The New York Times Magazine from a couple weeks back ran a story about an economist named Steven Levitt. He’s one of these guys that somehow manage to have accolades rained on them while they tell everyone how unworthy they are. He says he’s no good at math or theory, and he humbly admits that his professional interests are trivial, yet many leading academic economists think he is the most brilliant young economist in the world. He’s gotten his reputation by taking unusual approaches to economic riddles and by asking questions that nobody else seems to consider. Rather than take on macroeconomic issues and relate them to public policy, what many consider a noble economic pursuit, he examines the probability that teachers have cheated for their students, that horse racing is corrupt, and that abortion has led to a declining crime rate.
Steven Levitt is the kind of person I aspire to be—an iconoclast who contributes positively and significantly to his field by drawing from a range of other interests. He’s a kind of hero to me, along with Neil Postman and Thomas Merton. Neil Postman never gives up asking the tough questions about education or the media. He refuses to take either at face value. And he approaches every subject he critiques with the underlying question, “To what problem is this the solution?” Thomas Merton’s terrain was the religious life. He was a paradoxical rebel, a renegade through obedience. He battled against the empty dreams of the world by striving for perfect obedience to God. And he sought a vital connection to the world by separating himself from it. Only when he placed himself outside of the grip of secular life could he see it for what it truly was, the God-glorious and sin-soaked life of the lost and the wandering, the desperate and the disillusioned.
Update 4/13/05: Steven Levitt, along with journalist Stephen J. Dubner, has just published FREAKONOMICS: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Read my review.