Part 1: I'm Shocked, Shocked
to See This ...
most celebrated nonfiction
book of the year is Freakonomics:
A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by U. of
Chicago superstar economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner.
The most admired aspect of the book has been Levitt's theory that legalizing
abortion cut the crime rate, which became Instant
Conventional Wisdom. Now, it turns out, according to two economists at the
Boston Fed who have checked Levitt's calculations in detail, that the
abortion-cut-crime theory rested upon two
mistakes Levitt made. So far, Levitt admits to making one error, saying
personally quite embarrassing."
Ever since my
1999 debate with Levitt in Slate.com, Levitt's fans have been telling me
that my simpleminded little graphs
and ratios of national-level
crime trends showing, for example, that the teen homicide rate tripled
in the first cohort born after Roe v. Wade couldn't
possibly be right because Levitt's econometric state-level analysis was so much more
gloriously, glamorously, incomprehensibly complicated than mine, and
Occam's Butterknife says that the guy with the most convoluted argument wins.
This fiasco reveals much about what's wrong with public policy discourse in
modern America. Fifteen minutes of Googling
would have shown book reviewers of Freakonomics that the
abortion-cut-crime theory hadn't come close to meeting the burden of proof, but,
instead, much of America's intellectual elite fell head over heels for this
theory. Being largely innumerate and unenterprising, the punditariat is unable
or unwilling to apply simple reality checks to complex models. It's easier to
simply engage in intellectual hero-worship and take a guru figure like Levitt on
faith. A few book reviewers, like James
Q. Wilson (America's leading expert on crime for several decades), expressed
deep skepticism, but most were negligent.
Now, two economists have redone
Levitt's work and found two fatal flaws in it. The Economist has a good
Dec 1st 2005
Did Steven Levitt, author of “Freakonomics”, get his most notorious paper wrong?
And the Wall Street Journal reports:
Abortion Research Is Faulted by a Pair of Economists
By JON E. HILSENRATH
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 28, 2005; Page A2
Prepare to be second-guessed.
That would have been useful advice for Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago
economist and author of the smash-hit book "Freakonomics," which uses
statistics to explore the hidden truths of everything from corruption in sumo
wrestling to the dangers of owning a swimming pool.
The book's neon-orange cover title advises readers to "prepare to be
dazzled," and its sales have lived up to the hype. A million copies of the
book are in print. The book, which was written with New York Times writer
Stephen Dubner, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks and
is atop The Wall Street Journal's list of bestsellers in the business category.
But now economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston are taking aim at the
statistics behind one of Mr. Levitt's most controversial chapters. Mr. Levitt
asserts there is a link between the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s
and the drop in crime rates in the 1990s. Christopher
Foote, a senior economist at the Boston Fed, and Christopher Goetz, a
research assistant, say the research behind that conclusion is faulty.
Long before he became a best-selling author, Mr. Levitt, 38 years old, had
established a reputation among economists as a careful researcher who produced
first-rate statistical studies on surprising subjects. In 2003, the American
Economic Association named him the nation's best economist under 40, one of the
most prestigious distinctions in the field. His abortion research was published
in 2001 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, an academic journal. (He was the
subject of a page-one Wall Street Journal story1 in the same year.)
The "Freakonomics" chapter on abortion grew out of statistical studies
Mr. Levitt and a co-author, Yale Law School Prof. John Donohue, conducted on the
subject. The theory: Unwanted children are more likely to become troubled
adolescents, prone to crime and drug use, than are wanted children. When
abortion was legalized in the 1970s, a whole generation of unwanted births were
averted, leading to a drop in crime nearly two decades later when this phantom
generation would have come of age.
"The Boston Fed's Mr. Foote says he spotted a missing formula in the
programming of Mr. Levitt's original research. He argues the programming
oversight made it difficult to pick up other factors that might have influenced
crime rates during the 1980s and 1990s, like the crack wave that waxed and waned
during that period. He also argues that in producing the research, Mr. Levitt
should have counted arrests on a per-capita basis. Instead, he counted overall
arrests. After he adjusted for both factors, Mr. Foote says, the abortion effect
disappeared. [Emphasis mine.]
"There are no statistical grounds for believing that the hypothetical
youths who were aborted as fetuses would have been more likely to commit crimes
had they reached maturity than the actual youths who developed from fetuses and
carried to term," the authors assert in the report. Their work doesn't
represent an official view of the Fed.
Mr. Foote, 40, taught in Harvard's economics department between 1996 and 2002;
served stints as an economist on the Council of Economic Advisers in 1994, 1995,
2002 and 2003; and served as an economic adviser to the Coalition Provisional
Authority in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003 and 2004.
Mr. Levitt counters that Mr. Foote is looking only at a narrow subset of his
overall work on abortion and crime, so his results are of limited value, and not
grounds for dismissing the whole theory. He acknowledges the programming error,
but says taken by itself, that error doesn't put much of a dent in his work.
(Mr. Foote's result depends on changing that formula and on the adjustment for
per-capita arrests.) Moreover, Mr. Levitt says the abortion theory has held up
when examined in other countries, like Canada and Australia,
and when applied to other subjects, like drug use.
"Does this change my mind on the issue? Absolutely not," Mr. Levitt
Levitt and John J. Donohue put
together their abortion-cut-crime theory in a quick and dirty fashion in late
1998. There's nothing wrong with that -- that's an inevitable aspect of
hypothesis-generation. Unfortunately, when their draft paper leaked to the Chicago Tribune
in August 1999, they
hadn't yet done the needed reality checks on their idea.
For example, the peak years for
serious violent crime by 12-17 year olds, as reported in the FBI's authoritative
annual survey of crime victims were 1993 and 1994, or a couple of decades after Roe v. Wade made abortion legal nationally.
Their key assumption about how
humans behave was that legalizing abortion increased the "wantedness" of babies
who were actually born, yet one obvious test was whether Roe
v. Wade had driven down the illegitimacy rate. As it turns out, it definitely
had not. Fathers, at least, were certainly not "wanting" babies more
The most striking fact about legalized abortion, but also the least discussed, is its
sizable pointlessness. Legalized abortion turned out to be a lot like Homer
Simpson's toast: "To alcohol! The cause of, and solution for, all of life's problems."
Legal abortion is a major cause
of what it was supposed to cure -- unwanted pregnancies. Levitt himself notes that following
Roe, "Conceptions rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent
…" So for every six fetuses aborted in the 1970s, five would never have been conceived except for Roe! This ratio makes a sick joke out of Levitt’s assumption that legalization made a significant difference in how
"wanted" children were. Indeed, perhaps the increase in the number of women who got pregnant figuring they would get an abortion,
but then were too drunk or drugged or distracted to get to the clinic has meant
that the average quality of the upbringing of surviving babies has declined.
My guess would be that the
existence legal abortion made condoms unfashionable in the 1970s. Jonathan
Klick's study suggested that legalized abortion caused a sizable increase in
infections with sexually transmitted diseases, which supports that hypothesis.
In our August 1999 debate
in Slate, I pointed out to Levitt that the national-level homicide data
easily available on federal
government websites showed that his theory had radically failed the test of
history: the first cohort born after the legalization of abortion had a homicide
rate as 14-17 year olds triple that
of the last cohort born before legalization.
doubts about his signature theory, however, Levitt dug in his heels in and
relied on his extremely complicated state-level analyses to try to intimidate readers
into ignoring my easy-to-understand national-level analyses about whether he'd
come anywhere near meeting the burden of proof.
Hey, it worked. He's now rich and famous.
told Levitt last month during the Bill
Bennett Brouhaha, in which the former Education Secretary was widely
denounced for making a reductio ad absurdum argument based on the racial
aspect of Levitt's theory, that he should just walk away now from his most
famous theory -- just admit that it's too hard to tell what actually happened.
Levitt's now a celebrity so he hardly needs his trademark theory anymore to
go on being a celebrity (i.e., famous for being famous). Otherwise, someday, some little-known economist was
going to make his reputation by taking the Freakonomist down. Well, Levitt's
nemesis has arrived.
A reader writes:
Will this really matter? I
guess I have my doubts. We have moved into an era when facts matter less than
Indeed. Virtually nobody
will admit they were wrong about this. Way too many important people have too
much invested in Levitt's celebrity. This is a fiasco for the economics
profession -- the most famous young economist's most famous theory has been
exposed after six years of adulation as based on incompetence. I wonder how many economics
professors have book proposals in right now for that next bestseller "Berserkonomics"?
(By the way, Levitt and Dubner are working on a sequel with a title that
reflects their characteristic elegant taste: Superfreakonomics.)
In the general media as well, too many influential people publicly endorsed the
theory when a small amount of due diligence with Google would have shown them it
was deeply dubious.
And too many people want his
abortion-cut-crime theory to be true for personal or political reasons. I've
noticed, for example, that in online discussions, pro-lifers tend to want
Levitt's theory to be true. They appear to want to be able to boast, "Even
though legal abortion reduces the likelihood of me being a victim of crime, I'm
still against it. That's how idealistic I am."
The notion that somebody would
want to know what the truth is, rather than just to find a talking point
for their pre-existing policy prejudice is alien to American thinking
Here's the abstract
of Foote and Goetz's paper:
Economic Hypotheses with State-Level Data: A Comment on Donohue and Levitt
(2001) [PDF - full paper]
Working Paper 05-15
by Christopher L. Foote and Christopher F. Goetz
State-level data are often used in the empirical research of both
macroeconomists and microeconomists. Using data that follows states over time
allows economists to hold constant a host of potentially confounding factors
that might contaminate an assignment of cause and effect. A good example is a
fascinating paper by Donohue and Levitt (2001, henceforth DL), which purports to
show that hypothetical individuals resulting from aborted fetuses, had they been
born and developed into youths, would have been more likely to commit crimes
than youths resulting from fetuses carried to term. We revisit that paper,
showing that the actual implementation of DL’s statistical test in their paper
differed from what was described. (Specifically, controls for state-year effects
were left out of their regression model.) We show that when DL’s key test is
run as described and augmented with state-level population data, evidence for
higher per capita criminal propensities among the youths who would have
developed, had they not been aborted as fetuses, vanishes. Two lessons for
empirical researchers are, first, that controls may impact results in ways that
are hard to predict, and second, that these controls are probably not powerful
enough to compensate for the omission of a key variable in the regression model.
and programs to support this comment are available on the web site of the
Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.)
Levitt's reply on his Freakonomics blog is here.
All my posting on this issue are at http://www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm
Part 2: Levitt's response to the Freakonomics abortion-cut-crime theory fiasco
in Freakonomics is wrong!
Or at least that is the impression you might get if you read this
article in today’s Wall Street Journal.
I will post a longer blog entry once I have had time to fully digest the working
paper by Foote and Goetz which is the basis for the article.
For now, I will say just a few things:
1) It is not at all clear from the WSJ article is that Foote and Goetz are
talking about only one of the five different pieces of evidence we put forth in
our paper. They have no criticisms of the other four approaches, all of which
point to the same conclusion.
2) There was a coding error that led the final table of my paper with John
Donohue on legalized abortion to have specifications that did not match what we
said we did in the text. (We’re still trying to figure out where we went wrong
on this.) This is personally quite embarrassing because I pride myself on being
careful with data. Still, that embarrassment aside, when you run the
specifications we meant to run, you still find big, negative effects of abortion
on arrests (although smaller in magnitude than what we report). The good news is
that the story we put forth in the paper is not materially changed by the coding
3) Only when you make other changes to the specification that Foote and Goetz
think are appropriate, do the results weaken further and in some cases
disappear. The part of the paper that Foote and Goetz focus on is one that is
incredibly demanding of the data. For those of you who are technically minded,
our results survive if you include state*age interactions, year*age
interactions, and state*year interactions. (We can include all these
interactions because we have arrest data by state and single year of age.) Given
how imperfect the abortion data are, I think most economists would be shocked
that our results stand up to removing all of this variation, not that when you
go even further in terms of demands on the data things get very weak.
Again, as I said, I will post again on this subject once I have had a chance to
carefully study the details of what they have done, and after I have been able
to go back to the raw data and understand why the results change when one does
what Foote and Goetz do.
COMMENTS » Posted by Steven D. Levitt @ 2:46 pm on Monday, November 28, 2005 in
In contrast, economist John
R. Lott, a longtime critic of Levitt's theory who came in for a half page of
ad hominem abuse in Freakonomics, is feeling
better than Levitt is today. He blogged:
Christopher L. Foote and
Christopher F. Goetz's paper can be found here.
Personally, I think calling this a "programming oversight" is being
much too nice. More importantly, everyone who works with panel data knows that
you use fixed effects.
My own work concentrated on murder rates, but I also included fixed effects.
Donohue and Levitt never provided us with all their data or their regressions
and would never answer any questions that we had so I just assumed that they had
included fixed effects from the beginning. It would have been nice if they had
provided us with this same information years ago.
Financial economist and blogger Mahalanobis
(Michael Stastny) makes first a technical point about Levitt's reliance on
complexity of analysis a then a substantive point about Levitt's understanding
of human behavior:
Levitt's response is on his
website (see here) where he notes
The part of the paper that
Foote and Goetz focus on is one that is incredibly demanding of the data. For
those of you who are technically minded, our results survive if you include
state*age interactions, year*age interactions, and state*year interactions.
3 interaction variables are
necessary to get the right sign and significance? I think that is very
technically demanding. In my experience, interaction variables are kitchen sink
type regressors that induce severe multicollinearity and give spurious results.
It's like an economist saying his results only appear after doing 3-stage least
squares. I have to think something's not really there if you can't normalize the
data somehow and show in a simple graph that the pattern is there (in this case,
say, by showing the change in arrest rates for abortion and non-abortion states
for the relevant age cohort).
I'm partial to the opposite theory, that abortion would, if anything, increase
the proportion of evil-doers: abortion is more common among forward-thinking
moms who would be good moms, less common among bad moms who view life as a
series of random events that happen to them.
The reason that in Levitt's
theory of American crime trends, Levitt cites only foreign studies
claiming that women who have abortions would make less organized and effective mothers than
the ones who went ahead and had their children is because the American
studies of who gets an abortion came to the opposite conclusion.
This undermines Levitt's only argument these days about how abortion would cut
crime (now that Levitt has hushed
up his earlier racial eugenic/eucultural argument that because more blacks
get abortions and more blacks commit murders, more abortions should mean fewer
murders). These Americans studies were pointed out to Levitt by CCNY economist
Ted Joyce in his response to Levitt & Donohue in the Journal of Human
Resources, which was entitled "Did
Legalized Abortion Lower Crime?" Joyce summed up two reason why
Levitt's theory didn't work. The second was:
analysts, I being one, have tended to overestimate the selection effects
associated with abortion. A careful examination of studies of pregnancy
resolution reveals that women who abort are at lower risk of having children
with criminal propensities than women of similar age, race and marital status
who instead carried to term. For instance, in an early study of teens in Ventura
County, California between 1972 and 1974, researchers demonstrated that pregnant
teens with better grades, more completed schooling, and not on public assistance
were much more likely to abort than their poorer, less academically oriented
counterparts (Leibowitz, Eisen, and Chow 1986).
"Studies based on data from the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS)
and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) make the same point
(Michael 2000; Hotz, McElroy, and Sanders 1999). Indeed, Hotz, McElroy, and
Sanders (1999) found that teens who abort are similar along observed
characteristics to teens that were never pregnant, both of whom differ
significantly from pregnant teens that spontaneously abort or carry to term.
"Nor is favorable selection limited to teens. Unmarried women that abort
have more completed schooling and higher AFQT [the military's IQ test for
applicants for enlistment] scores than their counterparts that carry the
pregnancy to term (Powell-Griner and Trent 1987; Currie, Nixon, and Cole 1995).
"In sum, legalized abortion has improved the lives of many women by
allowing them to avoid an unwanted birth. I found little evidence to suggest,
however, that the legalization of abortion had an appreciable effect on the
criminality of subsequent cohorts."
My earlier response to the latest Freakonomics fiasco is here.
All my blog postings on the controversy can be found at http://www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm
Part 3: Abortion and crime: So, Levitt was wrong.
But, what actually happened?
Now that Freakonomics
author Steven D. Levitt's mishandling of his abortion-crime data has been
exposed by economist Christopher Foote, I'd like to review what actually
happened in American over those decades.
As I tried to explain to Dr. Levitt when we debated in Slate
in 1999, what happened, simplifying greatly, was that the vast youth crack
crime wave first emerged in the later 1980s in the socially liberal states where
legal abortion also had taken off first about 17 years earlier, most notably New
York and California, which legalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe
In other words, contrary to Levitt's theory, there was at the state level, a positive
correlation (when appropriately weighted by population of state), between the
legal abortion rate in the early 1970s and the teen homicide offending rate in
the late 1980s and early 1990s among those youths born after legalization.
Unfortunately, Dr. Levitt initially only looked at crime rates for the years
1985 and 1997 (and only looked at the uselessly crude age groups of over and
under 25), so he completely missed how his theory had catastrophically failed
its most obvious historical test.
Second, and also contrary to Levitt's theory, this vast youth murder wave took
off first specifically in the demographic group that had the highest legal
abortion rate: urban blacks. The
non-white abortion rate peaked in 1977, well before the peak of the white
abortion rate. The peak years for homicide among 14-17
year old black males were 1993 and 1994 -- i.e., the cohort born at the peak
of the black usage of legal abortion in 1977. As Donohue and Levitt wrote in
2001, under their theory, the opposite was supposed to happen:
[following the legalization of abortion] for black women are three times greater
than for whites (12 percent compared to 4 percent). Given that homicide rates of
black youths are roughly nine times higher than those of white youths, racial
differences in the fertility effects of abortion are likely to translate into
greater homicide reductions."
When William Bennett was
denounced for mentioning on the radio the racial logic of Levitt's theory,
Levitt tried to give the impression to journalists that race had never played an
important role in his theory. Indeed, in Slate.com,
for giving Bennett the impression that Levitt was thinking about race. As Ross
Douthat rebutted, the racial element in Levitt's theory was prominently
played up in the national media even before my debate with Levitt.
But, as I tried to explain to
Levitt in 1999, his racial eugenic /eucultural logic hadn't worked. Instead, among black males born
in the late 1970s, their murder rate as 14-17 year olds was four times higher
than among black males born in the late 1960s, before the legalization of
abortion. The black to white teen murder rate ratio almost doubled after
legalization. So, the Levitt-Donohue theory failed its first two historical
tests in a disastrous fashion.
Then, two things happened historically that helped create the state-level
negative correlation (presumably, assuming Foote's new technical critique
doesn't completely eliminate it) between later 1970s abortion rates and later
1990s crime rates that Levitt and Donohue have emphasized so repeatedly, while
trying to cover up the earlier negative correlation. (They imply that the longer
the time lag between presumed cause and effect, the more trust we should put in
1. From NY and CA, crack spread to more socially conservative states, where the
abortion rate had also gone up later. So crime was higher in the mid to late
1990s in socially conservative states where abortion rates didn't go up until
the late 1970s or early 1980s.
2. And, the crack wave burned out first in the places where it started first,
most famously New York City.
We've all heard a million arguments about why crime fell in NYC in the 1990s,
but an overlooked explanation was brought up by Knight-Ridder reporter Jonathan
Tilove recently: there are today in NYC, 36% more black women alive than
black men. Nationally, among all races, there are 8% more women than men alive.
Obviously, this gigantic black male shortage in NYC wasn't caused by abortion --
there was virtually no sex selective abortion at the time. No, it was mostly
caused by an enormous increase in imprisonment and by the most dangerous
black men murdering each other in large quantities in the late 1980s and early
1990s. (AIDS played a role too.) Levitt has never written, as far as I know,
about the impact of these "selective post-natal abortions," as it
were, on the crime rate, but it's clearly a substantial factor in a number of
big cities that were hit hard by crack. (NYC is by no means unique in terms of
the current black male shortage.)
Moreover, as I pointed out to Levitt in 1999, and as his deservedly famous
chapter in "Freakonomics" on how dealing crack pays so badly
confirmed, a lot of the next cohort of urban youths, those born more than a half
decade after abortion was legalized in their state, figured out that dealing
crack was a stupid career choice. Seeing how their older brothers and cousins
were winding up in prisons, wheelchairs, and cemeteries, they became less likely
to commit murder. Participating in the crack wars turned out to be, for the vast
majority of the gangstas, extremely bad life choices, and it's hardly surprising
that the later cohort born in the early 1980s did a better job of figuring this
But these anti-crime trends in the 1990s happened first where crack happened
first, which tended to also be where legal abortion happened first, thus
creating the most likely spurious correlation between legal abortion and the
crime decline in the later 1990s that Freakonomics
So, for this controversy, the crucial issue is The Burden of Proof. Dr. Levitt
has tried hard to hand the burden of proof off to his skeptics, claiming that
he's looked at all other possible causes of the 1990s crime decline, and
they aren't adequate to explain it, so abortion must be the cause of the
remainder. That's a weak and irresponsible argument.
course, in reality, he hasn't looked at all the causes -- for example, I've
never seen him take into account "selective post-natal abortions" of
the most dangerous gangstas by other gangstas, nor the social learning impact on
the next cohort of seeing their older brothers die or go to prison.
But, moreover, there's an old saying that large assertions require large
evidence. And Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory is one of the largest
assertions in the social sciences in recent years. Clearly, the burden of proof
rests on Dr. Levitt.
There's also an old idea in science called Occam's Razor, which more or less
says that scientists should be biased toward simplicity in explanations.
Throughout this six year controversy, Dr. Levitt has consistently gone for the
most complicated, hard-to-understand, and (as we've seen this week, to Dr.
Levitt's embarrassment) hard-to-check-up-on statistical models.
In contrast, he's combined statistical incomprehensibility with the most simple-minded
behavioral models -- he has repeatedly assumed, despite all the evidence
from American studies cited above, that ghetto women decide whether or not to
engage in unprotected sex and whether or not get an abortion or have
an illegitimate child for the same reasons that would appeal to highly
educated women of his own class. While Levitt's style of thinking about how
women respond to legalized abortion has proven highly persuasive to the
nonfiction book-purchasing class, it doesn't explain much at all about the behavior
of the classes in which potential criminals are typically raised. A reader
of mine who was an inner city social worker wrote:
Middle class types see poor unwed teenage mothers as Scum of the Earth and a Terrible Social Problem. But poor women don’t see themselves that way. Instead, they think of themselves as human beings facing the age-old challenge of getting along in the world -- and, if they're lucky, passing their genes on to the next generation.
the technical opacity of Dr. Levitt's analysis was necessary -- social phenomena
are terribly complicated. But the impact of his behavior on the public and on
much of his profession has been to encourage among his numerous fans not
a critical engagement with the historical and sociological record, but an
attitude of faith, a warm feeling that this really smart guy has Figured It All
Out using Really Complicated Statistics and we should just take his word for it.
As a marketing strategy, the oracular approach of "Freakonomics" has
been mind-bogglingly successful, but perhaps I may be forgiven for wondering
whether it advances the cause of good social science.
All the data cited above can be found documented at http://isteve.com/abortion.htm
Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a
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critic for The American
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