Complete debate: Part 1 (Levitt); Part 2 (Sailer); Part 3 (Levitt); Part 4 (Sailer)
So, let’s look at the assumptions one by one and see how they fare.
Crack clearly has affected crime over the last decade, but it cannot explain away our results with respect to legalized abortion.
The best test of any theory is its predictive value. The abortion theory predicts that crime will continue to fall slowly for the next 10 to 15 years. Also, the declines in crime should continue to be greater in high-abortion states than in low-abortion states. What do you predict based on your crack theory? If you are willing to wait 10 years, perhaps we can resolve this debate.
Paul Shirley, a 6’10″ white basketball journeyman and sportswriter, got fired from ESPN for blogging on FlipCollective that he wouldn’t be donating to Haiti “for the same reason that I don’t give money to homeless men on the street. Based on past experiences, I don’t think the guy with the sign that reads ‘Need You’re Help’ is going to do anything constructive with the dollar I might give him.”
That reminds me of the Two Minutes Hate directed at William Bennett about the same period of time after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for referring to Steve Levitt’s Abortion-Cuts-Crime theory on the radio. I wrote:
Ever since New Orleans, the hysteria among the political and media elite has been building: Who among us bigshots will crack first and allude to the elephant in the living room?
Also, I’m reminded of the 2003 incident when Michael Eisner fired ESPN columnist Greg Easterbrook for mentioning “Jewish [movie] executives” in denouncing a slasher film in his blog on the The New Republic:
Easterbrook was widely excoriated both for terminal unhipness and for supposedly resurrecting the myth that Jews control the media. Disney supremo Michael Eisner, however, did control Easterbrook’s other employer, ESPN, which immediately fired him. Most commentators opined that Easterbrook had it coming.
All I can say is that if Walt Disney were alive today, he’d be spinning in his cryogenic preservation chamber.
In National Review, Jim Manzi reviews economist John R. Lott’s Freedomomics and takes a look at Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics as well:
“Levitt wrote that Roe is “like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings on one continent and eventually creates a hurricane on another.” He ought to be more careful with his similes: Surely he knew that he was echoing meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s famous evocation of a global climate system–one that had such a dense web of interconnected pathways of causation that it made long-term weather forecasting a fool’s errand. The actual event that inspired this observation was that, one day in 1961, Lorenz entered .506 instead of .506127 for one parameter in a climate-forecasting model and discovered that it produced a wildly different long-term weather forecast. This is, of course, directly analogous to what we see in the abortion-crime debate: Tiny changes in the data set yield vastly different results. This is a telltale sign (as if another were needed) that human society is far too complicated to yield to the analytical tools that Lott and Levitt bring to bear. Nobody in this debate has any reliable, analytically derived idea of what impact abortion legalization has had on crime. ”
I didn’t know that about the famous “butterfly in Brazil” effect, but that is what I’ve been saying about Levitt’s abortion-crime theory since 1999: it’s beyond the power of contemporary social science to determine.
Here’s the abstract of a paper in press by economist Ted Joyce, followed by Joyce’s cogent explanation of why it’s important to keep harping on this subject.
A Simple Test of Abortion and Crime
Baruch College and Graduate Center
City University of New York
National Bureau of Economic Research
Forthcoming in Review of Economics and Statistics
A Simple Test of Abortion and Crime
I replicate Donohue and Levitt’s results for violent and property crime arrest rates and then apply their data and specification to an analysis of age-specific homicide rates and murder arrest rates. The coefficients on the abortion rate have the wrong sign for two of the four measures of crime and none is statistically significant at conventional levels. In the second half of the paper, I present alternative tests of abortion and crime that attempt to mitigate problems of endogeneity and measurement error. I use the legalization of abortion following the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade in order to exploit two sources of variation: between-state changes in abortion rates pre and post Roe, and cross-cohort differences in exposure to legalized abortion. I ind no meaningful association between abortion and age-specific crime rates among cohorts born in the years just before and after abortion became legal.
The debate as to whether legalized abortion lowers crime leaped from academic journals to mainstream discourse with the huge success of Freakonomics.1 In the Chapter titled, “Where Have All the Criminals Gone?” Levitt and Dubner summarize academic work by Levitt and coauthor John Donohue, which shows that a one-standard deviation increase in the abortion rate lowers homicide rates by 31 percent and can explain upwards of 60 percent of the recent decline in murder.2 If one accepts these estimates, then legalized abortion has saved more than 51,000 lives between 1991 and 2001, at a total savings of $105 billion. But the policy implications go beyond crime. If abortion lowers homicide rates by 20 to 30 percent, then it is likely to have affected an entire spectrum of outcomes associated with well-being: infant health, child development, schooling, earnings and marital status. Similarly, the policy implications are broader than abortion. Other interventions that affect fertility control and that lead to fewer unwanted births—contraception or sexual abstinence—have huge potential payoffs. In short, a causal relationship between legalized abortion and crime has such significant ramifications for social policy and at the same time is so controversial, that further assessment of the identifying assumptions and their robustness to alternative strategies is warranted.
The New York Times more or less sets the agenda for the rest of the news media. If the NYT decides a story is fit to print, much of the the rest of the press will soon decide, what do you know!, that the topic deserves coverage. But if a tree falls in the forest and the NYT doesn’t cover it … This means the NYT has a particular responsibility to avoid giving in to conflicts of interest, which they have clearly succumbed to over the last two years in their refusal to report on any of the controversies swirling around their star columnist turned blogger Steven D. Levitt.
Did getting the lead out of gasoline, not legalized abortion, cause crime to fall? From the Washington Post:
The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the
What makes Nevin’s work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.
“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.” …
“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.
Abortions can be assigned to very precise times, which quickly allowed big doubts to be raised about Steven D. Levitt’s abortion-cut-crime theory, since the cohort born soon after legalization had much higher murder rates. Lead is a little slipperier to analyze, because it hangs around in the environment, perhaps providing wiggle room for the analyst if the chronology doesn’t quite match up.
The WaPo article ignores Nevin’s link of lead to lowering IQ, as in this 2000 article. That ingesting lead makes you stupider was known for a long time. In James T. Farrell’s 1930s novels about Chicago prole Studs Lonigan, Studs and his pals debate whether to give up the good pay of working as painters because all the old painters seem pretty dim from exposure to lead paint.
Meanwhile, Modern Dragons offers another potential source of influence on human behavior, one that’s been analyzed even less: gut flora.
In the WSJ:
It’s Not Enough to Be ‘Wanted’
Illegitimacy has risen despite–indeed, because of–legal abortion.
BY JOHN R. LOTT JR.
And here’s a graph I made up a few years ago during the Freakonomics controversy. Hard to see much evidence that legalizing abortion increased the “wantedness” of babies like Steven D. Levitt claims these days, now that he figured out he’d get in trouble if he mentioned that he originally attributed 39% of his theorized crime-fighting effect to the much higher abortion rate seen among blacks.