Levitt wins medal; Professor named best economist under 40

By Joel Lanceta

Steven Levitt, a prominent micro-economist and the Alvin H. Baum Professor of Economics at the University, was awarded the John Bates Clark medal from the American Economics Association last week.

The prize, given every two years to the nation’s most outstanding economist under 40, is named after an early Neoclassical economist, John Bates Clark, and widely considered to be the profession’s most coveted award.

“I am amazed that I have received this award,” Levitt said of the honor. “It is unbelievably heartwarming to know that my peers value the research that I do.”

Levitt has already distinguished himself with detailed statistical inquiries on crime, corruption, and education. His empirical ingenuity in isolating cause-and-effect relationships–perhaps one of the most strenuous problems in the economics of crime and urban areas–has given him much attention from his peers.

“He deserved it more than anyone else. In my mind he was clearly the bestchoice,” said Kevin Murphy, the George Pratt Shultz Professor in Economic and Industrial Relations at the Graduate School of Business and a recipient of the John Clark Bates Medal in 1997.

Speaking from experience, Murphy said that though the award will help Levitt gain some additional recognition, it will be his talent and hard work that will be the main source of his future success.

“Steve continues to have an extremely successful career,” Murphy said. “I expect him to continue to be one of the true leaders in economics for many years to come.”

According to Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate and University professor in economics, Levitt is responsible for the revival and extension of economic work on crime.

“He applied techniques, which he and others discovered, to analyze crimes and punishments, to empirical analyses of the effects of abortions on the amount of crime, to detecting corruption in schools and in athletic events, and to other interesting problems,” Becker said.

What set Levitt’s work apart from that of the tough competition, according to Becker, was his creativity.

“Steve’s research is characterized by great imagination in discovering interesting questions, ingenuity in finding data to test his hypotheses, and considerable care in carrying through the empirical discussion,” he said. “The competition was tough since there are several excellent younger economists. But Steve’s work has been highly influential.”

In winning the award Levitt beat two Harvard economics professors, Edward L. Glaeser and R. Michael Kremer, both considered leading candidates to receive the medal, according to Friday’s The Wall Street Journal.

Levitt’s work–on subject matter controversial to the current political discourse–has attained an especially high profile, drawing heavy attention from the national press.

For example, a paper he wrote examined the relationship between decreased crime rates–often attributed to better police forces–and the legalization of abortion. In “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” co-written with John J. Donohue III of Stanford Law School, Levitt showed that the legalization of abortion from the 1973 case Roe v. Wade was a major factor in the decrease in crime rates.

The paper, successful in showing a causal relationship between abortion and a lower crime rate, proposed that the termination of unwanted pregnancies among lower class women helped minimize the population of would-be criminals.

As another example of Levitt’s ability to show causality, thus shedding light into a political debate, he examined the street gang hierarchy, focusing on how a member moves up through the ranks. Along with Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, Levitt’s study of gangs also examined the factors of drug earnings and market power in the drug market.

The paper “An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s Finances,” which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, was acclaimed for tying together the spheres of sociology and economics.

“Changes in enforcement, incarceration rates, in drug use, and most courageous, articulating the possible role through demographic shrinkage of the population of urban youth at risk due to the change in abortion law, have all been on the list of factors that Levitt (along with coauthors) chose to examine,” said Grace Tsiang, senior lecturer and co-director of the undergraduate economics program.

Tsiang said that a driving factor in Levitt’s success has been his ability to find sources of data that other researchers have not yet touched.

“He is unafraid to ask interesting and thought-provoking questions,” she said.

Levitt graduated summa cum laude in economics from Harvard in 1989 and received his Ph. D. from M.I.T. in 1994. He is currently on a one year sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science at Stanford University.

Levitt’s most current research includes a study of cheating by teachers on standardized tests, why gambling markets are organized differently from financial markets, and an understanding of cultural differences using the choice of first names given to children by different groups.

Levitt, who has been at Chicago since 1997, has also won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2000, the University’s Quantrell Award in 1998, and fellowships at the National Bureau of Economic Research and at the American Bar Foundation.

Here at the University, Levitt has a reputation as a hands-on instructor. In his Economics of Crime class, students have had the opportunity to ride in a city of Chicago police car as the officers patrolled the Woodlawn neighborhood. Levitt also brought a gang intervention officer and several Chicago public high school students to the class to talk about their life encounters with crime.

James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist at the University, predicts greater things for Levitt.

“Steve will continue to grow and integrate economics into his work more closely,” Heckman said. “That’s what is happening. He is a brilliant creative person. The award will allow him to take more chances and speak on a bigger stage.”

The John Bates Clark Medal is traditionally considered to be a somewhat accurate predictor of Nobel Prize laureates. Of the 28 economists who have received the John Bates Clark Medal, 11 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Previous winners from Chicago include famed Monetarist Milton Friedman (John Bates Clark winner, 1951, Nobel Prize 1976), Becker (John Bates Clark winner, 1967, Nobel Prize 1992) and Heckman (John Bates Clark winner, 1983, Nobel Prize 2000).