I [Levitt] did not think that Paul Krugman was still writing academic papers. Nor have I seen any evidence in the last decade that he still has any sense of humor.

          Consequently, I was surprised to see an article written by him entitled “The Theory of Interstellar Trade,” published recently in the journal Economic Inquiry. Here is the abstract of the paper:

          This article extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer traveling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

          A quick look at the acknowledgments, however, clears things up. The original manuscript was written in July 1978, when Krugman was an active researcher and being a curmudgeon wasn’t part of his professional identity.

          So, yes, Levitt is criticizing Krugman for being a curmudgeon (i.e., not the sort of person who would emit happy talk about a 6.1% unemployment rate being no big deal) but he also is taking Krugman’s sci-fi-nerd joke article as evidence that Krugman used to have a sense of humor. Actually, though, Krugman continues to make nerd jokes.

          One could of course respond that I myself am being humorless by following this up . . . but, again, my only point in bringing in the Krugman story here was to explain why I’d assumed that Levitt had been a McCain supporter, hence my surprise at his claim that in 2008 he thought Obama would be the greatest president in history.

  2. Jacob H. says:

    “I’ll leave the merits of this argument aside, as I know nothing about it.”

    Oh come on, the evidence is pretty clear that TARP saved the banks and arrested a free-fall financial crisis. Levitt was just plain wrong, as was Mulligan. I know this is a “we like careful social science” blog, but there’s something a bit nihilistic about “I don’t believe any statements about the world unless I’ve read a minimum of fifteen peer-reviewed papers about it.”

  3. Chris says:

    6.1 percent unemployment isn’t alarming. It’s fantastic compared to the 8-10 percent band we’ve been stuck in over the past 4 years :(

    I expect that Levitt is liberal on social issues (see outrage among christians at his abortion paper!). Lots of U of C economists vote D due to non-economic issues. When their work day ends they are still in Hyde Park, and members of one of the most liberal communities in America.

  4. zbicyclist says:

    You also can’t ignore the U. of C. / Hyde Park connections; Obama taught at U. of C. and may have represented that district in the state senate. Per Wikipedia, “In 1996, she [Michelle] served as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, where she developed the University’s Community Service Center.[49] In 2002, she began working for the University of Chicago Hospitals, first as executive director for community affairs and, beginning May 2005, as Vice President for Community and External Affairs.[50] She continued to hold the University of Chicago Hospitals position during the primary campaign.

    It’s possible that the Obamas and Levitts might have known each other a bit. Levitt’s a smart, ambitious guy meeting another smart, ambitious guy with huge charisma and Daley connections and (as the first black president) a lot of historical significance. Not hard to see how he might be smitten.

    Now, if somebody could explain that Nobel Prize …

  5. krippendorf says:

    Of course, as a political scientist, you also know that many people also misremember, if not outright lie about, who they voted for.

    As for Levitt’s swipe at Krugman, Levitt has zero talent as a judge of humor. This is, after all, the man who (evidently) thought it would be funny to run one of his papers on the B-W test score gap through an English-“ghetto” translator and post the result on his blog.

  6. sglover says:

    Well, it’s probably safe to say that Obama is the greatest 21st Century president — so far. If that isn’t damning with faint praise….

  7. Phil says:

    I would not argue that Obama is “the greatest President in history”, at least so far, but…how would we know? I’m not trying to be argumentative or pedantic, I’m genuinely not sure how this judgment should be made. We can’t very well say “What would Lincoln or FDR or George Washington have done in the past 4 years.”

  8. Roy Mendelssohn says:

    As an aside, I can’t understand the attention that Casey Mulligan gets. Anyone who writes with a straight face that the unemployment during the Great Depression was due to people preferring leisure to work should be totally ignored. I am old enough that both my grandparents generation and my parents generation lived through the Great Depression. I talked to them a lot about that time, and it was anything but a preference for leisure. When economic or social analyses are so disconnected to the real world experience of people, something is terribly wrong.

    PS -And Mulligan wrote the article on how he couldn’t get by on $450K a year. Which puts him in what percentile of US income?

  9. JVM says:

    Economists’ political views are widely misunderstood. They do not in general correspond to republican or democratic viewpoints, but are generally somewhat closer to the Democratic viewpoint which is why economists tend to vote for democrats when forced to choose.

    I can address both claims:

    “the current unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is not alarming.” – that is not alarming. There were other indicators that were a lot more alarming at the time. I don’t know what else he was saying but this sentence is surely true enough.

    “Krugman has no sense of humor” – I’d say economists in general can’t stand Krugman these days. I sure can’t, and I’m a Democrat. He’s constantly saying extremely misleading things for purely political reasons. For a great example of why, see here: http://www.themoneyillusion.com/?p=17916

    As a more broad point, it sounds like Levitt probably intends to signal that he values accuracy above scoring political points.

  10. Wonks Anonymous says:

    Before presidential elections Mulligan tends to post that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, both parties tend to do the same things in office. It’s also the case the Obama was elected twice, and was predicted to do so by the polls, so one could imagine Mulligan writing that it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t expect his favored candidate to win.