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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Much Does the President Really Matter?

Most of you are probably familiar with the Freakanomics and SuperFreakanomics books authored by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Levitt (a devout libertarian) is an economics professor at the University of Chicago, while Dubner (I'm not sure how devout he is) is a journalist who lives in NY City.  Drawing on rational choice theory, which argues that individuals tend to respond positively to incentives and that by analyzing various incentives, a variety of human behaviors can be explained. Anyone who has read one or both of the books know that they are not only entertaining but are also quite illuminating of human behavior. One of my favorite chapters recounts the story of how Levitt was able to detect how Chicago schoolteachers improved their students' test scores by looking at the patterns of answers on the tests. Levitt was also able to uncover cheating among Sumo wrestlers by looking at their rates of winning in relation to their win-loss records in a particular tournament.

What you may not realize is that there is also a Freakanomics blog (which almost certainly attracts more traffic than this one) and podcast, both of which are also quite entertaining (and probably serving as the basis of a third Freakanomics book -- I wonder what they'll call it: SuperduperFreakanomics?). The other morning while driving to work, I listened to one of their podcasts that considered the question, "How much does the President really matter?" While there is not point in repeating here what they found, their basic answer to the question is, "Not much." There are simply too many outside forces that constrain what Presidents can and cannot do. This is especially true of the economy, which ironically has more effect on the outcome of Presidential elections than any other factor.

You can find a summary of the podcast here as well as a link to the podcast, which you can listen to on-line. You can also access the podcast through iTunes. I think most of you will find it interesting.

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