Smart Chicago professor Steven Levitt – not so smart after all …

28 Oct, 2012 at 16:16 | Posted in Economics, Statistics & Econometrics | 3 Comments

In an interview not so long ago, Steven Levitt (Mr Freakonomics) answered the question how he could tell the difference between a smart person and a not-so-smart person:

Well, one good indicator of a person who’s not so smart is if they vote in a presidential election because they think their vote might actually decide which candidate wins. . . . there has never been and there never will be a vote cast in a presidential election that could possibly be decisive.

Statistics professor Andrew Gelman aptly retorted:

I have no problem if Levitt wants to argue that it doesn’t matter who wins the election—-I disagree with him, given the evidence that the positions of the Democratic and Republicans in the U.S. are farther apart on economic issues than are left and right groupings in many other countries, but Levitt can make that argument if he wants to. And I have no problem if Levitt wants to say that, for a one in a million or one in ten million chance, he doesn’t think it’s worth it to vote … But I don’t think Levitt is making sense when he writes that “there never will be a vote cast in a presidential election that could possibly be decisive.” A low probability is not a zero probability …

This confuses a lot of people, so I can understand Levitt missing the point, but it’s important. Just cos you don’t know whether a particular vote was decisive, that doesn’t mean a single vote can’t be decisive. Or, to put it another way, when he says “virtually impossible,” I’d say “1 in a million to 1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state.”


  1. I voted and I’m convinced it will make a deisive difference. It’s Levitt’s irrelevant musings that don’t add up to a hill of beans.

  2. Well, from the individual viewpoint, it is right that one would be foolish to think he will make a difference. In the sense of rationality as defined by microeconomics, voting is not rationale.
    But individuals know there’s going to be a collective effect. And they feel they are part of a community. So they vote. And the results more or less reflect the collective preferences. So it’s wrong to say that voters are not rationale (in a broader sense than defined by microeconomics). The thing is that voters are “individuals who are part of a community”, and their rationality exceeds their individualism.
    Similar mechanisms are at play within macroeconomics. And this is the very reason why if you microbase the macro models, you end up with new-classical models which simply are aggregated micro, but not macro, and you miss the macro effects.

    • Couldn’t have said it better myself 🙂

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