debated Dr. Levitt in Slate.com in
August 1999 on "Does
Abortion Reduce Crime? In 2005, Levitt turned down his publicist's
request to debate me again.
"Pre-Emptive Executions" Now Available Online:
The American Conservative is making my article
on Levitt's theory now available free on-line. (My fairly positive review of
the non-abortion parts of Freakonomics is here.)
Here are two graphs from my article
showing (left) that contra Levitt's theory, the first generation
born after legalized abortion became the most violent juveniles
in recent American history; and (right) that contra Levitt's
theory that legalizing abortion would increase the wantedness of
children, the illegitimacy rate soared.
are entries from my iSteve.com blog
responding to additional issues brought up by reader discussions of my
I'm Shocked, Shocked
to See This ... Well, whattaya know? It turns out that Steven D.
Levitt's evidence for his famous abortion-cut-crime theory is based
on two mistakes Levitt made. For years, people have been telling me
that my simpleminded little graphs
and ratios arguing that Levitt hadn't met the burden of proof
couldn't possibly be right because Levitt's evidence was so much more
gloriously, incomprehensibly complicated than mine, and Occam's
Butterknife says that the guy with the most convoluted argument wins.
Now, two economists have finally redone Levitt's work and found two
fatal mistakes in it.
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
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
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.
"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 says. [More]
Some time ago,
Dr. Levitt was confronted with a major life choice. He could adhere to
the values of the scientist (to tell the truth) or take up the values of
the celebrity (to tell people what they want to hear). He made his
decision and ascended into celebrityhood. Levitt has followed,
with tremendous financial success, the advice George W. Bush gave his
Herskowitz in 1999:
“He told me that as a leader, you can never admit to a mistake,” Herskowitz said. “That was one of the keys to being a leader.”
response to the Freakonomics abortion-cut-crime theory scandal: Levitt
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 General
In contrast, John
R. Lott, who came in for a half page of ad hominem abuse in Freakonomics,
better than Levitt is today. He emails:
are a lot more than two major mistakes in [Levitt and Donohue's]
estimates. For example, it was wrong to assume that the number of legal
abortions prior to legalization were zero. Also, using arrest rate data
to make the breakdown of murders by age is also quite inferior to using
the Supplemental Homicide Report.
Finally, I don't know if you noticed it, but after using the fixed
effects and using the arrest rate the right way, this new paper actually
gets a small but significant increase in violent from more abortions.
This is exactly what I got and I believe it is for the same reasons that
these authors do.
economist and blogger Mahalanobis
(Michael Stastny) writes:
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.
Right. The reason
that in his theory of American crime trends, Levitt cites European studies claiming that women who have abortions would make worse mothers than the ones who
went ahead and had their children is because the American studies of the impact of abortion came to the opposite
conclusion. (For some inexplicable reason, Levitt forgot to mention
those more relevant American studies in Freakonomics.)
Trent and Griner's research, along with other studies undermining Levitt's central argument, was 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:
"Second, 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."
response to the Freakonomics scandal is here.
single best debate over Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory: I
invited Levitt to debate me over his theory in Slate.com in 1999. You
can read our exchange here.
(Bill Bennett cited this debate as his inspiration for his controversial
remarks on abortion and crime.) This spring, Levitt's publicist recommended to him that we renew our
debate to get more publicity for his book. Prudently, he refused to
debate me further.
response to the controversy over William Bennett citing Levitt's Freakonomics
theory on abortion on September 28, 2005:
blasted for citing Steven D. Levitt's Freakonomics theory:
Today, the mounting
pressure finally burst over merely an abstract musing on the radio.
House Democratic Leader
immediately spoke on the floor of the House:
"Mr. Speaker, I rise this evening to express my deep disdain and disgust for comments made yesterday by former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett on his radio call-in show.
... These are shameful words. I am appalled to have to say them on the floor of the House of Representatives. Secretary Bennett's comments reflect a narrow-minded spirit that has no place within American discourse."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean issued the following
"Bill Bennett's hateful, inflammatory remarks regarding African Americans are simply inexcusable. They are particularly unacceptable from a leader in the conservative movement and former Secretary of Education, once charged with the well being of every American school child. He should apologize immediately. This kind of statement is hardly compassionate conservatism; rather, Bennett's comments demonstrate a reprehensible racial insensitivity and ignorance. Are these the values of the Republican Party and its conservative allies? If not, President Bush, Ken Mehlman and the Republican Leadership should denounce them immediately as hateful, divisive and worthy only of scorn.
So, what horror of
horrors did Bennett blurt out? The Washington Post reports:
Bennett Under Fire for Remark on Crime and Black Abortions
Democratic lawmakers and civil rights leaders denounced conservative commentator William J. Bennett yesterday for suggesting on his syndicated radio show that aborting black children would reduce the U.S. crime rate.
The former U.S. education secretary-turned-talk show host said Wednesday that "if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose -- you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." Bennett quickly added that such an idea would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do." But, he said, "your crime rate would go down."
Bennett's comments came Wednesday, during a discussion on his talk show "Morning in America." A caller had suggested that Social Security would be better funded if abortion had not been legalized in 1973 because the nation would have more workers paying into the system.
Bennett said "maybe," before referring to a book he said argued that the legalization of abortion is one of the reasons the crime rate has declined in recent decades. Bennett said he did not agree with that thesis.
"But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose -- you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down," Bennett said, according to an audio clip posted on Media Matters for America's Web site. "That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, you know, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky."
That's it? It's a
symptom of the September Sickness that has afflicted our elites all
month that the repressed frenzy finally broke over that.
There are two somewhat separate logical issues to which Bennett is
referring. The first is the utterly theoretical question of the impact
on crime of aborting every black baby (since African-Americans
made up 50.8% of homicide offenders in 2002 according to federal
statistics, it would obviously be large), while the second is the
theory that legalizing abortion in the 1970s reduced crime in the 1990s.
Bennett, obviously, opposes both ideas on moral grounds.
As for the first, Democrat Brad DeLong sensibly points out:
His caller said: "Abortion is bad because it has worsened the financing of Social Security." Bennett says: "Stay focused. We're anti-abortion not because we think that abortion is a means that leads to bad ends like a higher Social Security deficit; we're anti-abortion because abortion is bad; make arguments like 'abortion is bad because it increases the Social Security deficit' and other people will make arguments like 'abortion is good because it lowers the crime rate' and we'll lose sight of the main point."
Bennett is attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument.
question can be further divided into two logical approaches: the effect
of aborting an particular group on the total number of crimes versus the
effect on the crime rate per capita. In the first case,
prenatal genocide would obviously reduce the total number of crimes
committed by reducing the number of people, just as it would reduce the
number of scientific discoveries, acts of heroism, etc. As Stalin said
while signing death sentences, "No man, no problem."
The effect on the national crime rate per capita, however, depends on
whether the per capita crime rate for a group is above or below the
national average. For example, getting ride of all Asian Americans would
raise the national per capita crime rate because Asians are imprisoned a
rate barely than 1/5th that of non-Hispanic whites and 1/33rd that of
As for the second, ABC
In an interview with ABC News, Bennett said that anyone who knows him knows he isn't racist. He said he was merely extrapolating from the best-selling book "Freakonomics," which posits the hypothesis that falling crimes rates are related to increased abortion rates decades ago. "It would have worked for, you know, single-parent moms; it would have worked for male babies, black babies," Bennett said.
Bill, Bill, Bill,
that's what you get for reading the softball reviews of Freakonomics
in the NYT,
and the LAT
instead of reading iSteve.com, where you would have learned
that economist Steven D. Levitt's ultrapopular but slapdash
abortion-cut-crime theory disastrously failed to predict even the past.
Bill, if you'd gone
to the source for statistical social
analysis instead of all those credulous, innumerate mainstream
sources, you would have known
that when abortion was legalized over 1970-1973, the homicide rate of
14-17 year old black males, rather than declining, more than quadrupled
in the decade from 1983 (when all living 14-17 year olds were born in
the last prelegalization years of 1965-1969) to 1993 (when they were
born in the high abortion years of 1975-1979, when the nonwhite abortion
rate peaked in 1977 -- see page 8 of this report
for abortion trends).
You can go look for yourself at the homicide graphs that Levitt was too
slipshod in his research methods to look at when he came up with his
theory in 1999. Go to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics page here
and page down to the second set of four graphs, which show homicide
offending rates by age by race by sex.
The main reason Levitt's theory didn't work in reality was because the
larger impact of legalizing abortion was to drive up the number of
unplanned pregnancies. Levitt himself wrote in Freakonomics that following
Roe, “Conceptions rose by nearly 30
percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent …” The most
unremarked but remarkable historic fact about legalizing abortion was
how pointless it turned out to be: mostly it just caused the very
problem -- unwanted pregnancies -- it was purported to cure.
I pointed this out to Levitt in 1999 in our
debate in Slate, but he went ahead and left all these
inconvenient facts out of Freakonomics six years later.
Misleading the public has made him a rich man, but he has to live with
I laid all this out in even more monomaniacal
detail last Spring, and I apologize to my long-term readers for
taking up their time then and now.
One thing I've noticed is that the pro-lifers have shown almost zero
interest in the fact that Levitt's theory isn't empirically valid.
Strikingly, many of them want it to be true in order to prove the
purity of their moral intentions: Even though legal abortion would
lessen the chance of me being murdered or mugged, I'm still against
abortion on principle.
Well, swell, but that's just moral vanity. Whatever happened to
"the truth shall set you free"?
David Brock's Media Matters, which mostly broke the story, claimed:
Bennett's remark was apparently inspired by the claim that legalized abortion has reduced crime rates, which was posited in the book Freakonomics (William Morrow, May 2005) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. But Levitt and Dubner argued that aborted fetuses would have been more likely to grow up poor and in single-parent or teenage-parent households and therefore more likely to commit crimes; they did not put forth Bennett's race-based argument.
almost as disingenuous as Dr. Levitt.
draft paper with John J. Donohue in 1999 specifically referred to the
higher rates among blacks of both abortion (which currently is about five
times higher than among non-Hispanic whites) and crime (blacks are
currently incarcerated at a rate 7.2
times the non-Hispanic white per capita rate) as one of the reasons
why legalizing abortion should have cut crime. The New
York Times reported in 1999:
"Most of the reduction," Dr. Levitt and Dr. Donohue write, "appears to be attributable to higher rates of abortion by mothers whose children are most likely to be at risk for future crime." Teen-agers, unmarried women and black women, for example, have higher rates of abortion, the researchers note, and children born to mothers in these groups are statistically at higher risk for crime in adulthood.
Levitt took out the
reference to the much higher abortion and crime rates of blacks when he
published Freakonomics. Instead, abortion was now supposed to
work just by getting rid of "unwanted" fetuses, even though he
admitted that legalization vastly increased the number of unwanted
But let's get real. Last Spring, when Levitt was the toast of American
intellectual life, everybody who was proclaiming his wonderfulness knew
deep down that his abortion-crime theory was still based in large
measure on aborting black fetuses, but nobody would come out and say
I was the only one who kept pointing out the new emperor of the
bestseller lists had no empirical clothes, but nobody cared, because the
unwritten message of Freakonomics -- no black, no crime, as
Stalin might have said -- seemed so convincing.
But since you aren't supposed to discuss the higher black crime rate in
public, our national immune system defenses against bogus ideas couldn't
resist Levitt's lie.
Have you noticed lately how America is knee-deep in lies and they're
just getting deeper? See, once you start denouncing
people for telling the truth, you just have to lie and lie and lie
some more. Every truth leads to more truths, but once you start down the
path to lying, every lie means you need to lie again.
God, I am sick of lies.
P.S. On an
unrelated note, here's my
2003 article about Bill Bennett's gambling.
One more point
on the Bennett Freakonomics brouhaha: One of the logical
distinctions that needs to be made in thinking about the purely
hypothetical effect on crime of a prenatal genocide of an entire
ethnic group is:
Are we talking about what would be the impact on the total number of
crimes in the country?
Or are we talking
about the impact on the national per capita crime rate?
Steven D. Levitt, author of the abortion-cut-crime theory, tries to
glide past the nasty racial implications of his theory by claiming on
if you prohibit any group from reproducing, then the crime rate will go down)...
But that's not
true. If all future Asian-Americans were aborted, the national crime
rate, as measured in per capita terms, would go up because the
Asian-American crime rate is below the national average.
(Asian-Americans in 2001 were incarcerated per capita only 22%
as often as whites and only 3% as often per capita as
For ethnic groups with higher than average crime rates, the opposite
would be true.
Now, please don't claim I'm advocating genocide. Indeed, for
six years, I've been a voice crying in the wilderness saying that
Levitt's theory that abortion-cut-crime turns out not to be true when
you look at the actual historical record in any detail, which Levitt
failed to do when he concocted it. The murder rate of the group with the
highest abortion rate did not decline -- instead, it more than
For an explanation of why the black violent crime rate shot up
among the cohort born after legalization of abortion, see here.
duplicitous son-of-a-gun: Today, responding to Bill Bennett's
controversial citation of his theory that legalizing abortion cut crime,
economist Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the bestseller Freakonomics,
asserted on his
blog that "Race is not an important part of the abortion-crime argument that John Donohue and I have made in academic papers and that Dubner and I discuss in
Freakonomics." Indeed, Levitt left out any mention of the
much higher abortion and crime rates found among blacks from his
best-selling book. However, his 2001
academic paper with John J. Donohue contains this passage:
declines 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. Under the assumption that those black
and white births eliminated by legalized abortion would have experienced
the average criminal propensities of their respective races, then the
predicted reduction in homicide is 8.9 percent. In other words, taking
into account differential abortion rates by race raises the predicted
impact of abortion legalization on homicide from 5.4 percent to 8.9
other words, race accounts for 39% of the putative Levitt Effect on
supposedly reducing homicides. You can judge for yourself whether 39% is
"not an important part."
It's also interesting to note that Levitt, the toast of the media
business, wrote the verboten words: "Given that homicide
rates of black youths are roughly nine times higher than those of white
youths..." When will the point-and-sputter
brigades that are currently roasting Bill Bennett for merely vaguely
implying that blacks have a higher crime rate go after the sainted
In the wake of the crucifixion of Bill Bennett for mentioning one of the
major aspects of Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory, I'd like to ask how
come the entire respectable world gave Levitt's Freakonomics book
tongue-baths last spring, praising him for his "courage" in
pushing his abortion-crime theory. For example, the NYT gave his book two
rave book reviews, a rave op-ed column, and they hired him to
write a regular "Freakonomics" column for the NYT
Magazine! (Can you say "conflict
So, why didn't the Levitt Effect actually happen in the real
world? Why didn't this conventional piece of eugenic and/or
eucultural reasoning work? First, as I pointed out to Levitt
in 1999, the crack wars happened in between the data points he
looked at in 1985 and 1997. (Ironically, on the rare occasions when
Levitt now deigns to answer his critics, he emphasizes the impact of
crack, which he was barely cognizant of until I explained it to him in
our Slate debate.) The Levitt Effect, if it even exists, was
overwhelmingly swamped by much more powerful forces.
But, it's quite possible that legalizing abortion boosted the black
violent crime rate among those youths born after legalization in
1970-1973. To see why that's quite possible, it's important to focus on
the realism of that assumption Levitt made in 2001 when he wrote:
the assumption that those black and white births eliminated by legalized
abortion would have experienced the average criminal propensities of
their respective races ...
if, instead, among blacks, aborted fetuses had instead been more
likely to grow up in well-run homes and become solid law-abiding
citizens? To a white college professor like Levitt, that seems
inconceivable, but it actually is rather plausible. As I
told him in 1999:
logic implies that legalized abortion should reduce illegitimacy. And
since illegitimacy is closely linked to crime, therefore abortion must
reduce crime. Right? Yet, abortion and illegitimacy both soared during
the '70s, and then the youth violent-crime rate also soared when the
kids born during that decade hit their teens. How come?
In theory, legal abortion reduces murder by being, in effect,
"prenatal capital punishment." But, first, it's not very
efficient. Like Herod, we have to eradicate many to get the one we want.
While genes and upbringing do affect criminality, there's so much
randomness that predicting the destiny of individual fetuses is hard.
Second, what if besides a contraceptive-using bourgeoisie and an
abortion-using working class, there also exists an underclass to whom,
in the words of Homer Simpson, "Life is just a bunch of things that
happen"? What if in the '70s members of the underclass didn't
effectively use either contraception or abortion, but, being too
destitute or distracted or drunk or drugged, they just tended to let
s*** happen all the way to the maternity ward? And what if the
legalization of abortion gave them an excuse to be even less careful
about avoiding pregnancy? In fact, in your paper you cite evidence that
60 percent to 75 percent of all fetuses aborted in the '70s would never
have been conceived without legal abortion. If that's what happened
across all classes, the increase in careless pregnancies specifically
among the underclass might have been so big that it negated the eugenic
or euculturalist effects of abortion.
Thus, legalizing abortion would have thinned the ranks of the
respectable black working class but not the black underclass. Its
cultural influence would therefore have mounted. Just compare the
working-class black music of the '60s (e.g., Motown) with the underclass
gangsta rap of the late '80s, which spread the lethal bust-a-cap code of
the East Coast and West Coast crack dealers across America.
Third, legalizing abortion finished off the traditional shotgun wedding.
Earlier, the pill had shifted responsibility for not getting pregnant to
the woman. Then, legal abortion relieved the impregnating boyfriend of
the moral duty of making an honest woman out of her. This would drive up
the illegitimacy rate.
Finally, even more speculatively, but also more frighteningly, the
revolution in social attitudes that excused terminating the unborn may
also have helped persuade violent youths that they could be excused for
terminating the born.
of my readers who was an inner
city social worker strongly endorses this theory that abortion
hollowed out the black middle class. She says that in her
experience, the black women who had abortions tended to be the
"strivers," while the ones who had children out of wedlock
instead were the less intelligent, less organized, and less ambitious
Recently, she pointed out to me that some data reported by Charles
Murray in the September 2005 issue of Commentary from the
National Longitudinal Survey of Youth contradicts Levitt's
I'm soooooo confused! As you point
out, Charles Murray in his article "The
Inequality Taboo," has "calculated that 60% of the babies
born to black women who began participating in the National Longitudinal
Study of Youth in 1979 were born to women with IQs below the black
female average of 85.7. Only 7% were born to black women with IQs over
But wait, weren't all those [low IQ, lower class] women having
abortions? That's what genius economist Steven Levitt says in his
super-brilliant book *Freakonomics,*
where he tells us that abortion cut crime substantially because it kept
hordes of little ghetto marauders from being born. Well, OK, Levitt
doesn’t exactly put it that way, but we all know what he means (nudge,
nudge, wink, wink).
If we are to believe Murray's figures, then it would seem that the black
women who had abortions must actually have been the *brighter* ones --
whose children (had they been born), would statistically have been less
likely to commit crimes than those born to lower-IQ women.
Could this mean that Levitt is, ahem, wrong?
New Facts on
Abortion-Crime: There are two problems with Steven D. Levitt's
popular theory (brought back into prominence by Bill Bennett's remarks)
that legalizing abortion lowered the crime rate: it didn't
work in historical reality and it doesn't even work in theory.
His theory, at least in the expunged version presented in Freakonomics
(as opposed to the more race-based eugenic version in his 2001
academic paper) rests on the claim that abortion is more likely to
get rid of "unwanted" fetuses, who would be more likely to
grow up to be bad guys.
One difficulty with this theory is that legalizing abortion greatly
increased the number of unwanted pregnancies (by almost 30%, according
to Levitt), and not all of those ended up being aborted, so what the net
effect was in terms of "pre-conception wantedness" is
But the second problem is the question of "unwanted by whom?"
I've argued since 1999 that the use of legalized abortion is more likely
to appeal to upwardly mobile women, and thus will tend to make society more,
not less, underclass. Studies by the team of Katherine Trent and Eve
Powell-Griner support my intuition. A criminologist writes me:
am surprised that there isn't more research examining the predictors of
abortion. I wonder if academics avoid it because the truth takes away
from the "Cider House Rules" myth of abortion-users being
incest victims. What little research I can find portrays abortion as a
choice of an economically-minded woman. ... Kathy Trent looked at
500,000 pregnancies and found that risk of abortion rises with education
among single women... She did find that, whereas unmarried blacks keep
their babies more than unmarried whites, married black women are more
likely to get an abortion than married whites. Trent suggests that
married black women are more likely to be breadwinners than married
whites--babies get in the way of bringing home the bacon. These findings
do not seem consistent with Levitt's assumption that abortions are
concentrated among those people most likely to produce criminals.
Trent and Griner's
research, along with other studies undermining Levitt's central
argument, was 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
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
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.
Surely, Levitt must
have read Joyce's response to his paper. If so, Levitt knew that
his central theoretical argument was extremely dubious, but he didn't
mention any of that when he pushed his "unwantedness" theory
in Freakonomics this year, to vast acclaim and buckets of money.
is currently the #2 bestseller on Amazon.com).
Isn't it about time for the economics profession to conduct an inquiry
into the professional ethics, such as they are, of Dr. Steven D. Levitt?
How much ethical leeway should a scholar have in intentionally
misleading the public in order to make money and become a
So, what are the odds that the Golden Boy will ever be put on the spot
by his profession or the media over his theory? A million to one? Too
many important people have too much invested in the maintenance of
Levitt's glamour. Levitt's media apotheosis is the most exciting thing
to happen to an economics professor in years, so the profession has a
vested interest in preserving his reputation.
In the unlikely event that Levitt is ever pinned down and forced to
explain, Levitt's defense, logically, would have to be that his theory
is still plausible because of raw racial eugenic logic: Sure, when all
else is kept equal, the women who got abortions were more likely to
raise law-abiding children than their equivalents who went ahead and had
the babies, but (to quote Levitt and Donohue's 2001 paper):
declines 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."
other words, Levitt would have to argue that: Even though the quality
of the upbringing of the next generation of black youths went down
because of legalization, the brute fact is that legal abortion still
reduced the ratio of black births to white births. If you assume that
blacks from upwardly mobile families are still more criminally inclined
than whites from downwardly mobile families, then even though
legalization lowered the average quality of the black population, it
decreased the quantity of blacks so much relative to the quantity of
whites that the average quality of Americans overall went up because
abortion reduced the black share of the population!
Personally, I think legalization was bad for America overall because of
the impact it had on lowering the quality of African-American
upbringings. An awful lot of black kids who would have been raised to be
strivers got aborted, so the ones who got born had more careless
upbringings on average. Thus, legalization contributed, in some measure,
to the the decline in African-American culture, symbolized by the
popularity since the late 1980s of an entire musical style devoted to
boasting about how murderous the rapper is. Interestingly, both gangsta
rap and the crack business that it celebrated, emerged in the late
1980s out of the two major states that legalized abortion in 1970:
California and New York. Coincidence? Maybe ... maybe not.
The bottom line is that we're all in this together, white and black, and
something that lowers the quality of one of our communities, such as
legalized abortion apparently did to blacks, hurts all of us.
Bennett: On his Freakonomics blog, economist Steven D. Levitt, the
main promoter of the old theory that legalizing abortion cut crime, writes:
2) Race is not an important part of the abortion-crime argument that John Donohue and I have made in academic papers and that Dubner and I discuss in Freakonomics.
C'mon, Steven, try
being frank about your abortion-crime theory for once. Your widely
circulated draft paper in 1999 argued that one reason abortion should
have cut crime is because blacks, per capita, have more abortions and
commit more crimes. (See this NYT
story from 1999 for the details). You dropped that reference later
to stay out of trouble.
It is true that, on average, crime involvement in the U.S. is higher among blacks than whites. Importantly, however, once you control for income, the likelihood of growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and how urban the environment is, the importance of race disappears for all crimes except homicide. (The homicide gap is partly explained by crack markets).
Oh, boy ... where
- "Except homicide"?
-- That reminds me of the old joke: "Other than that, how did you
enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"
- The homicide gap existed long before crack was invented in the 1980s.
Back in 1976, the first year of separate black and white data in the Bureau
of Justice Statistics website, the black homicide rate per capita
was 9.5 times the white rate.
- Further, I'm
highly dubious that the racial aspect of homicide is all that different.
In the important new report "The
Color of Crime, 2005," the incarceration rate is broken out for
a variety of crimes by ethnicity. (The authors from the New Century
Foundation split out Hispanics from whites, unlike many of the other
crime statistics, which makes them more accurate and the black to white
ratio even higher because Hispanics are imprisoned, overall, 2.9 times
more per capita than non-Hispanic whites.)
Judging from the
graph in Fig. 9 of "The
Color of Crime, 2005," (I don't have the exact data), the black
to non-Hispanic white ratio for incarceration for murder is 8.3 to 1.
But for all crimes overall, blacks are imprisoned 7.2 times more often
than whites, so the difference between homicide and everything else in
terms of racial skew isn't that great. (By the way, blacks are
incarcerated 33 times more than Asian-Americans!)
For robbery, the
black-white ratio looks like about 14.8 to 1, or nearly 2 to 1 over the
homicide rate, so Levitt is clearly wrong about homicide being the only
Aggravated assault looks like about 7.3 to 1. Other violent crimes are
lower (rape is about 3.0 to 1), but the overall violent crime
incarceration ratio is about 7.1 to 1, not too different from the
non-violent incarceration ratio is just as bad, also in the 7 to 1 rate.
This is driven in part by drug offenses, which are in the 12.5 to 1
area. But, blacks are incarcerated for non-drug property crimes about
5.1 times the white rate.
Blacks even get themselves thrown in jail for white collar crimes
disproportionately: 4.0 times more often for fraud, 5.1 times more often
for "Bribery / Conflict of Interest," 3.2 times for
racketeering, and even 2.9 times more often for embezzlement. I suspect
you'd have to go all the way to high end white collar crimes like
anti-trust violations and insider trading to find ones where whites have
higher per capita rates.
In other words, for most crimes a white person and a black person who grow up next door to each other with similar incomes and the same family structure would be predicted to have the same crime involvement. Empirically, what matters is the fact that abortions are disproportionately used on unwanted pregnancies, and disproportionately by teenage women and single women.
First of all, for
the purpose of discussing whether or not the Levitt Effect of abortion
driving down the crime rate works in part by aborting more black fetuses
per capita than white fetuses, these kinds of attempts at
"underlying explanations" are largely irrelevant. (The real
objection to the Levitt Effect is that, judging from the historical
record, it didn't work at
Second, I find this highly dubious. Levitt doesn't cite any research
supporting this. And even if he did, I've found that when I go an read
his reports, his track
record for veracity in his claims that prior research supports his
views is dubious.
A criminologist emails me:
is so arrogant, he thinks he can just imagine a study just as valid as
one that someone actually does. To my knowledge no study exists that he
describes that explains away the racial gap in serious crime. Studies of
minor delinquency have done this, but criminologists know that white and
black rates of misbehaviors like smoking pot are similar. The only study
I can think of examining serious crime that controlled for SES was Marvin
Wolfgang's famous cohort
study of all males born in Philadelphia
in 1945. (The final sample ended up being around 10,000). He reported
that high-Socio-Economic Status blacks were 4 times more likely to be
chronic offenders than high-SES whites. High SES blacks were 4 times
more likely to have raped, robbed, or committed an aggravated assault.
Family structure would probably not have been an issue among high-SES
families, especially among blacks. Wolgang concluded that, "Race
strongly related to delinquency status regardless of SES level."
Third, this is the
kind of thing "explaining away" that gives correlation
analysis such a bad odor with the public. As Colby
Cosh pointed out, on the "Daily Show," John Stewart
rightly grilled Levitt on exactly how you "control for" other
variables, and Levitt couldn't come up with a trustworthy answer.
You can make all sorts of things disappear by "controlling"
for variables that are closer to symptoms than causes. For instance, you
can make the average height gap between the Dutch and the Japanese
disappear by "controlling for" inseam length of the pants
hanging in their closets.
What Levittt has done is pick three variables that currently
correlate closely with being black and used them as a proxy for
blackness. This is the opposite of Occam's Razor, which says you ought
to be biased in favor of the fewest number of explanatory variables.
Fourth, Levitt's three variables sound extremely dubious historically.
Think about that 9.5 to 1 difference in homicide rates between whites
and blacks back in 1976. Most of those killers in 1976 were born in the
1940s and 1950s, when over 80% of black children were being born to
married women. And during the Baby Boom, lots and lots of white babies
were being born to teenage mothers.
Yet, the homicide rate went shooting up in 1965, just when the
illegitimacy rate went shooting up too. We didn't have to wait a
generation to get the effects of rising illegitimacy on crime, we saw
them instantly. That's because a major effect of society deciding to
allow sex without marriage is on the young men who now don't need to get
a job so they can get married so they can have sex. They can hang
around, do a few crimes, and still have a girlfriend.
In summary, Levitt is one slippery operator.
More on Bill
Bennett, abortion, and crime: The New York Times reports today:
House Criticizes Bennett for Remarks
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and MAREK FUCHS
Sept. 29 - The White House distanced itself today from the comments of a
prominent Republican who said on a recent radio program that the
nation's crime rate could potentially be reduced through aborting
White House called the comments, made by William J. Bennett, the former
Republican secretary of education, off base. The White House spokesman,
Scott McClellan, said that President George W. Bush "believes the
comments were not appropriate."
Mr. Bennett has said the remarks were taken out of context, noting that
he immediately said such abortions would be "reprehensible."
Mr. Bennett, who served as drug czar for the president's father, came
under fire from Democratic Congressional leaders on Thursday for the
comments, which were made on a his radio show, "Bill Bennett's
Morning in America," earlier this week.
"I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you
could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby
in this country, and your crime rate would go down," Mr. Bennett
said in the broadcast. "That would be an impossible, ridiculous,
and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go
down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations
are, I think, tricky."
In a radio broadcast on Thursday, Mr. Bennett called the criticism of
him "ridiculous, stupid, totally without merit."
"I was pointing out that abortion should not be opposed for
economic reasons, any more than racism or for that matter slavery or
segregation should be supported or opposed for economic reasons,"
he said. "Immoral policies are wrong because they are wrong, not
because of an economic calculation. One could just as easily have said
you could abort all children and prevent all crime, to show the
absurdity of the proposition."
Mr. Bennett, who was the secretary of education in the Reagan
administration and is the author of a best-selling book on morality,
said he was referring to a debate
in the online magazine Slate that had discussed race in the context
of an argument about whether abortions contributed to lowering the crime
rate. That debate, involving Steven D. Levitt, an author of the
best-seller "Freakonomics," apparently appeared in Slate six
That, of course,
was the debate
I initiated. I pitched the idea to Slate and then persuaded Levitt to
to blog items about Freakonomics from before the Bill Bennett Brouhaha
in early Fall 2005
there hasn't been much direct debate this year of Levitt's vastly
popular theory. I hadn't
seen this before from the comments section of Tim Lambert's Deltoid
blog, but Jack
Strocchi rips into Levitt's adulators. Strocchi's performance makes
me sense how Darwin must have felt having T.H. Huxley as his
Q. Wilson reviews Levitt's Freakonomics abortion-crime theory in Commentary:
From the new July issue of Commentary, the distinguished
political scientist James Q. Wilson offers one of the first
intellectually serious reviews of Freakonomics:
my many years of lecturing on crime, invariably the first two questions
I would be asked were: "What do you think of the death
penalty?" and "What do you think of gun control?"
No more. Now the first question is whether I believe that legalized
abortion has cut the crime rate. For this I can thank Freakonomics,
the weirdly named book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner that
has been high on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks now. My
answer, by the way, is no: I do not believe the evidence shows a causal
link between legalized abortion and our reduced crime rate.
Levitt, an acquaintance of mine, is an immensely talented economist
whose restless mind has inquired into all sorts of fascinating
Back to abortion and crime. Levitt's argument is that, with the
legalization of abortion by the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v.
Wade, many fetuses were killed in America that would otherwise have led
to the birth of unwanted children. Such unwanted children, receiving
little affection and guidance, would have been more likely to commit
crimes when grown. Ergo, their removal from the population had something
to do with our lowered crime rates.
Why should we think such children would have been unwanted? Because,
Levitt contends, they would have been born to thousands of poor, single,
teenage mothers. Levitt conspicuously refrains from saying so, but a
very large fraction of these poor, single, teenage mothers would have
been African American: over 60 percent of all black children are born
out of wedlock, and the abortion rate is roughly three times greater
among black than among white women.
To prove that abortion reduced crime, Levitt and his coauthor on the
original paper, John Donohue, examined crime rates 15 to 18 years after
the Roe decision, and found a drop. Moreover, they pointed out that five
states had already legalized abortion three to four years before the
decision: in these early-legalizing states, crime rates fell sooner than
in states that did not permit abortion until Roe.
You would never know it from this book, but not only have these claims
been criticized, but several scholars have offered rival theories. On
the issue of abortion rates alone, the economists John Lott and John
Whitley have written that, even before Roe, many anti-abortion states
allowed abortion if the life or health of the mother was at risk; in
these states, there were at least as many abortions per 1,000 live
births pre-Roe as in states that had made abortion legal. Why, then,
attribute falling crime rates to legalized abortion?
Levitt and Donohue have rejoined that, in those states where abortions
were still nominally illegal, it was well-to-do white women who mainly
availed themselves of the loopholes in the system. But there is no
evidence of this; to the contrary, black women were over-represented
among those having abortions in such states.
Now look at homicide rates by the age of suspected offenders. In the
late 1990s, roughly a quarter century after Roe, the murder rate was
falling for offenders aged twenty-six and older -- a class of offenders
much too old to have been affected by Roe one way or the other. As for
the youngest offenders, those between sixteen and twenty, their murder
rates had jumped up in the early 1990s, probably because of involvement
in the crack cocaine trade. Again, no Roe effect.
George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael Katz have argued that
legalized abortion actually increased the number of out-of-wedlock first
births -- because the availability of abortion, along with the advent of
new contraceptive devices, rendered sex "cost-free" for men
but not necessarily for the women they impregnated. Were the children
who were increasingly likely to be born to unmarried women
"unwanted"? Perhaps they were, but we do not know; Akerlof and
his colleagues have not given us sufficient evidence.
As of now, no one is entitled to decide who is correct in this matter,
whether Levitt or any of his critics. But it is certainly premature to
say that Levitt is right, and positively disconcerting to take the work
of an enamored journalist that Levitt must be right.
On another controversial matter, however, Levitt is clearly right, and I
am his victim. I once wrote that the proportion of juveniles in the
population was going up and that therefore the crime rate would go up.
Levitt correctly takes me to task for this unwarranted assertion, which
was later proved wrong. His criticism reminds me of something my Ph.D.
adviser once said, no doubt quoting someone whose name I have forgotten:
social scientists should never try to predict the future; they have
enough trouble predicting the past.
... Levitt, of course, being a classic example of a social scientist who
has failed to predict the past. When Levitt concocted his theory in
1999, he only looked at crime rates in 1985 and in 1997, and he forgot
to look at crime rates by narrowly defined age groups. So, he completely
overlooked the fact that, in direct contradiction of his theory, the
first cohort born after legalization went on an enormous teen violence
spree in-between 1985 and 1997. Ever since then, with his name and
reputation inextricably linked to this half-baked theory, he has been
hustling like P.T. Barnum to turn his slapdash hypothesis into
conventional wisdom to preserve his marketability.
Clearly, Levitt has succeed. The number of American who now have it
lodged somewhere in their heads that some young genius used data to prove
that abortion cut crime must outnumber by a thousand to one those who
have a more realistic and balanced picture of what actually happened.
One thing that is very clear to me now is how weak is the body politic's
immune system at fighting off wrong ideas. I had naively assumed that
the existence of Google meant that journalists could instantly look up
both sides of the story, but it turns out that almost all the book
reviewers of Freakonomics did zero work besides read the
Australian columnist makes explicit the anti-black eugenic basis of Levitt's theory
Michael Duffy writes an important column in the Sydney Morning Herald on the Freakonomics' theory that abortion cut crime. Although he doesn't realize that crime first went up among the groups most affected by abortion, he lays Levitt's eugenic cards on the table:
For example, in the US black youths commit nine times more murders, relative to their population, than white youths. As, after 1973, the black fertility rate fell 12 per cent (it was 4 per cent for whites), this might be expected to reduce the homicide rate.
This is what most people have in the back of their minds when they accept Levitt's theory on faith: the old Howard Stern joke about "What do you call an abortion clinic in Harlem? Crimestoppers!"
Yet, not all blacks are created equally likely to grow up to be murderers, and it appears that legalized abortion cut the birthrate of the more law-abiding blacks faster than the birthrate of underclass blacks. The subsequent shortage of middle class and working class black kids appears to have tipped (as Levitt's buddy Malcolm Gladwell might say) black youth culture toward the underclass gangsta norms that came to predominate in the late 1980s and culturally fueled the catastrophic youth crack wars of 1990-1994.
As Levitt himself documents in Freakonomics, becoming a crack dealer was an incredibly stupid career move -- the pay was no better than McDonald's, and the fringe benefits (going to prison and being murdered) were a lot worse. You needed a lot of cultural indoctrination to do something that dumb, and that's what black youth culture was providing at the time.
In Freakonomics, Levitt claims that Australia saw the same pattern of legalizing abortion lowering crime. Yet, Duffy writes:
I asked Don Weatherburn, director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, about Levitt's hypothesis. He says it's plausible, but there are other plausible hypotheses too. (Some can be found in the book The Crime Drop in America, edited by Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman.)
So what about Australia, which Levitt suggests has had a similar experience to America? Abortion was legalised here at about the same time as in the US, but Weatherburn says that most crime increased in Australia during the 1990s. He wonders if Australia's more generous welfare provisions meant that legalised abortion had a different impact here. Whatever the reason, our criminal class has remained free of the (unintended) eugenics Levitt says occurred in the US.
I've never offered an opinion on the impact of abortion on crime in other countries because I don't know much about their social structures. Levitt's logic might well be true elsewhere. But I'm coming to learn that anything Levitt says about abortion needs to be checked.
I tracked down an article summarizing one of the two papers Levitt cites in his footnotes as supporting his claim that abortion cut crime in Australia. You can read it here and see for yourself what it says. I read it as being inconclusive, but, hey, I'm not a bestselling glamour boy, so who are you going to believe: Steven Levitt or your lying eyes?
My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer
posted by Steve Sailer at 6/24/2005
Steve Levitt Rides Again: Abortion and Infanticide
Steve Levitt Rides Again: I'm starting to realize that you can't
trust anything economist Steven D. Levitt says in his
bestseller Freakonomics without checking it out on Google for
yourself. A reader called my attention today to Levitt's statement on
be sure, the legalization of abortion had myriad consequences.
Infanticide fell dramatically.
I originally read this a few months ago, I thought to myself:
"How could anyone possibly doubt that?"
I should have realized that if Levitt tells you the sun is coming up
in the East, you'd better get outside and check for yourself. Here is
Trends Databank had to say about homicides of infants (below age
infant homicide rate increased from 4.3 per 100,000 in 1970 to 9.2 per
100,000 in 2000, before falling to 7.8 per 100,000 in 2003
(preliminary estimate). In 2003, 318 infants died due to homicide.
shows that infanticide increased from a 4.3 rate in 1970 (when there
were only about 200,000 legal abortions) to 5.9 in 1980 (when there
were about eight times more abortions)!
when infanticide is looked at by ethnic group for year 2002, there's a
positive correlation between the abortion rate and the
statistics for homicides of children under 5 only go back to 1976,
so nothing too definitive can be seen here, but you'd expect to see,
according to Levitt's statement, a decrease in the white numbers over
the first half decade as the white abortion rate continued to rise.
Instead, the small child homicide numbers did not fall. Indeed they
finally peaked in 1996, and the black numbers peaked in 1993.
I looked up the abstract
of the paper that Freakonomics cites on p. 223 as the source
for the contention that "Infanticide fell dramatically."
Here's what the authors of that study actually say:
examined 1960-1998 U.S. mortality data for children under 5 years of
age using an interrupted time series design. The legalization of
abortion was not associated with a sudden change in child homicide
trends. It was, however, associated with a steady decrease in the
homicides of toddlers (i.e., 1- to 4-year-olds) in subsequent years.
Although in the predicted direction, the decrease in homicides of
children under 1 year of age was not statistically significant.
NYT runs another rave review of Freakonomics -- After Jim
Holt's softball review last month, Roger
Lowenstein says the same old same old all over again, accepting
Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory without demurral or the slightest
evidence that he even spent fifteen minutes Googling the subject.
Aren't these NYT tongue-baths of Freakonomics getting a
little unseemly? After all, the NYT now employs Levitt and
Dubner to write a regular
"Freakonomics" column for the NYT Magazine. Does
the term "conflict of interest" come to mind?
Okay, okay, I know a lot of economists are shocked, SHOCKED by my
insinuations that some of the puffery associated with the Freakonomics
fad is a bit self-interested, so forget I ever said that... I admit,
it's utterly beyond belief that anyone associated with economics could
ever be motivated by financial gain. It would violate all the laws of
economics if economists weren't an exception to the laws of economics.
Klick's careful study of the effects of legalized abortion is
summarized by Bradford Plumer. Funny how the painstaking work of
scholars like Klick and Ted
Joyce is ignored while Levitt's slapdash abortion-cut-crime theory
Sun-Times Review Blows Away 4th Grade Quality Book Report on Freakonomics
in New York Times Book Review: The little girl who said
"This book told me more about penguins than I cared to know"
brought a more critical perspective to her book report than Jim
Holt's Freakonomics review in the NYT did to Steven D.
Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory. Holt's review simply consists of
elementary school-style summarization with zero skepticism or outside
Googling to find the facts that Levitt is covering up. Holt writes:
the balance [of the crime decline]? Here is where Levitt and his
collaborator, John Donohue of Stanford Law School, showed unsettling
originality. Since abortion was legalized in 1973, around a million and
a half women a year have ended unwanted pregnancies.
But, as Levitt has
admitted, many of those abortions were of pregnancies that wouldn't have
been conceived without legalized abortion -- so the effect on "wantedness"
of the women taking advantage of Roe v. Wade have been unmarried, poor
and in their teens. Childhood poverty and a single-parent household are
two of the strongest predictors of future criminality.
Of course, the
percentage of children raised in single-parent families soared as
abortion became common, and didn't start to level off until after the
abortion rate started to drop in the early 1990s. The 1996 study "An
Analysis of Out-Of-Wedlock Births in the United States" by George A. Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen
of the Brookings Institute and the Federal Reserve Board, respectively,
shows the impact of legalized abortion on outmoding the shotgun
marriage. So, one effect of legalizing abortion was to increase "unwantedness"
because it reduced pregnant women's moral leverage in getting their
boyfriends to marry them.
it happens, the crime rate started to drop in the early 1990's, just as
children in the first post-Roe cohort were hitting their late teens, the
For the one
millionth time, the crime rate was dropping in the early 1990s among
those born before legalization. Among those born after legalization,
it was rising, with both the murder and serious violent crime rates
among youths 17 and under peaking in 1993 and 1994.
Levitt and Donohue's audacious claim: the crime drop was, in economists'
parlance, an ''unintended benefit'' of legalized abortion.
A controlled experiment to test the truth of this theory is obviously
out of the question. In ''Freakonomics,'' however, Levitt does the next
best thing, teasing out subtle correlations that render the
abortion-crime link more probable. (States like New York and California
that legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, for example, showed the
earliest drops in crime.) In the social sciences, that is about as close
as you can get to demonstrating causation.
remarkable how many reviewers cite this early decline in crime in New
York and California as Levitt's devastating trump card, because anybody
familiar with the history of gangsta rap ought to remember that those
were among the first places where the teen crime rate went up. As
Levitt admitted to me in 1999, “[T]he high abortion places like New York and California tended to have a bigger crack problem, and tended to have crack arrive earlier.” In other words, the two big urban areas that were the first to enjoy the purported crime-fighting benefits of legalized abortion in 1970, New York City and Los Angeles, were also the ground zeroes of the
teen murder rampage that began, perhaps not coincidentally, about 16 years later.
That the crack wars burned out there earlier too is hardly proof that
abortion drove down the crime rate overall.
realize that book reviewing doesn't pay enough to rationally justify
doing any work other than this kind of summarization, but don't any of
these reviewers who have swallowed Levitt's theory hook, line, and
sinker have any self-respect? Doesn't anybody anymore feel a thrill when
watching Sam Spade in The
Maltese Falcon tell the seductive but homicidal femme fatale,
"I won't play the sap for you"? Why does the punditariat these
days positively rush to play the sap for deftly-marketed hooey, whether
abortion-cut-crime or WMDs in Iraq?
my review of Thomas Sowell's new book Black Rednecks and White
Liberals that will appear Sunday night in VDARE.com
shows what a motivated reviewer can actually accomplish in adding to the
public's understanding rather than just summarizing a book.
SHARP CONTRAST to the laziness and credulity of the NYT
"critic," the reviewer in the more blue-collar Chicago
Sun-Times, Thomas Roesser, actually did some Google work before writing
his review of Freakonomics, which is headlined "A
good book errs on link between abortion, crime rate:"
writer and blog-meister
Steve Sailer sails in with more data. Murder rates are now rising, says
the FBI. From 1999 through 2002 (the latest data available), the murder
rate jumped 17 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds born long after Roe.
''[T]he most obvious explanation for the ups and downs of the murder
rate is the ups and downs of the crack business,'' he says. ''This
generation, born right after legalization, is better behaved today in
part because so many of its bad apples are now confined to prisons,
wheelchairs and coffins.''
These are interesting challenges to a book that is causing Americans to
debate its findings at office water coolers and at cocktail parties. It
turns out that Sailer had debated Levitt on these facts before the book
was published. Why weren't Sailer's facts taken into consideration when
Levitt wrote the book? This he doesn't seem to do -- at least when
confronted by Bill O'Reilly on Fox News the other night. It's a good
book. Now, if Levitt would respond to Lott's and Sailer's challenge in
our letters to the editor, it would be even better!
Levitt: A reader with experience as an inner city social worker
points out that Steven D. Levitt is the Elvis of Economics in more ways
couple of further observations on abortion and crime:
First, it's fascinating to see Conventional Wisdom taking shape right
before my eyes. Usually the process is not nearly so obvious, and has to
be pieced together after the fact.
Second, reading about Levitt's theory that abortion cuts crime by
culling unwanted babies reminds me of that old Elvis Presley song called
"In the Ghetto." It went:
the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago morn
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mama cries
Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
It’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto
that one? It's the one where The King showed how sensitive and
politically aware and stuff he was.
What the fans of Elvis and Levitt fail to get is that poor women don’t
necessarily see their situation the same way middle class folks do. They
may actually love their little bastard babies!
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.
Unbelievable, I know. But bear with me for just a minute and try to see
it from their point of view.
If you're a young underclass woman, one of the first things you notice
is that there are not many marriage-worthy men in your social milieu. A
whole lot of them are unemployed or in prison or dead.
So even though you may want to get married, you figure your prospects
are pretty dim. If you wait to marry before having children, you
probably won't have children.
You might as well have them now because, well, why wait? You're not
getting any younger. More to the point, your mother and other female
relatives are not getting any younger. And since they're the ones you'll
have to rely on for child care and support, it's important to have your
kids before they develop Type II diabetes and kidney failure and all the
other health problems that tend to afflict black underclass folks more
than white privileged types.
Will having kids hold back your career? Well, if you have an IQ of 80
and are looking for a reason to drop out of high school anyway, then no.
You’ve probably already figured out that your prospects of a good job
are dim, and getting dimmer by the day, especially with immigrants
flooding in by the millions to take the few jobs you're qualified to do.
So for you, its not a choice of a ghastly life as a welfare mother or
good life in the burbs. Fate and the immigration mavens have already
decreed that you will get mostly crumbs from America's bounteous
economic table. The only choice you have is between a crummy life with
kids or a crummy life without kids.
Your lack of career prospects just makes having kids look that much more
attractive. Children are about the only thing you can produce that
people will view as being truly valuable.
Besides, if you can't count on a spouse for love and companionship, kids
become doubly important because they'll be the only family you’ve got.
So becoming a single mother makes quite a bit of sense to you. You
realize it’s a scary prospect and a hard life, but what are your
You may not exactly be looking to get pregnant, but when it happens --
well, is it really all bad? Lots of others have done it before you. In
fact, in your neighborhood, girls who have babies out of wedlock are
becoming the norm.
The only people who can't seem to grasp what is going on here are the
Really Smart Guys. Even though it should be getting pretty obvious by
now, especially since the black illegitimacy rate is close to 70
percent. Admittedly, most of these out of wedlock pregnancies may not
have been "planned" or "intended" in any sense that
a middle class observer could understand. But that doesn’t mean
they're necessarily "unwanted."
Seen from this perspective, poor women who have abortions are likely to
be the strivers and achievers. They're the ones who see some prospect of
improving their lives, and realize it may hold them back if they have
five kids by four fathers. They're the ones who are trying, in their own
way, to make good.
Inability to grasp what is wrong with Levitt's argument seems to be a
case of "I'll see it when I believe it." Maybe all the bright
guys who can't believe what's going on in the underclass world should
ditch Elvis and listen to Fantasia Barrino [last year's American Idol
and an unwed mother herself] sing:
it's like a badge of honor
To be a baby mama...
Cause we the backbone of the 'hood.
Takes a Selectionist to Catch a Selectionist. Because "selectionist"
thinking is so verboten in American intellectual life today, the
chattering classes have no practice in thinking critically about
selectionist theories, as opposed to demonizing them as Thoughtcrime.
So, they are saps for a selectionist, like Steven D. Levitt, when he
tells them something they wanted to hear. As I pointed out in my Slate
debate with Levitt way back in 1999:
The widespread assumption that your theory must be correct reveals just how many people deep down believe, whether they admit it publicly or not, that "certain people" are just permanently more incorrigible than others. As a contender for the World's Least Politically Correct Human, I'm sympathetic. It's ironic, but because I've been arguing for years that genetic diversity affects society, I was one of the few to notice in this particular case that crime has risen and fallen not because we are aborting the poor and black and unwanted, but because of that staple of genteel liberal commentary, Cultural Forces (e.g., crack).
on "Unwanted Pregnancies" -- Levitt's simplistic model of
how abortion would cut crime by reducing "unwanted" births
founders when you look at two facts: that, as Levitt admits, legalizing
abortion greatly increased the number of unintended pregnancies, and
that a lot of those unintended pregnancies go on to get born.
for Reproductive Health and the Alan Guttmacher Institute provide data
that shows Levitt's simplistic model of "unwantedness" is a
joke when applied to the real world. According to 1994 data, a full 48%
of the 6.3 million pregnancies in the U.S. were unintended. Out of those
3.1 million unintended pregnancies, 47% were aborted, 13% miscarried,
and a full 40% were born, or close to 1.25 million unintended births
annually -- all with legalized abortion! This makes a hash out of
Levitt's neat little model. I don't know what the overall effect is on
who gets born, but he doesn't either.
Pathetic State of Book Criticism: UPDATE: Forbes runs a typically zero-extra-effort
review of Freakonomics.
The prestigious Economist runs a review
of Freakonomics that's characteristic of contemporary book
reviewing, which has become merely a larger-vocabulary version of the
old book reports you did in grade school: just a summary of what the
book says with negligible critical analysis. The Economist's
anonymous reviewer simply recaps Levitt's arguments for his
abortion-cut-crime theory. How hard would it have been for him to
discover from Google that there is a bit of an empirical controversy
over the subject? But book reviewing has become merely a branch of expository
amusing about the Economist review is that one bit of evidence
the reviewer cites in support of Levitt actually contradicts him:
of his best-known, and in some quarters notorious, findings concerns
America's falling crime-rate during the 1990s. Towards the end of that
decade, confounding the expectations of most analysts, the teenage
murder rate fell by more than 50% in the space of five years;
but abortion was liberalized in 15 states in 1970 and legalized in 1973,
and now you are saying that the teenage murder rate fell sharply
more than 20 years later??? Somebody forgot to count on his
claims the NYT is going to give Freakonomics a rave this weekend.
Let's see if that reviewer does any work on this issue...
contrast, Ann Marlowe does a lot of heavy lifting in reviewing
Freakonomics for the New York Observer, raising serious
questions about the abortion-cut-crime hypothesis.
way, Ann was the one who asked
Ahmed Chalabi about my article
on cousin marriage and whether the high degree of inbred
clannishness in Iraq would work against democracy.
Responds to Levitt's Response: Having gotten softball reviews from
the national press, Steven D. Levitt's hometown newspaper, the Chicago
Sun-Times, finally called his bluff on his abortion-cut-crime
theory. Perhaps that's why he has now deigned to answer some of his
makes no attempt to defend his battered "wantedness" theory of
how abortion is supposed to cut crime, but instead merely restates his
interpretations of the historical data.
me answer Levitt's initial
let's start by reviewing the basic facts that support the Donohue-Levitt
hypothesis that legalized abortion in the 1970s explains a substantial
part of the crime decline in the 1990s:
Levitt tries to rig the deck in his favor by defining the question as
whether legalized abortion caused in large measure the drop in crime in
the 1990s. The answers to that question can be either "Yes" or
"No." Neutral observers tend to react to disagreements by
splitting the difference. So, in this case, the natural assumption of
people who don't want to wade through all the arguments would be:
"It had probably some effect on cutting crime." And that means
Levitt is seen as being more or less right.
however, we should be looking at the more general question: "What
was the effect of legalizing abortion on serious crime from the 1970s
onward?" The answers to this question can be "It cut
crime," "It had no effect," or "It increased
crime." Given those three options, observers are likely to split
the difference and say: "It had no effect." So, Levitt
cleverly tries to narrow the focus to where he'll be given the benefit
of the doubt.
Five states legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade. Crime
started falling three years earlier in these states, with property crime
(done by younger people) falling before violent crime.
much more complicated than this because ten other states
"liberalized" abortion laws in 1970. But, for now, let's just
look at those five that outright legalized it. Two of those states are
Hawaii and Alaska, which are hardly representative of the rest of the
country, and a third is far-off Washington state. The big two early
legalizers were California and New York. Yet, Levitt admits in another
place in his response:
homicide rate of young males (especially young Black males) temporarily
skyrocketed in the late 1980s, especially in urban centers like Los
Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC...
D.C. largely had de facto legal abortion from 1970, too. So, according
to Levitt, those three cities are where, purely by coincidence, the teen
crack wars broke out about 17-18 years after abortion was legalized. Now
that correlation between legalizing abortion and increased teen violence
isn't proof of anything, but it obviously raises the question of whether
or not legalized abortion contributed to crack killings. But that's not
an issue Levitt wants to touch.
No, what Levitt
wants to talk about is not what happened about 17-21 years after
abortion was legalized, but what happened about 22-24 years later. The longer
the lag between the effect and the hypothesized cause, the more Dr.
Levitt trusts it!
Of course, that's
terrible science. If abortion has an effect, it should show up earlier
in life, before more adult experience has intervened. Similarly, the
effect of legalizing abortion is most trustworthy earlier in history,
before too many intervening changes have gotten in the way of a clean
And the violence
grew fastest among the demographic group with the highest abortion rate:
claims "with property crime (done by younger people) falling before
violent crime." Look, property crime apparently began falling in
the mid 1970s, probably due to "target-hardening." Property
crime statistics are less reliable than violent crime statistics because
the victims frequently don't get a look at the perpetrator so we don't
know the age, and the cops vary tremendously over time and place in how
much they care about catching property criminals .
The FBI provides
much better quality data on homicides (which cops care about a lot) and
serious violent crimes (which "includes rape, robbery, aggravated
assault, and homicide") from the annual crime victimization survey.
So, that's two totally different methodologies measuring two kinds of
crime, but they agree closely on the history, which is that the first
generation born after legalized abortion were the most violent teens in
the history of American crime statistics.
misleading when he implies that younger people don't commit much
violence. The worst year for serious violent crime by ages 12-17 was
1993, when this cohort (all born after abortion was legalized) committed
27% of all serious violent crimes. (1994 was a bad year too). Moreover,
children under 18 accounted for over half of the big increase in serious
violent crimes between the mid-1980s and 1993.
I'm going to lump
the next three of Levitt's arguments together:
After abortion was legalized, the availability of abortions differed
dramatically across states. In some states like North Dakota and in
parts of the deep South, it was virtually impossible to get an abortion
even after Roe v. Wade. If one compares states that had high abortion
rates in the mid 1970s to states that had low abortion rates in the mid
1970s, you see the following patterns with crime. For the period from
1973-1988, the two sets of states (high abortion states and low abortion
states) have nearly identical crime patterns. Note, that this is a
period before the generations exposed to legalized abortion are old
enough to do much crime. So this is exactly what the Donohue-Levitt
theory predicts. But from the period 1985-1997, when the post Roe cohort
is reaching peak crime ages, the high abortion states see a decline in
crime of 30% relative to the low abortion states. Our original data
ended in 1997. If one updated the study, the results would be similar.)
All of the decline in crime from 1985-1997 experienced by high abortion
states relative to low abortion states is concentrated among the age
groups born after Roe v. Wade. For people born before abortion
legalization, there is no difference in the crime patterns for high
abortion and low abortion states, just as the Donohue-Levitt theory
When we compare arrest rates of people born in the same state, just
before and just after abortion legalization, we once again see the
identical pattern of lower arrest rates for those born after
legalization than before.
Data by state is
extremely tricky because women travel across state lines to get
abortions. New Jersey is a classic example. Arrest rates vary by state
and change over time too in all sorts of ways.
Further, states like North Dakota are largely irrelevant to national
Here, I'm going
to turn to a not-yet-published paper by Ted Joyce, an economist with the
National Bureau of Economic Research and Baruch College, City University
of New York. In this paper, Joyce tries hard to remove the effects of
crack crime from the data. Here's part of his abstract:
this paper, I conduct a number of new analyses intended to address
[Levitt and Donohue's] criticisms of my earlier work.
I examine closely the effects of changes in abortion rates between 1971
and 1974. Changes in abortion rates during this period were dramatic,
varied widely by state, had a demonstrable effect on fertility, and were
more plausibly exogenous than changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
If abortion reduced crime, crime should have fallen sharply as these
post-legalization cohorts reached their late teens and early 20s, the
peak ages of criminal involvement.
I conduct separate estimates for whites and blacks because the effect of
legalized abortion on crime should have been much larger for blacks than
whites, since the effect of legalization of abortion on the fertility
rates of blacks was much larger.
was little race difference in the reduction in crime.
I compare changes in homicide rates before and after legalization of
abortion, within states, by single year of age. The analysis of older
adults is compelling because they were largely unaffected by the
crack-cocaine epidemic, which was a potentially important confounding
factor in earlier estimates.
analyses provide little evidence that legalized abortion reduced crime.
And here is the
abstract of the not-yet-published paper by economists John R. Lott and
John Whitley replying to Levitt and Donohue. They find that abortion
increased the murder rate:
empirical work linking abortions and crime [i.e., Levitt and Donohue's]
has assumed, with the exception of five states, that no abortions took
place prior to the Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973. In fact,
abortion data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that states
which allowed abortions prior to the Roe v. Wade only when the life or
health of the mother was in danger actually had higher abortion rates
than some states where it was legal. The use of data from the
Supplemental Homicide Report also allows the direct linkage between the
current age of the murderer and the abortion rate when those murders
more abortion per 1,000 females age 15-44 (i.e., about four percent of
the average) is associated with between a 0.12 to 0.9 percent increase
in murders in any given year. Similar estimates are obtained using
abortions per 1,000 live births. Linear estimates indicate increased
annual victimization costs by at least $3.2 billion.
One of the differences between Joyce's approach and
Lott-Whitley's approach is that Joyce assumes the crack war of the late 1980s and early 1990s waged in sizable measure by urban teens born soon after the rise in urban abortion rates in the early 1970s was an "exogenous" (independent) event while Lott-Whitley
are assuming the legalization of abortion and the subsequent growth in the murder rate during the crack wars might be related.
Both Joyce's and Lott-Whitley's approaches seem defensible ways to explore a hugely complex social phenomenon. What's not reasonable is Levitt's cherry-picking approach, in which he assumes that legalizing abortion isn't responsible for any of the increase in murders at the beginning of the crack wars but is responsible for some of the decrease of murders at the end of the crack wars.
That's called having your cake and eating it too.
The evidence from Canada, Australia, and Romania also support the
hypothesis that abortion reduces crime.
So that's why
Russia, which had such an enormous abortion rate during the Soviet
years, has no problem these days with criminals!
One of the
weirder passages in Freakonomics is the section where Levitt
implies that if only Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu hadn't outlawed
abortion he'd be ruling still, instead of getting overthrown by all
those unruly unaborted criminals.
May I point out
that Canada, Australia, and Romania are not the U.S., and differ from
America in some obvious ways relevant to crime? And are these foreign
studies of a higher quality than Levitt's, or just imitations of his
Studies have shown a reduction in infanticide, teen age drug use, and
teen age childbearing consistent with the theory that abortion will
reduce other social ills similar to crime.
And studies have
shown an increase in venereal
and a decrease in adoption due to legalizing abortion.
And do Levitt's
examples even hold water historically? He claims abortion reduces teen
age drug use, but when the first generation born after legalization
reached their teen years, we had a crack epidemic. And the sharp decline
in teen childbearing didn't happen until the 1990s, when we also had a
sharp decline in abortion rates.
So, Levitt hasn't
gotten very far beyond where his slapdash original theory back in 1999
had got him. If large claims require large evidence, then he's still a
long, long way from meeting the burden of proof.
P.S. Some clever
analyst should figure out why so many commentators desperately want
Levitt's theory to be true.
it a logical inevitability that abortion reduces the crime rate?
While the historical evidence raises strong doubts about this popular
theory, many people assume it must be true on simple logical grounds. A
began your "Pre-emptive
Executions?" article by asking:
legalizing abortion in the early 70s reduce crime in the late 90s by
allowing "pre-emptive capital punishment" of potential
the answer to the above question is obviously yes. If you abort a
disproportionate number of the fetuses that would grow up to be
criminals, you must reduce the crime rate. Of course there may be
many other factors that effect the crime rate, as you point out, but
these factors don't change the basic fact that elective abortion has
reduced the crime rate. To argue otherwise is to make you come off
as a doctrinaire conservative, rather than as a scientist.
seems tautological, but keep in mind that in our country, educated
people have a notorious history of misreading how not-so-educated people
would react to changes in family structure incentives. For example, all
the smart people in 1961 favored raising welfare payments to a few
per month and giving it to unmarried mothers. Nobody they knew
would have a baby out of wedlock just to get a welfare check.
Levitt assumes that legalizing abortion reduces the "unwantedness"
of the babies who do get born. A close reading of Steven Levitt's book
suggests that the reality, however, is not clear at all.
we certainly didn't see an increase in wantedness by the fathers of the
unborn babies that managed to get born. Legalizing abortion reduced the
moral pressure on impregnating boyfriends to marry their girlfriends.
The illegitimacy rate grew steadily from 1964 (which, counterintuitively,
was the year The Pill was introduced, yet was also the inflection point
in the great illegitimacy upswing), until it suddenly somewhat
pleateaued in 1995, the year after the violence rate began dropping, and
a few years after the abortion rate began dropping, perhaps not
Lots of people assume that illegitimacy and abortion must be inversely
correlated, but the historical record in America shows that they are
both high at the same time and low at the same time.
The simplest model appears to be that the Crack Era of the early 1990s
was when a lot of the offshoots of the Liberal Ascendancy of 1964-1980
-- crime, illegitimacy, abortion, and venereal diseases such as AIDS --
were seen by many people as all coming home to roost, and a broad turn
toward more traditional morality began in reaction to the horrors on the
After the legalization of abortion, there was not a major drop in
unwanted births as Levitt assumed when he concocted his theory, and he
still implies even though he knows the facts are otherwise. Instead,
there was a major rise in unwanted pregnancies. According to
Levitt's own words, "Conceptions
rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent
…" I know I reiterate this, but it's a stunning fact that you
never hear in the abortion debate from either side, and it's a key to
grasping what the impact of legalizing abortion was in reality, not
is it clear that this small decline in birthrate improved the quality of
upbringing of the survivors.
Imagine a woman who started having unprotected sex because abortion was
legalized. She gets pregnant, but then, for one reason or another,
doesn't have an abortion.
Perhaps she hopes that having the baby will persuade the father to marry
her. Perhaps when the father refuses to marry her she decides that if no
man loves her, well, at least a baby would love her and cheer her up.
Maybe all her girlfriends are having babies and it seems like the
fashionable thing to do in her circle. Maybe it gets her out of having
to go to high school and take a lot of boring classes she doesn't
understand. Perhaps she finds she can get her own public housing project
apartment and move out of her nagging mother's house if she becomes a
mother herself, and then she can have sex with all the men she wants.
Perhaps she keeps forgetting her appointment at the clinic because she's
not too bright. Perhaps every time she gets the cash together for an
abortion, she spends it on drugs first.
a statistical certainty that millions of babies were conceived because
abortion was legalized but then were born for these kind of reasons. How
many? I don't know.
But it's not at all impossible that legalizing abortion could have, on
the whole, lowered the quality of parents and the upbringing they give
their kids. In fact, it seems pretty likely that out of the tens of
millions of women who had unwanted pregnancies due to legalizing
abortion (tens of millions according to Levitt's own numbers), the ones
who went ahead and had abortions tended to be the more ambitious, better
organized women, while some of the ones didn't get around to having
abortions were the more scatter-brained women.
model fits what we all saw on the streets a lot better than Levitt's
model. Urban black women had huge numbers of legal abortions from 1971
onward, far more than any other group. According to Levitt's logic, that
should have improved the black male teenagers of the late 1980s through
early 1990s.Yet, what evidence is there from, say, 1990 to 1994 that
black males born in 1971-1979 were better behaved than the previous
generation? The better behaved generation of black teens actually were
the ones born in the early 1980s, yet the nonwhite abortion rate peaked
back in 1977.
Steven D Levitt, I am a published economist... I am so heart warmed to
begin to see empirical data graphically presented, albeit in a critique
of economic theory by your art critic, as to be tempted to forgive his
sophomoric understanding of empirical social science. In the
discipline's lingo, Levitt has relied upon something called ceteris
paribus (all other things equal), an inference presumptively valid
unless shown otherwise, to conclude abortion lowers crime.
In his critique, Steve Sailer shows that today's youth are more violent
and depraved. But his post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning fails to prove
is that abortion has made them so. Rather, in the absence of such proof,
ceteris paribus tells us that crime would be worse had it not been
"culled" [of] 'the children who stood the greatest chance of
aside the condescension dripping from this, there are two logical issues
here: ceteris paribus and upon whom the burden of proof rests.
addressed ceteris paribus in my
debate in 1999 with Levitt:
Admittedly, it's still theoretically possible that without abortion the black youth murder rate would have, say, sextupled instead of merely
quintupling [from 1984 to 1993].
this is what Levitt must be arguing over these last six years.
But you can instantly see why he never makes clear his case. There's two
problems: the first is that saying this instantly raises the question of
why Levitt refuses to investigate the at least equally interesting
question of whether legalizing abortion first drove crime up. As
I wrote then:
Still, there's a more interesting question: Why did the places with the highest abortion rates in the '70s (e.g., NYC and Washington D.C.) tend to suffer the worst crack-driven crime waves in the early '90s?
other reason is the obvious dubiousness of what Levitt is claiming: He
is implying that: Although my theory fails its single best test case in
catastrophic fashion, I can still separate out the very subtle
breeze of the effects of legalizing abortion from the hurricane of other
simultaneous events, such as the rise and fall of the crack wars, vast
increases in imprisonment, changes in police tactics, the decline in the
abortion rate from 1992 onward, changes in the economy, increased sales
of guns to law-abiding citizens, increased number of cops, the rise of
rent-a-cops, the spread of alarms and video cameras, the rise of
marijuana among the urban underclass, the spread of Depo-Provera
contraceptive shots, etcetera etcetera...
that brings us to the question of the burden of proof. Upon whom should
it rest: Levitt or me?
is a sympathetic figure, perhaps a heroic one, considering the
difficulty of the analytical burden he has undertaken.
I am a
less appealing figure: the scoffer, the sniper, the naysayer. I do not
offer a complete model of the causes of crime trends as Levitt claims to
do. Nor do I feel competent to undertake one. I am merely poking holes
in his big theory.
it's a wise maxim in the sciences that large assertions require large
evidence. Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory is one of the bigger social
science assertions of recent times. The weight of the evidence, however,
falls far short of the weight of the importance of his claim. So, by all
traditions of science, the burden of proof lies upon him, and he has
failed to meet it.
Seligman on the Decline in Crime: In Forbes, Seligman
New York Times can't quite grasp the concept, but there's a
stunningly simple explanation for the huge drop in crime rates: The
villains are behind bars. A big story, inadequately memorialized by the
media, is that crime in America has become a much smaller story. Crime
rates have declined by a third since the early 1990s. Violent
crimes--defined by the U.S. Justice Department as homicide, rape,
robbery and assault--are down by some 60% since 1993.
Counterintuitive as it might seem, this happy result came about via a
massive government social program. The program did not promote job
training or administer therapy to thugs. Instead it consisted of putting
them behind bars. Today's jail and prison population of 2.1 million is
53% above the 1993 number and roughly triple the 1984 number.
The connection of incarceration to crime rates is hard to ignore. The
number of Americans in prison during 1984-2003 correlates -0.71 with the
number of violent crimes in the country. That powerful negative
coefficient says that increases in the prison population go hand in hand
with declines in crimes committed.
The only part of this argument that makes sense
is the assertion that our "three strikes and you're out" laws
and drug laws are putting away a certain number of relatively harmless
folks. But the magnitude of this problem has been wildly overstated. The
"nonviolent" prison population is indeed sizable, but it isn't
harmless. Last year the Justice Department's statistical bureau turned
in a group portrait of inmates who were about to be released after
serving time for nonviolent offenses. The data tell us that 95% had an
arrest history before the arrest that led to their current imprisonment.
On average they had 9.3 prior arrests and about a third of these had
been for violent crimes. The fact is that a sizable proportion of
criminals sentenced for nonviolent offenses like buying dope is, in
fact, chronically violent.
Several weeks ago Charles Murray wrote an article
for the London Times on the United Kingdom's growing criminal
underclass. The U.K. is, it happens, one of the European countries with
incarceration rates far lower than America's. England and Wales combined
have a prison population of around 75,000 and a crime problem widely
identified as out of control. Citing the American experience, Murray
suggested that the British could substantially reduce crime if they were
willing to go to an inmate level of around 250,000. Maybe, if enough
Brits get mugged in coming years, they would be willing.
was quoted in the Sunday
US has dealt with the problem of the underclass by putting 2m people in
jail, which has had a big impact. We haven’t rehabilitated anyone but
just kept them out of society. It is not a happy solution but it is the
at least Levitt has a theory! Dave Friedman blogs
something that I've seen in similar words in many other places:
"All the arguments opposed to Levitt's that I have seen merely argue that Levitt is incorrect. They do not provide an alternative explanation for the reduction in crime. A successful critique of his
argument would, I think, propose an alternative explanation."
That's not how science works. For example, if I take some
scientific mystery that's not well understood, such as "What Came Before the Big Bang?" and I assert that the Big Bang was caused by
commie pinkos fluoridating the water supply, well, the fact that you might not have an
alternative hypothesis doesn't mean I win, or even that my idea should be treated
The essence of the scientific method is the falsification of hypotheses. The falsifiers may not be as attractive
figures as the hypothesizers, but their job is just as necessary.
Anyway, it's not as if we lack alternative hypotheses. Levitt himself lists a number of
perfectly reasonable factors that he believes helped bring about the decline in crime -- the end of the crack wars, the vast increase in imprisonment, the addition of policemen, etc. I suspect those are correct and they
may just have had an even larger influence than Levitt claims they did. Further, there are plenty of plausible theories he has never investigated.
The crack wars permanently snuffed out the criminal careers of tens of
thousands of the most dangerous young criminals by getting them murdered
by other young criminals. I'd also point to the growth in popularity of
smoking marijuana instead of crack among urban youths. Another likely
factor is the increased moral traditionalism that emerged in the early 1990s: the abortion rate dropped sharply and the illegitimacy rate plateaued after a long, long increase.
a lot of Levitt's supporters tend to assume that because some observers
predicted an increase in crime in the late 1990s, then, because they
were wrong, Levitt deserves credit as a seer. But, of course, Levitt
didn't predict anything. He wrote in 1999, using crime data through
1997, by which time the big drop in crime was already in the books. It's
easy to pick Giacomo to win the Kentucky Derby after the race is run.
The funny thing, of course, is that the Levitt Effect doesn't even match
up with what happened in the past when the history is examined at the
appropriate level of detail.
let's make a prediction based on the putative Levitt Effect. The abortion
rate per 1000 white women aged 15-44 dropped steadily from about 19
in 1991 to about 11 in 1999. (The black abortion rate dropped too,
although not by not as large a percentage.) If Levitt believed in the
Levitt Effect, then he should be predicting a sizable increase in the
white juvenile (17 and under) violent crime rate over the decade or so
beginning about 2007. Yet, I haven't heard Levitt raising the alarm
about the coming generation of less culled white boys.
course, the Levitt Effect signally failed to predict the past, so it's
effectiveness at predicting the future is doubtful as well.
it's interesting that the decline in the abortion rate occurred during
the same period as the decline in crime. Similarly, the illegitimacy
rate among blacks started falling about 1995. In Levitt's "unwantedness"
model, it's implied (but never stated) that abortion fights
illegitimacy. Yet, when the abortion rate was going up in the 1970s, so
was the illegitimacy rate. When the abortion rate among blacks was going
down in the 1990s, the illegitimacy rate went down.
suspect that what happened was that the catastrophe of the crack years
inspired a rebirth of moral traditionalism that helped bring down,
crime, abortion, and illegitimacy.
Impact of Abortion Legalization? Over at GNXP.com,
Dobeln has a good graph
showing that the murder rates of 14-17 year olds and 18-24 year olds
simply returned to their long-term levels after the crack years. What
has really driven down the murder rate overall has been the decline in
murderousness among the 25 and over crowd, but that began back in the
early 1980s. It is probably due to the big increase in imprisonment that
began a few years before that.
Youth Violence Peaked After Roe, Too:
kids born after abortion legalization didn't just go on a murder
spree. Here's a graph of more data from the federal Bureau of Justice
is from the FBI's annual National Crime Victimization Study. It shows
that "serious violent crime" (which "includes rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and homicide") where at least one of the attackers was perceived by the
victim as being age 12 to 17 peaked in 1993 in terms of both
absolute number of crimes (1,108,000, as represented by the blue bars
above) and percentage of all serious violent crimes (27%, as represented
by the red line above). And the second worst year in absolute terms was
Abortion laws were liberalized in 15 states in 1970 and Roe v. Wade
legalized abortion nationally in 1973, a full 20 years before the worst
year for 12-17 year olds. So, contra Levitt's Freakonomics,
the cohort born after Roe v. Wade turned out to be the the most
violent youths in the last three decades, and perhaps ever. (Keep in
mind that the peak
year for the nonwhite abortion rate was 1977 and 1976 was almost as
high. And legal abortion was popular several years before that in the
big urban centers like NYC, DC, and LA where the late
80s, early 90s run-up in crime started first.)
And don't assume that youth violence is an insignificant share of all
violence. Over half of the 28% increase in the total number of serious
violent crimes between 1986 and 1993 was due to the increased violence
of 12-17 year olds compared to just 42% of the increase for all adults
age 18 and over (and 5% for assailants of unknown age).
Keep It Complicated, Smartie! One amusing aspect of the controversy
over economist Steven D. Levitt's abortion-cut-crime
assertion is how many academic economists seem to feel that, even
though Levitt ducks answering my simple challenges to his theory, they
should take his arguments for his theory (based on complex multiple
regression studies) on faith because they are more complicated
than my easy-to-understand graphs and comparisons.
statistical training came at MBA school and on the job in the for-profit
marketing research industry, where the maxim KISS: Keep It Simple,
Stupid! is much admired. Academic economists, however, seem to be
followers of KICS: Keep It Complicated, Smartie. The more moving
parts required to support a theory, the better!
research psychologist at a major university writes:
economists, with their faith in regression analyses, amaze me. If
you do lots of clever follow-ups you can sometimes get some fairly good
idea what is going on using regression, but even that is never
definitive -- but just to do some very molar-level coarse regression and
declare victory -- it's just crappy social science.
course, several academic economists have written long
multiple-regression based analyses undermining Levitt's theory. Both Ted
Joyce and the team of John R. Lott and John Whitley have sent me their
latest, unpublished responses to Levitt-Donohue's response to their
first responses (got that?). (Here
are the abstracts from the two newest papers.)
and Levitt notoriously don't like each other. I don't know whether
Levitt first attacked Lott's more-guns-less-crime theory before or after
Lott attacked Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory, but in any case,
Levitt's Freakonomics includes a half page of ad hominem
abuse of Lott while attempting to dismiss Lott's more-guns-less-crime
problem with highly complex models is that they make it easier to hide
your assumptions. Levitt, in effect, assumes that abortion could not
have caused the rise in crime that occurred among young people born soon after legalization
but could have caused the fall in crime after the crack years. So, hesto-presto,
he gets the results out of his model that he pre-ordained in the first
assumes that the crack crime wave was a random event and works very hard
to see what the effect of abortion was on non-crack related criminality.
He finds no effect.
and Whitley, in contrast, are open to the possibility that the crack
crime wave tended to get
started first in high abortion places like NYC is not a coincidence.
They find a positive relation between the abortion rate and the
subsequent murder rate.
can argue reasonably for either Joyce's assumption or for Lott-Whitley's
assumption, but Levitt's assumption ("Pay no attention to the rise
in crime behind the curtain!") is clearly derisible. But because
Levitt keeps it complicated, few notice that he's playing a shell game.
what strikes me about both papers is how Levitt's academic critics lack
the instinct for the jugular that is inculcated in the business world.
Due to the methodologically shoddy way Levitt assembled his theory, it's
easy to show graphically that several of his claims about recent social
history are 180 degrees false, but academic economists seem to have a
prejudice against using killer graphs. The cumulative persuasiveness of
both papers is great, but you can see how many observers would, rather
than carefully read all the papers, instead just throw up their hands
and assume that the fashionable young superstar from the U. of Chicago
is right on reputation alone.
economists, of all people, also aren't too offended when I point out
that they also have a self-interested reason for hoping Levitt is seen as
winning this debate: Freakonomics remains the #2 bestseller on
Amazon, which is an extraordinarily strong performance for a book by an
economist. I'm sure that dozens of economics professors are preparing
book proposals at this very moment.
Cosh explains the ideological reasons both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life
alike seem to prefer Levitt's theory:
"Meanwhile, Steve Sailer is quietly destroying the suddenly-ubiquitous Steven Levitt.
Freakonomics' hypothesis that the demographic effects of Roe v. Wade ultimately served to drive American crime rates down in the 1990s. It feels like Levitt's theory has been embraced by both pro-choicers, who would like to believe that legalized abortion has positive social effects, and by pro-lifers, who just want to convince people that it has some sort of second-order social effect we are obliged to consider. Unfortunately for both sides, the theory had already been reduced to a rapidly drying heap of bones before Levitt put it in book form."
is also a personal reason for the popularity of the abortion-cut-crime
theory. After 40 million or so legal abortions, there are a whole lot
of people with uneasy consciences, and Levitt's theory lets them say to
themselves, "I wasn't really sliding out of a sticky situation, I
was ... fighting crime! Yeah,
that's the ticket!"
on the other hand, appears to be personally Pro-Life. He and his wife
have had three children themselves, one of whom tragically died, and
adopted another. He's an activist in educating people about the dangers
to children of swimming pools, saying they owning a swimming pool is
times more dangerous to kids than owning a gun.
on the waste caused by legalizing abortion: The impact of legalizing
abortion on the crime rate appears beyond the ability of contemporary
social science reliably to tease out from the maelstrom of currents
roiling American social life over the last 40 years. If you had started
looking at the question in 1996, using crime statistics through 1994,
the most likely conclusion would have been that legalizing abortion
increased crime. Starting in 1999, using statistics from 1997 compared
to 1985 (but ignoring the intervening years), Levitt was able to make
the case for the opposite conclusion. Judging from data through 2002,
however, Levitt's case is once again eroding as the murder rate for
25-34 year olds goes up as the post-legalization cohort enters
best guess is that legalization worsened crime, but that this effect
faded after a number of years as society adjusted. But, that's just a
the key fact, the under-appreciated take home lesson from this
controversy, the observation that Levitt and I agree upon, is that
legalizing abortion greatly increased the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Harford writes in The Financial Times of London:
[Steven D.] Levitt now says that the research made him more pro-life. “I grew up in Minnesota. Very liberal,” he says. “I was just from birth taught to be pro-choice.” But when he discovered while writing the paper that after Roe v Wade the number of abortions rose to nearly 1.5 million a year, and that while the number of births fell, the number of conceptions rose, he thought again. “One in four of the pregnancies which took place were just because people were lazy,” he says. “That’s a lot. That’s a lot of abortions.”
course, that fact undermines the persuasiveness of Levitt's assumption
that abortion cut crime by reducing the number of unwanted births.
Because legalizing abortion caused tens of millions of conceptions that
wouldn't have happened otherwise, the overall impact on who actually got
born becomes extremely hard to model. Levitt's simplistic assumption
that legalization improved the quality of parents and children, which is
the key to the popularity of his argument, thus drops in plausibility
from a sure-thing to a nobody-knows.
Easterbrook Falls for Levitt's Abortion-Cut-Crime Theory:
Easterbrook, who ought to know better, writes
in the Washington Post:
Levitt’s notion of a relationship between abortion access and the
crime drop. First, “Freakonomics” shows that although commonly cited
factors such as improved policing tactics, more felons kept in prison
and the declining popularity of crack account for some of the national
reduction in crime that began in about the year 1990, none of these
completes the explanation. (New York City and San Diego have enjoyed
about the same percentage decrease in crime, for instance, though the
former adopted new policing tactics and the latter did not.) What was
the significance of the year 1990, Levitt asks? That was about 16 years
after Roe v. Wade. Studies consistently show that a disproportionate
number of crimes are committed by those raised in broken homes or who
were unwanted as children. When abortion became legal nationally, Levitt
theorizes, births of unwanted children declined; 16 years later crime
began to decline, as around age 16 is the point at which many
once-innocent boys start their descent into the criminal life. Leavitt’s
clincher point is that the crime drop commenced approximately five years
sooner in Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington state than
it did in the nation as a whole. All legalized abortion about five years
youth violent crime started going up, not down, 16 years after
legalization (1970 in cities where crack got started about 1986, 1973 in
the rest of the country, where the bad stuff arrived about 1989).
the press's effusive response to Levitt's theory that legalized abortion
has cut crime rates:
Many members of the educated classes probably believed this about
abortion long before Levitt ever formalized the argument. His book has
just made it more acceptable to talk about the subject openly. Poking
holes in Levitt's argument does not change minds among the educated
elite because his theory happens to fit so well with their view of the
For the educated, the process of having a child activates the same
decision making skills as making a major career move. They can't even
imagine doing it without considering timing, finances, impact on their
professional lives, and a host of other factors.
They realize that accidents happen, of course -- and that's where
abortion comes in. Abortion corrects family planning mistakes. It also
allows the careless lower orders to catch up with themselves, the
responsible users of birth control.
The educated assume that, with abortion available to eliminate errors,
live births surely must represent children that are planned (or at least
actively wanted by the time they're born). Given these assumptions, it
just seems obvious to elites that abortion must be cutting crime by
reducing the number of babies in the "unwanted" category.
Maybe the chattering classes would find it less obvious if they could
see the issue from evolution's point of view -- one in which planning
and wantedness have nothing to do with reproduction.
As far as nature is concerned, producing offspring is the default
position. It's just what living things do. Beating nature at her own
game takes intelligence, foresight, and planning -- all of which tend to
be in short supply at the bottom rungs of society and among the low IQ
Every means of avoiding baby production -- abstinence, contraception,
abortion --requires some level of self control, active decision-making,
or competence. By contrast, producing a baby requires nothing more than
having sex and waiting.
Thus, it is almost inevitable that many babies will be born to women who
are among the most impulsive, the least capable, and the least
intelligent. How could it be otherwise? No need to even consider the
issue of wantedness. It's just evolution winning again.
Inopportune pregnancy obviously has been around for a long time. During
the 15th through 19th centuries, many European countries apparently
dealt with the resulting babies by dumping them into foundling homes,
where the vast majority died from disease and malnutrition. Sarah
Blaffer Hrdy discusses this in horrifying detail in her book *Mother
Nature,* where she estimates that millions of babies were abandoned
throughout Europe. Some foundling homes even installed revolving barrels
so that parents could drop off infants anonymously.
My guess is that the foundling home system, brutal as it was, probably
was much more efficient than modern day abortion at culling the
crime-prone and otherwise "least likely to succeed" babies.
In past centuries, women who failed to acquire adequate economic
resources through marriage or work would also have failed to keep their
offspring alive. Without welfare available, unwed or poor mothers would
have had little choice but to give their infants up to the foundling
home, and to likely death. Thus, most women who successfully raised
children would have been at least minimally competent in a social and
By contrast, today's "abortion + welfare" system virtually
ensures that many of the most incompetent and least intelligent women
will give birth and raise their children to adulthood. The likely result
is an increase in crime, not a decrease.
Many of those discussing Levitt's argument coyly refer to it as
"controversial," while clearly thinking it's a bit of a
giggle. I wonder if they would find it so amusing to see what a really
effective "preemptive execution" system looked like.
Let me try to
model this with numbers. The model that Levitt wants you to assume, even
though he knows it's not true, is something like the following:
- Assume before
the legalization of abortions that there are 100 conceptions and thus
(ignoring miscarriages) 100 births.
- Assume that
abortion is legalized and the 25 "most unwanted" pregnancies
- Assume that
"most unwanted" is roughly synonymous with "least
- So, now only
the 75 most promising fetuses are born and the 25 least promising never
grow up to mug you. As J. Stalin liked to say while signing death
warrants, "No man, no problem."
Now, it's easy to
see the lack of realism is these assumptions. The assumption that the 25
who get aborted will be the 25 least promising is grossly
over-optimistic. For example, women are seldom making decisions on
abortion not based on where their unborn children would come out
relative to the other 99 but on other, more personal grounds. There
might be a certain tendency in that direction, but it's going to be
But, that's just
the surface of what's wrong with this model. It's actually radically
fallacious because it doesn't account for the vast increase in unwanted
pregnancies, which is ethically sleazy of Levitt, because he knows all
about what actually occurred.
what really happened, according to Levitt's own statement in Freakonomics:
rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent
what happened looked more like this.
After legalization, there were now 129 conceptions, not 100, and 35
abortions, leaving 94 births instead of 100.
But who were those 94 births? This is where it gets terribly murky.
--- Some of those
births will be of the 29 who wouldn't have been conceived without
legalization. Women got pregnant assuming, consciously or unconsciously,
that they'd have an abortion, then didn't get one for any of a host of
reason. Will these kids turn out better or worse than the ones who are
getting aborted? Who knows?
The 94 births
could have turned out more promising, less promising, or the same.
Nobody knows, including Dr. Levitt.
legalizing abortion didn't cut black crime: A reader writes:
have been following this debate with some interest. It seems to be
that most internet commentators merely draw attention to your critique
without adding their own thoughts. Perhaps, they are scared of Dr.
all the commentators who have endorsed Levitt's theory haven't looked
hard at the actual crime numbers. But, I suspect they just assume that
Levitt is fleshing out an idea they've long had about the effects of
abortion. As another reader writes:
heard this on the Howard Stern radio show 15 years ago
What do you call an abortion clinic in Harlem?
Levitt's chapter is a joke in more ways than one.
To be honest I can't see how abortions haven't reduced crime to a
degree. What if all the abortions that took place since 1973 never
happened? We would have disproportionately more poor black males being
born and hence more crime in all categories except insider trading and
spying for the Soviet Union, Israel or China.
kind of racial eugenics thinking is clearly the reason so many people
assume Levitt is right, even when I show his theory badly fails its
obvious tests. They understood that Levitt's "wantedness"
theory is a euphemism for legal abortion cutting down on the number of
blacks (a point Levitt made more explicitly in his 1999 first draft
paper, written with John J. Donohue).
the reality turns out to be much more complicated, when you first
realize that legalized abortion led to almost 30% more pregnancies.
Indeed, legalized abortion appears to have hollowed out the black middle
and working classes, while expanding the black underclass.
effects at the bottom of the social scale of legal abortion are very
hard for someone at the top of the social scale to predict, as this
I became a lawyer I was a social worker in a major urban area, handling
an AFDC caseload. Almost all my clients were similar in that they had at
least one child, usually born out of wedlock. But there were big
differences when it came to having additional babies. The clients who
had fewer out of wedlock children generally were the more intelligent,
competent, and organized people in my caseload.
Obviously, I'm speaking in relative terms here. Most of my clients weren’t
big brains. But there are gradations of intelligence and ability among
welfare clients, as in any group of people. And some members of my
caseload clearly were better at learning from life than were others.
For my more able clients, having the first baby sometimes served as a
wakeup call. They now realized how difficult it was to raise a kid. They
also had an incentive to better themselves through work experience and
education so they could support the child and claw their way into the
By contrast, the less intelligent and less competent often seemed to be
"unwakeupable." Learning from experience was not their strong
suit. Our office's clients included drug-addicted mothers with multiple
babies who had seen one child after another taken away and put into
foster care. That didn’t stop them from having more.
Given what I saw as a welfare worker, I'd say that trying to gauge the
impact of abortion on crime by making assumptions about "wantedness"
makes no sense at all.
Clients who had abortions didn’t necessarily want to do so. They often
felt sad, even bitter, about the experience. But they saw themselves as
being forced into it by circumstances.
Clients who had multiple out-of-wedlock babies may have
"wanted" them, but their attitudes toward childbearing bore no
resemblance to middle class notions of "planned parenthood."
Many clearly got pregnant intentionally, but for reasons that middle
class observers would find incomprehensible. They often thought having a
baby would give them status with their friends, or make their boyfriends
love them, or provide them with a child who would always need them.
In short, the clients in my welfare caseload who had abortions tended to
be reasonably competent and devoted caretakers of their existing
children, while those who had additional babies were more likely to be
immature and clueless. From what I can tell, my caseload was entirely
typical for urban areas throughout the country. I wish someone could
explain how this real-world experience fits with Levitt's theory that
abortion somehow culls potential criminals.
Many people who subscribe to the idea that abortion cuts crime seem to
be thinking something along the lines of the following (though they won’t
admit it in polite company): Blacks commit more crimes than whites.
Blacks also have more abortions than whites. Culling all those black
babies must be cutting crime.
But this is racist nonsense of the worst sort. Not all blacks commit
crimes, only a small subset of them do. Is that crime-prone subset
having most of the abortions? My experience says no.
fairly positive review of the rest of Levitt's Freakonomics is
available at http://www.vdare.com/sailer/050424_freakonomics.htm
Abortion Spread Venereal Diseases: Law professors Jonathan Click and
Thomas Stratmann wrote a paper entitled "The
Effect of Abortion Legalization on the Incidence of Sexually Transmitted
Diseases." From their abstract:
CDC data on the incidence of gonorrhea and syphilis by state, we test
the hypothesis that judicial and legislative decisions to legalize
abortion lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. We find
that gonorrhea and syphilis incidences are significantly and positively
correlated with abortion legalization. According to our estimates,
abortion legalization might account for as much as one third of the
average disease incidence.
only did unmarried people have coitus more, but my impression is that
the introduction of the oral contraceptive in 1964 and the legalization
of abortion in 1970-1973 sent condom usage into an eclipse until the
accumulating venereal epidemics (herpes, AIDS, chlamydia, etc.) brought
the condom back into fashion in the 1980s or 1990s.
being icky, this STD trend has some implications for the
abortion-cut-crime theory. Steven D. Levitt's notion rests on his claim
that legalizing abortion increases the "wantedness" of the
survivors of legalized abortion. While this sounds plausible at first,
illegitimacy rates soared, which suggest that wantedness by the
surviving babies' fathers definitely didn't go up.
writes about his finding of a big jump in VD rates stemming from
too provides some indirect evidence against the Donohue and Levitt
hypothesis, since arguably abortion legalization could lead to an
increase in unwanted kids (woman has sex w/o protection because of the
security that she could have an abortion, but then cannot go through
with it; or women who are against abortion face competition from women
who are willing to have abortions, so to compete, they need to be
willing to have unprotected sex, etc).
abortion reduced unmarried women's position in relation to the men who
wanted to have unprotected coitus with them. That couldn't have been
good for their children.
Joyce on the Abortion-Cut-Crime theory: Here's the abstract to this
unpublished new paper:
inverse relationship between abortion and crime has spurred new research
and much controversy. If the relationship is causal, then polices that
increased abortion have generated enormous external benefits from
reduced crime. In previous papers, I argued that evidence for a casual
relationship is weak and incomplete. In this paper, I conduct a number
of new analyses intended to address [Levitt and Donohue's] criticisms of
my earlier work.
I examine closely the effects of changes in abortion rates between 1971
and 1974. Changes in abortion rates during this period were dramatic,
varied widely by state, had a demonstrable effect on fertility, and were
more plausibly exogenous than changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
If abortion reduced crime, crime should have fallen sharply as these
post-legalization cohorts reached their late teens and early 20s, the
peak ages of criminal involvement.
I conduct separate estimates for whites and blacks because the effect of
legalized abortion on crime should have been much larger for blacks than
whites, since the effect of legalization of abortion on the fertility
rates of blacks was much larger.
was little race difference in the reduction in crime.
I compare changes in homicide rates before and after legalization of
abortion, within states, by single year of age. The analysis of older
adults is compelling because they were largely unaffected by the
crack-cocaine epidemic, which was a potentially important confounding
factor in earlier estimates.
analyses provide little evidence that legalized abortion reduced
Joyce National Bureau of Economic Research and Baruch College, City
University of New York
another unpublished paper, John R. Lott and John Whitley found
correlations suggesting that increased abortion actually increased
the murder rate. Here's Lott and Whitley's abstract:
empirical work linking abortions and crime has assumed, with the
exception of five states, that no abortions took place prior to the Roe
v. Wade decision in January 1973. In fact, abortion data from the
Centers for Disease Control indicate that states which allowed abortions
prior to the Roe v. Wade only when the life or health of the mother was
in danger actually had higher abortion rates than some states where it
was legal. The use of data from the Supplemental Homicide Report also
allows the direct linkage between the current age of the murderer and
the abortion rate when those murders were born.).
One more abortion per 1,000 females age 15-44 (i.e., about four percent
of the average) is associated with between a 0.12 to 0.9 percent
increase in murders in any given year. Similar estimates are obtained
using abortions per 1,000 live births. Linear estimates indicate
increased annual victimization costs by at least $3.2 billion.
I'm not sure, but
perhaps the difference between Joyce's approach and Lott's approach is
that Joyce assumes the crack war of the late 1980s and early 1990s waged
in sizable measure by urban teens born soon after the rise in urban
abortion rates in the early 1970s was an "exogenous"
(independent) event while Lott-Whitley seems to be assuming the
legalization of abortion and the subsequent growth in the murder rate
during the crack wars might be related.
If that's so, I
would say that both Joyce's and Lott-Whitley's approaches seem
defensible ways to explore a hugely complex social phenomenon. What's
not reasonable is Levitt's cherry-picking approach, in which he assumes
that legalizing abortion isn't responsible for any of the increase in
murders at the beginning of the crack wars but is responsible for some
of the decrease of murders at the end of the crack wars.
The bottom line,
though, is that neither Joyce nor Lott-Whitley found evidence, on the
whole, for Levitt's theory.
me the evidence: I spent some time on the phone and emailing with
Steven Levitt back in 1999, so I think I can explain the origin of his
abortion-cuts-crime theory pretty fairly. After he became a father for
the first time, he started thinking about the huge number of legal
abortions, tens of millions over the last several decades. (My
impression is that he is more pro-life than pro-choice). So, he thought
to himself, That must have had some kind of effect on society.
(Actually, plausible as that sounds, as his further research showed,
most of those abortions were of fetuses that wouldn't have been
conceived if abortion hadn't been legalized, so the actual effect on who
is alive today isn't as large, or at least it's not as direct, as he'd
thought to himself: what's changed that's driving down the crime rate in
the later 1990s. How about the legalization of abortion in the early
1970s? Criminals tend to be in their early 20s, so the timing seems
looked at some crime data for 1985 and 1997, and noticed that crime had
declined more on average in high abortion states like New York. So, he
and John J. Donohue wrote up a draft paper suggesting abortion cut crime
and started discussing it at academic conferences, where it got a
respectful hearing. In August of 1999, the paper got leaked to the
Chicago Tribune, which splashed it big.
struck me when I read it as possible but not for certain, so I started
looking into it. Greg Cochran pointed out that if you look at murder
rates per year over the century, they go up and down a lot long before
abortion was legalized. With that in mind, I started looking at the
murder rates by age cohort and it quickly jumped out at me that they had
gone through a vast upheaval between 1985 and 1997 that overwhelmed any
effect related to abortion: namely, the crack wars.
men born in the years after legalization (1970 in NY and California,
where the crack wars got started, 1973 in the rest of the country)
became extraordinarily murderous in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You
could hardly attribute the post-legalization cohort's better behavior in
the late 1990s to abortion being legalized without also attributing to
abortion their horrible behavior in the early 1990s. If there is an
abortion effect, common sense says that it should impact people earlier
in life, rather than later when all sorts of other factors have had more
time to have an impact. But it was the post-legalization young who went
on the worst youth murder spree in American history. In fact, you could
make just about as strong a case that the legalization of abortion
contributed to the murder spree by post-legalization youth.
did crime go down earlier in high abortion states? The cracks wars
tended to burn out earliest in places where they got started earliest,
which typically were high abortion cities that had had liberal politics,
like NYC, LA, and Washington D.C. (where abortion was de facto legal
from 1970 onward). Meanwhile, the crack wars spread in the 1990s to more
conservative, low-abortion states in the hinterland, driving up the
crime rate there.
news came as a surprise to Levitt when we debated his theory in Slate in
1999, because he hadn't really thought about what happened in between
his datapoints in 1985 and 1997, even though it was huge news at the
time. Moreover, Levitt hadn't thought to look at the data broken down by
age cohorts, which turned out to be fatal to his theory about history.
is where the story gets mysterious. Rather than say, Oh, well, it was
just an unpublished paper, Levitt kept on pushing his abortion-cut-crime
idea, making that the most hyped element in his book Freakonomics,
despite having lots of other material that he could have given the
primary emphasis to instead.
never come up with simple answers to my challenges. He's instead upped
the statistical complexity level of his explanations to the point where
people generally feel they have to take his explanations on faith. He's
nice guy, so lots of people decide to trust him rather than go through
all the work of crunching the numbers for themselves. But, under the
mild-mannered exterior, he does have a bit of a stubborn ego, which I
guess is the solution to the mystery of why he keeps redoubling the
stakes on this one issue. The shame is that he's a bright
guy and doesn't need this one theory to make his reputation.
here's some new data that I don't think has ever been published in a
readable table before It's the FBI's
homicide offending rates per 100,000, with columns being ages (even
ages only) and the rows being the approximate birth years (for the full
here). Pick an age out and scan down and see if you can see if
legalization (1970-1973) had an effect that you can notice. (For graphs
of this data, click
Offending Rates by Birth Year by Age 1980-2002
|Approx. Birth Year
|Roe v. Wade
put in bold the maximum murder rate for each age group. For 14 year
olds, for example, the worst cohort was those born in about 1979 (so,
their peak murder year was around 1993). For 16 year olds, 1977. For 18
year olds -- and the highest murder rate for any age -- was for those
born about 1976 (peaking about 1994). For 20 year olds, 1973. For 22
year olds, 1969 and 1971. And so forth.
you can see is that there were two murder peaks over the last 30 years.
The first was the powder cocaine wars that peaked around 1980, when the
killers tended to be in their 20s and older. The second was the vast
crack cocaine wars that peaked around 1990-1994, and the killers became
progressively younger as the wars went on, which is another thing that
is the opposite of what Levitt's theory predicts.
crack wars were fought much more by teenagers than the earlier crime
waves, and most of those were born after legalization in their
region, especially because of how much the early legalizing of abortion
New York area dominated the crack wars in the early years. What made the
crack years so murderous was the entry into the killing of so many teens
-- exactly the generation that was theorized by Levitt to have been
culled by abortion into law-abidingness.
the abortion rate was higher in the later 1970s than right after
legalization, so I suppose Levitt could argue that there just wasn't
enough abortion after legalization for the Levitt Effect to work its
magic. But, the abortion rate for blacks went up quite fast right after
legalization (probably because of urbanization), and it was of course
young black males whose homicide rate went through the roof during the
crack wars. So, that's not a very persuasive argument.
look at that table and if you can see the Levitt Effect, let me know
because I sure can't.
Physicist, a Chemist, and an Economist are Shipwrecked on a desert
island. Starving, they find a case of canned pork and beans on the
beach, but they have no can opener. So, they hold a symposium on how to
open the cans. The physicist goes first:
devised a physical solution. We find a pointed rock and propel it at the
lid of the can at, say, 25 meters per second --"
chemist breaks in:
I have a chemical solution: we heat the molecules of the contents to
over 100 degrees Centigrade until the pressure builds to --"
economist, condescension dripping from his voice, interrupts:
gentlemen, I have a much more elegant solution. Assume we have a
is playing this traditional economist's game with his abortion-cut-crime
theory: Gentlemen, assume the rise in juvenile murders that
tended to start about 16-17 years after abortion was legalized had absolutely
nothing to do with legalizing abortion. But, assume the
decline in juvenile murders that tended to start about 22 years after
abortion was legalized was caused by legalizing abortion...
Demise of the Shotgun Wedding: Here's an AP
graph based on Census data of the median age of first marriages.
Note how the male marriage age was fairly stable right until Roe v.
Wade. This upward surge in age is particularly striking considering the
enormous upswing in unwanted pregnancies engendered by abortion
legalization: almost 30% more conceptions according to Levitt.
It's crucial to keep in mind when evaluating Levitt's simplistic model
of human behavior (legalizing abortion cuts unwanted births) that the
biggest effect of legalization was not to decrease the number of
unwanted births (births declined only 6%) but to increase the number of
unwanted pregnancies (pregnancies up almost 30%). This huge increase in
unwanted pregnancies makes highly dubious Levitt's assumption that that
the fetuses that actually made it through to being born would face a
better life than the previous cohort. The reality was just much more
complicated than Levitt's little model assumed, so it's very hard to
tell what the impact was.
Out!" Advises The Weekly Standard: Another small step in
Steven D. Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory becoming conventional
wisdom is the ecstatic review of Freakonomics on The Weekly
Standard's website. Dean
"Soxblog" Barnett writes:
STEVEN D. LEVITT CLAIMS that physically he is the "weakest human being alive." He may also be one of the most courageous.
Along with his coauthor Stephen Dubner, Levitt has written a book called
Freakonomics, which details his innovative and brilliant way of looking at the
world. Levitt's mind works in the following manner: First he asks questions that few have the creativity to ask; then he follows a rigorous statistical analysis to find the answers.
Some of Freakonomics' conclusions are fearlessly contrarian. To wit, Levitt posits, among other things, that some teachers are cheaters, real estate agents tend not to serve their clients' best interests, successful parenting has a lot more to do with who the parents are than how they actually parent, and crime rates dropped in the 1990s as a direct result of 1973's Roe v. Wade decision. In spite of the controversy that
Freakonomics is almost certain to cause, Levitt has produced a work full of stunning insights that can rightfully be called genius.
reason that a number of bloggers are wetting themselves with joy over Freakonomics
is because Levitt's publicists put together an innovative PR campaign
that made bloggers feel appreciated. The flacks apparently Googled up a
list of bloggers who had mentioned Levitt previously and mailed them
free copies of the book about a month before it came out.
As I pointed out when word came out that the Department of Education had
given columnist Armstrong Williams almost a quarter of a million dollars
in bribes, that seemed like suspicious overkill: you could buy scores of
columnists' affections for a fraction of that price. Just show 'em a
little love -- e.g., invite them to speak at your conference and nod
appreciatively -- and they'll be your golden retriever. Bloggers
apparently come even cheaper -- just send 'em a copy of your book!
writes to say that he bought his copy at Amazon.
to Barnett, whose blogname is James
FREAKONOMICS IS MOST LIKELY to become controversial (and perhaps notorious) because of its chapter on crime and abortion...
Levitt convincingly argues that the fortuitous drop in crime of the late 1990s was due to 1973's Roe v. Wade decision.
Here is Levitt's theory boiled down to its essence: "Decades of study have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade--poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get--were often models of adversity . . . Just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet." Levitt goes on to support this assertion with an almost unassailable statistical analysis (although given the discomfiting nature of his argument, it is likely to be
vigorously assailed nonetheless).
link, nicely, is to my follow-up page of blog
items and data further debunking Levitt's theory. (Linking to my original
article would have made more sense, but perhaps The Weekly
Standard doesn't want to deign to acknowledge The American
I get irritated by the constant assumption that I object to Levitt's
theory because I find it "discomfiting." All these Jack
Nicholsons of the keyboard insinuate to me, "You can't handle the
okay, fine, I'm a politically correct wimp. But the reason I object to
Levitt's theory is that it doesn't appear to be true. If the
evidence was on Levitt's side, a wimp like me sure wouldn't get into
this uneven fight with the glamour boy of the whole economics
this helps explain the decline in crime: The Newhouse news
service's fine race-and-immigration reporter Jonathan Tilove writes in
Have All the Black Men Gone?":
the most salient statistic about East Orange [NJ] is the number of black
men who are not there. Under the age of 18, there are more black boys
than girls. Among the adult population, however, there are 37 percent
more women than men.
Where are these missing men? Most are dead. Many others are locked up.
Some are in the military.
In case you are
wondering, East Orange is only 14 miles from Manhattan, so it has
enjoyed, de facto, the supposed crime-fighting powers of
legalized abortion for 35 years now, ever since the state of New York
legalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade.
Yet, East Orange was one of those pioneering places where the crack wars
and the teen murder surge began in the later 1980s rather than the early
1990s. Although Steven D. Levitt's hypothesized "pre-natal
culling" failed so signally to cut crime in East Orange, the
intensive "post-natal culling" of the most dangerous young men
in East Orange began a few years earlier there than in most parts of
1992 novel "Clockers" about Jersey City crack dealers (and
Spike Lee's film version) show how much good legalizing abortion early
did to fight crime.
yet, the gender imbalance in East Orange is not some grotesque anomaly.
It's a vivid snapshot of a very troubling reality in black America.
There are nearly two million more black adult women than men in America,
stark testimony to how often black men die before their time. With
nearly another million black men in prison or the military, the real
imbalance is even greater -- a gap of 2.8 million, according to U.S.
Census data for 2002. On average, then, there are 26 percent more black
women than black men; among whites, women outnumber men by just 8
Perhaps no single statistic so precisely measures the fateful, often
fatal, price of being a black man in America, or so powerfully conveys
how beset black communities are by the violence and disease that leaves
them bereft of brothers, fathers, husbands and sons, and leaves whole
communities reeling. ...
In the March/April issue of Health Affairs, Dr. David Satcher, surgeon
general under former President Bill Clinton and now the interim
president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, exposes the
core of the problem: Between 1960 and 2000, the disparity between
mortality rates for black and white women narrowed while the disparity
between the rates for black and white men grew wider.
Exponentially higher homicide and AIDS rates play their part, especially
among younger black men. Even more deadly through middle age and beyond
are higher rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The imbalance between the numbers of black men and women does not exist
everywhere. There is no gap to speak of in places with relatively small
black populations like Minneapolis, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco
and San Diego. And Seattle actually has more black men than women.
But it is the rule in communities with large concentrated black
populations. There are, for instance, more than 30 percent more black
women than men in Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago and Cleveland, and in
smaller cities like Harrisburg, Pa. There are 36 percent more black
women than men in New York City, and 37 percent more in Saginaw, Mich.,
and Philadelphia. In Newark, the figure is 26 percent.
In East Orange, there were more black males under 18 than females in
2000. And yet, there were 29 percent more black women than men in their
According to The Sentencing Project in Washington, on any given day in
America, one in eight black males ages 25 to 29 is incarcerated, and
nearly a third of all black men in their 20s are behind bars, on
probation or on parole. [More]
If you are
wondering why crime fell so sharply in New York City (the subject of a
debate between Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell), I'd focus on that statistic
that there are now 36 percent more black women than black men in NYC.
It's absurd for
Steven D. Levitt to focus on prenatal culling as a crime-reducer when
the post-natal culling of black males in places like East Orange became
so ferocious during the late 1980s. If there are 29 percent fewer black
men in their 20s than black women in East Orange today, and a few
percent of the black women are in jail or dead due to their being
involved in criminal activities, then roughly 25 percent of the black
male population gets culled by age 25, and those 25 percent tend to be
the most violent members of that cohort. If the most dangerous 25% of a
cohort disappears, that's going to have a much bigger impact than
randomly aborting some of the cohort, prenatally.
However, not all
the decline in crime came just from culling criminals. The 14-17 year
old murder rate for black male youths born in the early 1980s was only
one third as high as for black male youths born in the late 1970s.
(Abortion can't explain that because the non-white abortion rate peaked
in 1977.) I like to think that a lot of little brothers learned lessons
from the abattoir years of 1990-1994.
caught embroidering truth: From a U. of Chicago Graduate School of
Business News report
on a talk given by Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt:
research tells him that 35 percent of the “incredible drop in crime”
in the early 1990s was due to abortion legalization.
While conceding that some people aren’t completely convinced of his
findings, “I think it’s pretty compelling,” Levitt told students
in the Milton Friedman Group on April 25 at the Hyde Park Center.
Levitt said he based his theory on two pieces: unwanted, unloved
children are at highest risk for crime; and fewer unwanted children—a
million a year—came into existence because of abortion’s
Levitt needs to
bamboozle the public about the size of the reduction in unwanted births
because it's central to his theory's appeal. Yet, it's also imprudent of
him to blatantly mislead the public like this because we can quote him
on what really happened: "Conceptions
rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent
…" Most legal abortions, as Levitt has admitted, are pure waste
-- a fetus who never would have been conceived without legalization gets
The peak number
of abortions per year was 1.6 million. The number of births was running
at about 3.7 million before legalization of abortion. This would suggest
a reduction in the number of births due to abortion of around a quarter
of a million. Other methodologies might raise that to a half million,
but Levitt knows very well that it wasn't a million. Levitt himself told
regarding the impact of legalization:
“One in four of the pregnancies which took place were just because people were lazy,” he says. “That’s a lot. That’s a lot of abortions.”
The article on
his U of C talk continues:
tested his theory on the data and it fit. In addition, states that
legalized abortion three years earlier than Roe v. Wade saw their crime
rates dramatically dip three years earlier than other states.
Notice how Levitt
tries to skate by the fact that the early-liberalizing metropolises are
also precisely where the serious violent crime rate first went up. As
Levitt acknowledged to me in 1999, “[T]he high abortion places like
New York and California tended to have a bigger crack problem, and
tended to have crack arrive earlier.
Levitt seems to
think longer lag periods are more trustworthy. If NYC and LA legalized
abortion in 1970 and the juvenile murder rate went up in those places 17
years later and then fell there 22 or so years later, Levitt wants us to
believe that we should trust him that legalization's effect was not felt
17 years after 1970, but was felt 22 years after 1970. In Levitt's
Private Universe, the longer the lag in years between a potential cause
and its hypothesized effect, the more trustworthy the connection is!
what about the spike in crime among young black males in the late 1980s
and early 1990s, which critics offer as a puzzle piece that doesn’t
neatly fit Levitt’s solution?
“The answer, to me it seems obvious,” Levitt said. “It’s crack
You can see how
Levitt tries to have his cake and eat it too. The enormous rise in
murder and serious violent crime rates among precisely the group most
culled by the legalization of abortion -- young urban blacks -- is
assumed away as having nothing to do with abortion. It's purely the
result of an exogenous event, the rise of the crack wars. Okay, but
then, in contrast, the fall in serious violent crime rates is assumed to
be the result of abortion, not the decline of the crack wars.
given a choice between two sets of data, consistently uses the fuzzier,
more uncertain evidence to justify his theory and pointedly ignores the
more straightforward, more precise comparison. For example, he likes to
look at data for two groups of criminals, over and under age 25 and make
surmises about the effects of abortion legalization that can't be
prudently drawn out of such coarse categories. In contrast, he hates to
look at data for sharply defined groups, such as 14 to 17 year olds,
where you can actually focus on individuals born before or after
prefers to look at the change in the crime rate for two points twelve
years apart, one before and one after legalization, but hates to look at
changes, say, six years apart. Levitt's philosophy seems to be that the
more intervening years and intervening events, the clearer the reading
you can get on the effects of legalization!
For example, the
article goes on:
statistics show that crack cocaine use hit young black males especially
hard in their teenage years but didn’t translate into an increase in
the amount of crime committed over the course of their whole lives, he
said, thus accounting for the spike.
obviously, this is an apples to oranges comparison. By their late 20s,
the most dangerous members of the cohort of black urban males who were
born soon after legalization were, more than any other cohort in
American history, confined to prisons, wheelchairs, or coffins, where
their ability to commit more crimes was limited, at best. That in their
late 20s, this highly-culled cohort was still committing serious crimes
at an average rate after all this depletion of their most violent
members says something about what they were like before all this
post-natal culling of their most criminally-inclined members. Instead,
Levitt wants us to focus on the pre-natal culling a quarter of a century
By the way, Colby
Cosh points out that
Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory triggered even comedian Jon Stewart's
BS detector on The Daily Show:
Tabarrok--an American economist whose acquaintance overlaps slightly
with mine--recently watched a fascinating exchange between overexposed
freakonomist Steven Levitt and overexposed fakejournalist Jon Stewart on
The Daily Show.
said that in estimating the effect of abortion on crime he controlled
for other variables like police and prisons. Jon Stewart pressed Steve
for an explanation of how someone could "control" for other
variables--amazingly, Stewart seemed genuinely interested in an answer
but, wisely, Steve demurred...
question reveals both a gap in his education and a laudable ability to
spot legerdemain (which is a pretty good cement for such educational
gaps). It might be helpful, in fact, if the public at large knew that
the phenomenon of "experimental control" covers many orders of
This matter of experimental control is a pretty deep pool. I would be
the last person to advise us to dispense with inferential
"controls" in the squishier sciences. But Jon Stewart is
probably quite wise to dig in when someone tries to skate with him
across that pool, arm-in-arm.
You can read the
rest of Colby's explanation of why economists so often develop too much
confidence in their non-robust statistical models here.
a couple of non-credulous, evenhanded reviews of Freakonomics: Sharon
on the Associated Press:
and John Donohue, then of Stanford University Law School, created an
uproar in 2001 when they concluded that legalized abortion significantly
contributed to a drop in crime in the 1990s.
Here's Levitt's explanation: "Legalized abortion lowered
unwantedness. Unwantedness is related to crime, so legalized abortion
Angry letters poured in. The right AND the left fumed. The authors were
branded racists proposing a form of eugenics. Levitt insists he was
stunned by the reaction and the study made no moral judgments on
"It never occurred to us that anybody would be upset," he
says. "I've done a lot of research. No one ever cares."
Some critics complained the study used limited data. Others claimed it
misinterpreted numbers and made unfair comparisons. "He's picking
up the decline in crack and calling it the abortion effect," says
Ted Joyce, an economics professor and expert on reproductive health
policy at Baruch College in New York.
Levitt has rigged the deck by declaring that the only question of
interest is why the second generation born after abortion was
legalized had lower crime rates. That the first generation born after
abortion was legalized had higher crime rates, well, his Wizard
of Oz-like attitude toward that crucial fact has been: "Pay no
attention to all those teen murderers behind the curtain!"
Salon, reviewer Andrew
Leonard, who actually did the work of reading my article
in The American Conservative
before writing his review, prudently declared himself agnostic on the
Freakonomics Was Marketed onto the Bestseller List: I
reason that a number of bloggers are wetting themselves with joy over Freakonomics
is because Levitt's publicists put together an innovative PR campaign
that made bloggers feel appreciated.
Rachel Deahl of The Book Standard reported:
is close to supplanting “love” as an overused, devalued—but very
effective—term. In the book world, it’s credited with being the
reason some titles become bestsellers while others, well, don’t...
These kinds of success stories have driven publishers like William
Morrow, which recently launched a successful marketing campaign to
promote one of its latest titles, Freakonomics, to focus on
generating buzz for a book above all else. And to do it online.
Published April 12, Freakonomics has found a larger-than-expected
audience, due partly to publisher William Morrow’s strategically
placed advance copies, some with industry professionals, but perhaps
more importantly, with bloggers.
The book, which melds pop culture with economics to answer riddles such
as why most drug-dealers live with their mothers, undoubtedly benefited
from positive pre-publication reviews such as Kirkus Reviews and
release-date reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and
others. Nor does it hurt that the book’s high-profile co-authors are
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (the two met when Levitt, a young
economist, was being profiled by Dubner, a prominent journalist working
on a piece for the New Yorker), has gotten a big push from support
within the blogosphere.
Publicists for the book sent galley copies of the title to over a
hundred bloggers who, in turn, profiled or reviewed the book on their
sites. The result—Freakonomics has sold 34,000 copies to date,
according to Nielsen BookScan—has been overwhelmingly positive. Dee
Dee DeBartlo, a publicist at Morrow, says the house has targeted
bloggers in previous campaigns, but never so strategically.
Dean Soxblog Barnett, who wrote
effusive review of Freakonomics for The Weekly Standard,
is in a fury over any implication that he might have been one of the
bloggers considered marginally influential enough to qualify for a free
copy of Freakonomics. He wants to make it very clear that
he had to go buy Freakonomics himself.
Point taken, Dean!
Roe Effect" -- For a long time James Taranto of the WSJ web
page has been pushing the idea that legalized abortion has had a huge
effect on American demographics, with Democrats killing themselves off
via abortion. It's his hammer
that pounds every nail. For example:
The Washington Post reports on an interesting new analysis by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. The campaign, noting that U.S. teen birthrates fell 30% between 1991 and 2002, calculates that if those rates had instead remained constant, there would be some 406,000 additional children living below the federally defined poverty line and some 428,000 living in households with single mothers.
Since 1991 was exactly 18 years after Roe v. Wade, we got to wondering if the Roe effect might have something to do with all this. The Roe effect would predict that the effect of a reduction in birthrates would be greatest in liberal states, where pregnant teenagers would be more likely to exercise their "right to privacy" and thus less likely to carry their babies to term. The campaign's numbers seem to bear this out.
Here, in order, are the 10 states with the biggest percentage decline in
teen birthrates (links for tables in PDF): California, Maine, Michigan,
Alaska, New Hampshire, Washington, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut,
doubt it. If you'll look at his list of ten states, eight of them are
northern states with mostly white populations. (The main exception is
California, which is on the list because in 1991 it was in the throes of
a huge Hispanic baby boom
caused by the 1986 amnesty for illegal aliens. That has since died
down ... but of course Bush wants to start another illegal immigrant
baby boom with his amnesty plan. The other exception is Hawaii, which
has a unique population whose social dynamics I don't pretend to
the abortion rate has fallen since 1991, especially for whites: from
about 19 per 1,000 15-44 year old white women in 1991 to only about 11
by 1999. (See page 8 of this Alan Guttmacher Institute pdf report).
Black and Hispanic abortion rates are also down too, although not by as
large a percentage. So, I strongly doubt that increased abortion in
these mostly white states accounted for the decline in teen births. I
think the main cause of decreased teen births after 1991 was decreased
haven't studied the general question of the validity of the "Roe
Effect" in detail, but I suspect Taranto badly exaggerates its
magnitude. What he doesn't grasp is that legalized abortion led to a big
increase in pregnancies and only a small decline in birthrate -- in
other words, most conceptions ended by abortions would never have
happened in the first place without legalized abortion. According to
Steven Levitt, in the 1970s conceptions went up by 30% but births
declined by only 6%. So, the demographic impact of legal abortion is
significantly smaller than the enormous raw numbers of abortions (almost
1.6 million abortions per year in the 1980s and about 1.2 million per
year in the 1990s -- page 2 of the Guttmacher
report) would suggest.
abortion, however might have had some noticeable effect on the size of
the black population -- by 1999, the black abortion rate was close to
five times the non-Hispanic white abortion rate, up from about three
times earlier -- but Taranto, like Levitt, is too coy to come out and
the Crime Misery Index! As an analogy to the traditional Economic
Misery Index (unemployment rate plus inflation rate), the purple line
above represents the new Crime Misery Index. The purple line is the sum
of the red line (homicide rate) plus the blue line (imprisonment rate).
The idea is to measure both crime (with homicide victimization per
capita being used as the most trustworthy measure of the crime rate
because attention must be paid to a dead body) plus the costs we undergo
to avoid crime (with the imprisonment rate per capita being used as a
proxy -- by the way this includes state and federal prison rates, but
not local jail rates, which weren't available this far back).
As you can see, there was a high murder rate during Prohibition,
especially once the Depression started, followed by a long era of
moderation. Then, in the 1960s, the murder rate shot up while the
imprisonment rate went down. Eventually in the later 1970s the prison
rate started its long rise. The murder rate dropped a little in the
mid-1980s, then rose again to another peak in the early 1990s. The
prison rate went through the roof in the 1990s and the murder rate
finally dropped significantly.
Although by 2000 the murder rate was almost back down to the good old
days of the 1950s, the overall Crime Misery Index remained at a
historically unprecedented level due to the huge costs we continue pay
to avoid crime.
The average of the 1950s are set as equal to 100 for both homicide and
prison indices, so the combined Crime Misery Index in the 1950s averaged
Executions?" Now Available Online?: The American
Conservative is making my article debunking the abortion-cut-crime
theory now available free
on-line. Please tell anyone interested in the topic.
Shopping for Debunking of Steven Levitt's Popular Abortion-Cut-Crime
Theory: If you are still interested in the subject after reading
Executions," you can find more, such as my blog items, along
with the supporting links, data, and more graphs at www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm
. Or just read down this column.
100 Times Worse than 9/11: At GNXP, Dobeln has an important posting
Second American Civil War:" the doubling of the murder rate
from 1964 to 1974, and it's continued high level for another couple of
The US murder rate hovered around
4.5 per 100 000 during the fifties. Then, in a few short years in the mid-to-late sixties, the rate doubled. What happened? In short: Liberalism happened, and Americans haven’t forgotten yet...
We can determine that all in all, the US had roughly 300 000 more murders between 1964 and 2002 than had been the case if the sixties ‘explosion’ had not happened. The ‘excess murder rate’ causalities during the Vietnam War years of 1965-75 alone number roughly 74 000 people – well above the number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Vast amounts of ink have been spent detailing the impact of Vietnam on the American psyche. Some of that ink would probably have been better used in determining just how the great killing spree that lasted from the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties changed how Americans view the world.
exact figure for the Great Murder Wave can be debated, but it was
clearly more than one and possibly two orders of magnitude bigger than
the death toll in 9/11. It had an enormous impact on American life,
permanently desolating several once-great cities like Detroit.
an interesting paradox at work here in terms of public vs. elite
awareness of this history. The great murder/crime wave that began during
the golden age of liberalism -- the first years of the LBJ
Administration -- is probably the single most important reason that
"liberal" is a dirty word in American election campaigns
today. Yet, crime is such a declasse subject in the Establishment
press and considered so politically incorrect because it touches
inevitably on racial differences in crime rates, that many liberals who
take their worldviews more from what they read than what they see about
them don't have a clue as to what went wrong that permanently
damaged the once-proud name "liberal."
in this case, political correctness in the media works to the GOP's
advantage by keeping elite liberals ignorant of why so many average
voters fear their policies.
the way, although Steven Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory ought to
have been pretty dubious to anybody who can add and subtract dates in
his head -- "Let's see, Levitt says that abortion was legalized in
New York and California in 1970 and I remember that juvenile crack
killers were running amok there in the early 1990s ... hey,
wait-a-minute, an awful lot of them must have been born after
abortion was legalized!" -- most economists and other academics
spend so little time thinking hard about the politically incorrect
realities of crime in America that Levitt has been able to snow them for
Crime Misery Index? The murder rate is down, but we are still paying
a huge price for this improvement. How we can quantify the total
Reagan used the "Economic Misery Index" -- the unemployment
rate plus the inflation rate -- to quantify in an understandable away
how bad the economy had gotten under Jimmy Carter. A reader suggests we
create a Crime Misery Index composed of, say, the homicide rate plus the
incarceration rate. In the 1960s, the incarceration rate went down while
the murder rate went up. In the 1990s, the imprisonment rate went up
while the murder rate went down (funny how that works). But just because
the murder rate is down now, we are still paying a huge price for how
much we have had to deform our lives to reduce the danger of being
murdered or otherwise victimized. He explains:
do not have any real data on how violence-prone are males,
males by race, males by age or state or any other classification. What
we have are data on how successfully violent these classes of males are.
There is another piece of the index that we need to measure the
tendencies of people to commit crime. That is some measure of the
various efforts other people must make to avoid being killed, robbed or
raped and the efforts society must make to keep the violence-prone under
In a way, thinking about the effects of criminal behavior or criminal
tendencies is like thinking about the performance of the economy. You
want to measure both some underlying problem and the costs to society of
keeping the problem very roughly under control. Both the underlying
problem and the various cures cause pain. And sometimes the magnitude of
the underlying problem is chiefly expressed in the extraordinary efforts
society must make to keep it under control.
In principle, that second half of the index would include things
like migration of law-abiding people to ever-further exurban areas,
money spent on home alarms, Plexiglas shields for taxis and gas
stations, and so forth. And it would include the public expenditures on
police, criminal justice and the prison system
The highly simplified way of expressing both halves of our economic
problem used to be the "misery index," which was simply the
unemployment rate plus the inflation rate. You could take unemployment
as the basic problem, which we were trying to cure by accepting high
inflation rates. Or you could take inflation as the problem - because it
damaged some people's living standards and hurt productive planning -
which we were trying to cure by putting people out of work. But both
were clearly part of the same problem, the apparent inability of the
economy to provide work for everyone without creating chaos and
confusion in everyone's lives.
A similarly simplified index of the breakdown of traditional restraints
on violent behavior might be simply the murder rate plus the
incarceration rate, appropriately converted. I have not looked up the
numbers, but I would be very confident that the post-1960s world looks
much different, and much worse, than it did before courts started
solving all our problems for us.
find the homicide rate going back 100 years, but I haven't been able to
find an imprisonment rate going back before 1973, and, obviously, the
decade before 1973 is the crucial one. Anybody know where to look?
enormous cost of the 1960s Murder Wave was the vast disruption of stable
urban neighborhoods, and the dispersion of people into the lonely
suburbs, far from their old friends and relatives. White flight had
multitudinous costs. Lots of people moved to the suburbs before the
crime wave, but lots of others liked city life and didn't want to go
until the crime wave drove them out.
got to say that the pre-Murder Wave white urban ethnic lifestyle, like
my wife's family enjoyed on the West Side of Chicago, sounds like a
pretty good way for kids to grow up, because the population density was
high enough that there were lots of other kids to play with on the
sidewalks of their street, their were plenty of adults around to glance
at them occasionally and see all was well, they could walk to school and
to stores, and, when they got older, they could take public
transportation. Mom didn't have to chauffeur them around, like in the
modern suburban lifestyle, so they grew up less dependent on their
parents, and parents felt like they could handle having more children.
But that way of life was pretty much obliterated between about 1965 and
Freakonomics of Race and IQ: Here is an excerpt from my
column, a review of the non-abortion parts of the book by economist
Steven D. Levitt's (with co-author Stephen J. Dubner):
I come not to bury
Freakonomics, but to praise it... It is a valuable book—because Levitt cautiously presses the envelope
of what you are allowed to say in American mainstream discourse about IQ and race.
Perhaps the most important topic Levitt could study in the future is:
What ails the economics profession that Levitt is considered a revolutionary in 2005 for doing research his elders should have done decades ago?
Which leads us to race and IQ. Like anyone with a healthy curiosity about life, Levitt can't avoid butting into these two most career-threatening topics.
Economists have traditionally been terrified of them—particularly when they show up together, as they so often do...
In the non-abortion chapters of Freakonomics, Levitt, being a
quantitatively-oriented guy, finds himself backing Nature over Nurture
much of the time.
In the chapter "What Makes a Perfect Parent?" Levitt-Dubner
IQ is strongly hereditary… Studies have shown that a child's academic
abilities are far more influenced by the IQs of his biological parents
than the IQs of his adoptive parents…"
Levitt came to the conclusion that Nature matters more than Nurture in
raising smart kids. He found that the parental factors that have an
impact on kids' academic test scores are "things that parents are."
Factors that don't make a difference "describe things that parents do."
who are well educated, successful, and healthy tend to have children who
test well in school; but it doesn't seem to matter much whether a child
is trotted off to museums or spanked or sent to Head
Start or frequently read to or plopped in front of the television."
other words, "Kids, choose your parents wisely." ...
These are fairly brave, but not forbidden, truths to tell these days.
It's still okay to say "IQ is strongly hereditary" … as long
as you don't mention that when discussing the 15 point gap
between white and
African-American average IQs. When talking about the race gap, you
are supposed to assume that some mysterious "X"
factor causes the one standard deviation difference between the
races … Or, better yet, never mention IQ and race in the same
Perhaps that's why Levitt contradictorily
attributes the test score gap between black and white five-year-olds
entering kindergarten to various environmental differences, such as
number of books in the home, that—when he is not specifically
discussing race—he pooh-poohs.
In Freakonomics, Levitt-Dubner go on to blame the widening of the
racial test score gap as children mature on the fact that black kids
attend worse schools.
Yet the authors' description of what makes schools attended by blacks
bad verges on self-parody—almost a nudge-nudge-wink-wink to alert the
reader while avoiding a politically-incorrect gaffe that could get them
roasted like poor Larry
how are black schools bad? Not, interestingly, in the ways that schools
are traditionally measured. In terms of class size, teachers' education,
and computer-to-student ratio, the schools attended by blacks and whites
are similar. “But the typical black student's school has a far higher
rate of troublesome
indicators, such as gang problems, nonstudents loitering in front of the
school, and lack of PTA
funding. “These schools offer an environment that is simply not
conducive to learning."
have to be awfully naïve not to notice that Levitt and Dubner are
signaling that the essential reason schools that have lots of blacks
students tend to be bad is because they …have lots of black students.
In yet another chapter, however, Levitt and Dubner show some explicit
courage about race—perhaps even more than is empirically warranted.
In "Would a Roshanda by
Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?" they consider those super-black
names that black mothers started giving their babies during the Black
typical baby girl born in a black neighborhood in 1970 was given a name
that was twice as common among blacks than among whites. By 1980 she
received a name that was twenty times more common among
people with black names victimized more by prejudice? Levitt and Dubner
show strikingly little sympathy toward blacks who have a harder time
in for a job interview because, as shown by numerous "audit
studies", employers are dubious of DeShawns and Darnells. The
he rejected because the employer is a racist and is convinced that
DeShawn Williams is black? Or did he reject him because ‘DeShawn’
sounds like someone from a low-income, low-education family?"
as the authors imply, a boy named DeShawn may indeed be, on average,
more likely to goldbrick or to rip off his employer than a boy named,
(the male name with the most educated parents according to the book).
Following their Naturist inclinations, Levitt and Dubner conclude:
that's why, on average, a boy named Jake [the whitest common male name]
will tend to earn more money and get more education than a boy named
DeShawn. A DeShawn is more likely to have been handicapped by a
low-income, low-education, single-parent background. His name is an
indicator—not a cause—of his outcome. Just as a child with no books
in his home isn't likely to test well in school, a boy named DeShawn
isn't likely to do as well in life."
aren't too many people who make me sound like a
diversity-sensitive multi-cultist, but sometimes Levitt is one of them!
The authors could at least have a little compassion for the poor kid.
DeShawn didn't ask to be given his name.
a new study of siblings, one with a black name, one with a white name,
raises doubts that prejudice isn't a factor...
on Levitt vs. Gladwell: John Tierney's second NYT op-ed column
Miracle That Wasn't" reports on the debate Thursday between
Malcolm Gladwell and Steven D. Levitt on what really caused crime in NY
to go down in the 1990s: The Tipping Point (Gladwell) or Pre-Natal
Capital Punishment (Levitt).
essential problem with how Levitt has succeeded in framing the debate
over his abortion-cut-crime theory is that it's too narrow. He acts as
if the question should be:
caused murder to go down in the later 1990s?
the full question should be:
were the causes of the murder rate going up in the late 1980s and early
1990s and its subsequent fall?
we look at the bigger picture, it's easier to get a more realistic sense
of history than to simply assume that the murderous early 1990s were the
norm and thus we need some bestselling author to give us his unique
theory of what caused the decline. What we can see if we look at the
full picture is that, contra Levitt, the first generation of
teens born after the legalization of abortion (which began with
15 states liberalizing their abortion laws in 1970 and ended with Roe v.
Wade on Jan. 22, 1973) were uniquely homicidal.
is an inspirational urban lesson from the 1990's: take back the streets
from squeegee men and drug dealers, and violent crime will plummet. But
on Thursday evening, the tipping-point theory was looking pretty wobbly
The occasion was a debate in Manhattan before an audience thrilled to be
present for a historic occasion: the first showdown between two
social-science wonks with books that were ranked second and third on
Amazon.com (outsold only by "Harry Potter"). It pitted Malcolm
Gladwell, author of "Blink" and "The Tipping Point,"
against Steven D. Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago with
the new second-place book, "Freakonomics."
Professor Levitt considers the New York crime story to be an urban
legend. Yes, he acknowledges, there are tipping points when people
suddenly start acting differently, but why did crime drop in so many
other cities that weren't using New York's policing techniques? His new
book, written with Stephen J. Dubner, concludes that one big reason was
simply the longer prison sentences that kept criminals off the streets
of New York and other cities.
prison terms don't explain why crime fell sooner and more sharply in New
York than elsewhere, but Professor Levitt accounts for that, too. One
reason he cites is that the crack epidemic eased earlier in New York
than in other cities. [Right, but why did the crack wars begin
earlier in NYC?] Another, more important, reason is that New York added
lots of cops in the early 90's.
But the single most important cause, he says, was an event two decades
earlier: the legalization of abortion in New York State in 1970, three
years before it was legalized nationally by the Supreme Court.
The result, he maintains, was a huge reduction in the number of children
who would have been at greater than average risk of becoming criminals
during the 1990's.
No, there was not
a big reduction in the number of children. Instead,
there was a big increase in the number of conceptions. Let me quote
Levitt's own book on what actually happened after the legalization of
rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent
up as an unwanted child is itself a risk factor, he says, and the women
who had abortions were disproportionately likely to be unmarried
teenagers with low incomes and poor education - factors that also
increase the risk.
plausible until you look at the illegitimacy rate (see graphs here)
which continued to skyrocket.
happened was that more women got pregnant outside of marriage, and more
boyfriends refused to marry them on the grounds that they could get an
abortion instead. Some got abortions, some didn't, and the percentage of
babies unwanted by their fathers went up.
he says the correlations are clear: crime declined earlier in the states
that had legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, and it declined more in
places with high abortion rates, like New York.
This shows how
Levitt wins minds by framing the debate as why the murder rate went down
instead of why did it first go up and then go down? But why not ask why
the teen murder rate went up first in the places like New York that had
lots of abortions in the early 1970s? It's logically bizarre to focus on
purported later effects of abortion and resolutely ignore potential
criminologists have quarreled with his statistics, but the theory was
looking robust at the end of the debate in Manhattan. Mr. Gladwell,
while raising what he called a few minor quibbles, seemed mostly
persuaded by the numbers.
"My first inclination," he joked at the beginning of his
rebuttal, "is to say that everything you just heard from Steven
Levitt, even though it contradicts things I have written, is true."
Gladwell was wrong doesn't automatically make Levitt right.
wasn't prepared to deal with a more sophisticated analyst such as Levitt.
(See my review of
Gladwell's Blink for a caustic analysis of Gladwell's highly
lucrative but attention-deficit disordered approach to analyzing data.)
Six year's ago, Levitt
debated me in Slate over his abortion-cut-crime theory. This year,
he turned down his publicist's suggestion that he debate me again on the
grounds that he had no time, but he found the time to debate Gladwell
instead. I'll leave that up to you decide whether he was stepping up or
down in weight class.
Tierney goes on:
my inclination, too, as a less successful exponent of the same theory.
(In 1995 I explained the crime decline with my version of the tipping
point, the Squeegee Watershed, which became neither a buzzword nor a
best seller.) In retrospect, the New York crime story looks like a
classic bit of conventional wisdom, as the term was originally defined
by John Kenneth Galbraith: an idea that becomes commonly accepted
because it is "what the community as a whole or particular
audiences find acceptable."
a lot of people find the abortion-cuts-crime theory very comforting,
even if they won't say it in public. It now appears well on its way to
becoming the new conventional wisdom. But the issue is hardly whether
it's comforting or not, but whether it's true.
the way, I'm placing graphs, data, and links at www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm.
It's not very well organized yet, but it will get better over time.
1999 debate with Levitt in Slate.com over his abortion-cut-crime theory
Executions?" My article on the hot abortion-cut-crime theory in
the May 9th issue of The American
Conservative is now available to electronic subscribers.
An excerpt from the conclusion:
social effects of abortion demand closer study.
Although Levitt claims that legalized abortion should have improved the
conditions under which children were raised, it made adoption rare. The
federal Center for Disease Control reported, "Before 1973 about one
in five premarital births to white women were relinquished for adoption.
By the mid-1980's (1982-88), this proportion fell to 1 in 30."
Even worse, the national illegitimacy rate soared, from 12 percent in
1972 to 34 percent in 2002. The growth didn't begin to slow until the
mid-1990s, when the abortion rate declined. Increased illegitimacy is
socially devastating, not just because of the long run harm to the child
of being raised without a father, but because of the immediate effect of
freeing young men from the civilizing clutches of marriage.
Why did the abortion rate and the illegitimacy rate both skyrocket
during the Seventies? Isn't abortion supposed to cut illegitimacy?
Roe largely finished off the traditional shotgun wedding by
persuading the impregnating boyfriend that he had no moral duty to make
an honest woman of his girlfriend since she could get an abortion. The
CDC noted, "Among women aged 15-29 years conceiving a first birth
before marriage during 1970-74, nearly half (49 percent) married before
the child was born. By 1975-79 the proportion marrying before the birth
of the child fell to 32 percent, and it has declined to 23 percent in
The most striking fact about legalized abortion, but also the least
discussed, is its pointlessness. 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, meant that the "wantedness"
of surviving babies may have declined.)
The sheer waste of it all is staggering. And the impact on the overall
morality of our society of this Supreme Court-condoned carelessness over
life is incalculable. [Subscribe
Graphs Steven D. Levitt Won't Show You in Freakonomics: I
notice that Levitt's book Freakonomics, which argues that
legalizing abortion cut crime, is now the #2 bestseller on Amazon.com. I
also note that Amazon
first posted, then yanked, my reader review poking holes in his theory,
presumably to avoid casting a pall upon the sellathon. I understand that
Amazon exists to move merchandise, not to raise doubts about the
reliability of the products, but they should tell you that if you go to
the trouble of posting a reader review, they may censor it if it looks
like it could do too much damage to sales.
A reader who noticed that Amazon had pulled my reader review writes:
read my morning e-mail from WSJ about the book, went to Amazon, and read
your review. Your review was enlightening and thought provoking, which
is exactly what a review is supposed to do. So childish of them.
amusingly Orwellian step, Amazon even went on to delete parts of a
subsequent reader review denouncing my reader review, just to make sure
mine disappeared fully down the memory hole!
here are two graphs from my article in the May 9th issue of The
American Conservative [subscribe here].
Levitt's theory is predicated -- at least publicly -- on abortion
reducing the proportion of "unwanted" babies, who are presumed
to be more likely to grow up to be criminals. The empirical problem with
this is that legalization (which occurred in California, New York, and
three other states in 1970 and nationally in 1973), didn't put the
slightest dent in the illegitimacy rate, which is, by far, the most
obvious objective sign of not being wanted by the mother and
father, and has been linked repeatedly with crime:
note that the growth in the illegitimacy rate didn't start to slow down
until the mid 1990s, which is when the abortion rate finally went down a
article offers a simple explanation, drawn from Levitt's own research,
of why legal abortion tends to increase illegitimacy.
the acid test of Levitt's theory is that it predicts that the first
cohort to survive being culled by legal abortion should have been
particularly law-abiding. Instead, they went on the worst teen murder
rampage in American history. Here's a graph showing the homicide rate
for 14-17 year olds, and below each year is the average birthdate of the
14-17 year old cohort.
example, the 14-17 year olds in the not particularly murderous year of
1976 were, on average, born about 1960 (i.e., 1976 - 16 years of age =
1960), so they didn't "benefit" from being culled by legalized
abortion the way that the 14-17 years olds during the peak murder years
of 1993 and 1994 should have benefited, according to Levitt.
contrast, the homicide rate for the 25 and over cohort (none of whom
enjoyed the benefits of legalized abortion) was lower in 1993 than in
Unmarried Women Data:
From the National
Center for Health Statistics
Shotgun Weddings: -- See Figure 16 of http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr48/nvs48_16.pdf
For the impact on
adoptions, see Figure 22 of the same Adobe Acrobat document.
Department of Justice's Graph on homicides by age. Note the huge spike
in murderousness by 14-17 year olds born after abortion was legalized
from 1970-1973, while the spike among 18-24 year olds, some of whom were
born legalization was less and ended sooner than for the younger ones,
the opposite of what Levitt's theory predicts. The older age groups have
been in fairly steady decline since the early 1980s.
Here's the data
the graph is based on:
Offending Rates per 100,000 Population by Age
of Justice's Bureau
of Justice Statistics
Offending / 100,000
Mean Age of Offenders
Year Born" is assumed to be 16 years earlier. Abortion legalized over
the DOJ's graph by race by age with the data (males only) below. Blacks
undergo about three times more abortions per capita than whites, so the
"Levitt Effect" should have worked its wonders on black male
14-17 year olds more than on whites. Instead, the opposite happened in
the first cohort born after legalization.:
Trends in the US: Age, Gender, and Race
Bureau of Justice Statistics also publishes the homicide offending rate
by age by year here.
This raw data is a little harder to work with but it's particularly
revealing because it shows how within the 18-24 year old cohort that
Levitt focuses upon, it was those born just after legalization who were
much more murderous than those born just before legalization. So, I
reorganized the data so that each birthyear has its own row: here.
Each age has its own column, and you can just read down a column to look
for the vaunted Roe Effect. If you can see it, let me know because I
sure can't. Here's a sample:
Offending Rates by Birth Year by Age
|Approx. Birth Year
|CA, NY Legalized
|Roe v. Wade
a graph of cohorts born in 1966, 1969 (both prelegalization), 1972
(transitional), 1975 (post-Roe), 1978, 1981, 1984 showing their homicide
rates by age. If you can see any effect abortion had on lowering the
murder rate from this data, please let me know, because I sure
earlier the birthyear, the darker the color.
an important slide
from the Alan Guttmacher
Institute, which is the leading source for abortion data from a
thing that's important to note here is that the abortion rate for
non-whites peaked early, way back in 1977, and was already almost at its
peak by 1976. As shown above, the homicide rate for 14-17 year old black
males peaked in 1993 and 1994, which is exactly what you'd predict if
Levitt was 180 degrees wrong -- in other words, the first black generation
to be fully "culled" by abortion went on to be the most
murderous of all. Look at it this way, the minority abortion rate was
higher in 1976 than in most years thereafter, yet 1976 was 18 years before
1994, a year that saw an extremely high murder rate among black males aged
14-17 a murder rate more than four times worse the black male rate of ten
years before, pre-legalization.
another Guttmacher slide showing raw number of legal abortions for all
abortions were legalized in 1970 in five states, NY, CA, and three
smaller ones, they were liberalized in ten other states. So, the legal
abortion rate reached about a half million in 1971, and they tended to
be concentrated in places that had spikes in the teen murder rate in the
'Freakonomics' 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 story 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.
"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 says.
This isn't the first time Mr. Levitt's abortion research has come under attack. Other academics have tried to poke holes in it, and critics across the political spectrum found the research offensive. Conservatives were appalled that it found such positive consequences from a practice many of them found immoral. Liberals felt it smacked of eugenics.
Mr. Levitt has asserted all along that he is just a dispassionate researcher doing what any economist does, exploring for unseen causes and consequences in human activity. Still, he hasn't shied away from the reputation he has acquired as a "rogue" economist, as he is described on the "Freakonomics" jacket.
Mr. Levitt's book has become the subject of endless water-cooler talk in the profession. Many economists are thrilled with the attention he is bringing the field and the way he uses provocative subjects -- like sumo wrestlers -- to show how people respond to incentives. Some complain the book, with its offbeat title and easy narrative tone, in some way trivializes economic research.
Still, as economic debates go, this one is relatively civil. Mr. Foote praises Mr. Levitt for making all of his data and his programming easily accessible and hastens to add that "in many ways it is a very careful paper." Mr. Levitt responds, "I think this is exactly the way science should work," with controversial theories being poked and prodded for their robustness.
Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor who helped referee Mr. Levitt's original abortion submission to the Quarterly Journal of Economics, said the Foote critique isn't damning, though it does suggest the impact of abortion on crime has not been as strong as Mr. Levitt has argued. "These guys have put the [data] through the wringer," Mr. Glaeser says of Mr. Foote and his research assistant. "There is no question that the results get smaller and weaker, but there still seems to be something there."
Write to Jon E. Hilsenrath at firstname.lastname@example.org
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