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Get Your Freakonomics On

An iconoclastic economist weighs in on election-year New York.

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In 2005, at least four Democratic mayoral candidates will promise to take an open-minded approach to solving urban problems. For a role model, they might look to notorious University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics. He spoke to Ben Mathis-Lilley about New York concerns.

You’re known for arguing that increased police hiring, higher imprisonment rates, and even abortion—not Giuliani-era police reforms or gun control—reduced crime in New York.
Crime fell everywhere in the nineties. In places like Los Angeles and Washington, no one thought the police were doing a good job. But the declines were almost as big.

So should New York State build more prisons, hire more police, or both?
We’ve got 2 million people locked up. The 2-millionth-and-first guy—well, he’s not that bad. Right now, the payoff of hiring an extra police officer is much better.

Are New Yorkers too worried about terrorism?
Yes. The threat of death from terrorism is likely to be far, far smaller than for a wide range of other things, whether it be heart attacks, obesity, car crashes.

You’ve done a lot of work on parenting. How are New York’s overachieving parents affecting their children?
The particular activities that parents engage in don’t seem to matter much for the educational outcome. Reading to your children, how often you go to museums—none of those activities turns out to be really important. My own view is that a child gets just as much out of a trip to the grocery store as a trip to the museum if it’s done in the right away.

How can we tell if the West Side stadium is in fact a good idea?
Stadiums are really hard because you’re guessing about what a stadium is worth . . . It is a thorny question. [Silence]

Okay, so what about our ailing subway? There’s obviously a huge demand for it, but it’s always out of money. Why?
Probably a fear that the more money you give to the subway, the more the transit people will spend. When I ride the subway, it looks pretty healthy to me.


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