Marquette Warrior: Freakonomics Author Tries to Cover Butt in Wake of Bennett Comments

Monday, October 03, 2005

Freakonomics Author Tries to Cover Butt in Wake of Bennett Comments

William Bennett’s highly publicized comment that one could reduce crime by aborting every black baby in the country (something that, he made it clear, he adamantly opposed) was based on a book called Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. That book floated the claim that the legalization of abortion in 1973 was responsible for the decline in crime rates in the 1990s, since a large portion of the cohort that would have reached the late-teen years and early twenties in that latter decade had in fact been aborted.

Given the uproar over the Bennett comment, it’s not surprising that author Levitt, who has a blog, has tried to distance himself from Bennett’s statement. He claims:
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. 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).
That sounds perfectly sensible.

However, if one looks at an article that Levitt and John J. Donohue III wrote and published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, one finds they are perfectly explicit about racial differences in both abortions and homicides:
Far more interesting from our perspective is the possibility that abortion has a disproportionate effect on the births of those who are most at risk of engaging in criminal behavior. To the extent that abortion is more frequent among those parents who are least willing or able to provide a nurturing home environment, as a large and growing body of evidence suggests, the impact of legalized abortion on crime might be far greater than its effect on fertility rates. This is particularly true given that percent of any birth cohort will commit roughly half the crime. (p. 386)
And then:
Levine et al. [1996] found that the drop in births associated with abortion legalization was not uniform across all groups. They estimated that the drop in births was roughly twice as great for teenage and nonwhite mothers as it was for the nonteen, white population.12 In the years immediately following Roe v. Wade, data from the Centers for Disease Control [1994] indicate that almost one-third of abortions were performed on teenagers. Angrist and Evans [1996] found that while abortion reforms had relatively modest effects on the fertility of white women, “black women who were exposed to abortion reforms experienced large reductions in teen fertility and teen out-of-wedlock fertility.” (p. 387)
And finally they put all this together:
Fertility declines for black women [after Roe v. Wade] are three times greater than for whites (12 percent compared with 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 percent.
It seems that race plays a rather important part here.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this analysis. They are not claiming that blacks have some sort of genetic predisposition toward crime. The paragraph does mention racial differences in “criminal propensities” but there is no suggestion that these criminal propensities are the result of anything but environmental factors.

Thus, if race played an important part in the supposed reduction in crime that abortion has caused, one factors in race.

But of course, that applies to Bill Bennett too.

Levitt is neither politically correct nor a coward, but he should, rather than appearing to distance himself from Bennett, have admitted that Bennett was simply adopting the empirical analysis that he and Donohue first laid out.


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