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

- January 3, 2013

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.