The Hidden Hand
The range of subjects covered by those who deem themselves economists has exploded in recent decades. Today, it is not unusual to find articles in economic journals on topics as diverse as crime, marriage, environmental pollution, and even drug addiction. The movement away from traditional topics such as exchange rates and monetary policy is largely due to the pioneering work of Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker. Growing up in New York in the 1930s and 40s, Becker was the frequent target of anti-Semitic slurs, and, as a student in the 50s, he used that experience as a basis for economic inquiry. While studying with Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, Becker applied economic reasoning to demonstrate that when people discriminate based on prejudice, it reduces their own incomes as well as those of the affected minority. While many felt that such issues were best left to psychologists and sociologists, Becker persevered. By the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1992, a whole host of social-science topics had become part of the economics mainstream.
Naturally, using an economics lens to examine colorful phenomena such as sumo wrestling or drug dealing helps to expand the audience for academic economics. The books Freakonomics and Super-Freakonomics, co-authored by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, did just this and were bestsellers. The Why Axis, by Uri Gneezy and John A. List, clearly seeks to follow upon the heels of those “crossover” successes. Indeed, research by Gneezy and List figured prominently in Freakonomics, and, in turn, Steven Levitt has written the foreword to The Why Axis.
About the Author
Seth Sacher is an economist in the Washington D.C. area.