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The End of Freakonomics?

- November 25, 2008

One popular vein of economic — indeed, academic — research is “Freakonomics.” What this term means is subject to debate, but I’ll loosely summarize it as “economists using interesting data to investigate phenomena outside of economics.” Or at least outside of its traditional boundaries. Examples from Steven Levitt’s work include teachers who help students cheat on standardized tests, the effect of child safety seats, and, perhaps most famously, the effect of abortion on crime rates. Examples from other scholars include studies on racial bias in NBA refereeing and the impact of television on scholastic aptitude.

I’m not a Freakonomics basher. (For some of that, see the link in Lee’s previous post.) But I’m struck by how quickly the agenda in economics has appeared to change with the onset of the financial crisis, the relatively severe recession that seems imminent, and debates about how the government should response (bailouts, a stimulus, etc.). I see evidence of the changing agenda in a blog like Marginal Revolution, for example (from the past three days alone: here, here, here, and here).

I wonder then if this will turn the attention of economists back to the spadework that is less likely to interest media outlets — who, unsurprisingly and unfortunately, find racist referees more compelling than vector auto-regressions involving monetary policy — but more likely to fit within traditional economics as opposed to Freakonomics. In particular, I wonder if the next generation of economics graduate students, who as rational actors will no doubt want to invest their energies where returns are highest, will be churning out research about credit-default swaps, sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, the effects of any stimulus, historical comparisons to the Great Depression, etc.

Of course, there is work on such topics already — e.g., incoming CEA head Christina Romer on the Great Depression — but the question is whether these topics will become hot, somewhat supplanting Freakonomics as a mode or subject of inquiry.