May 14, 2005

Chicago Sun-Times Review Blows Away 4th Grade Quality Book Report on Freakonomics in New York Times Book Review:

The little girl whose book report said, "This book told me more about penguins than I cared to know," brought a more critical perspective to analyzing Steven D. Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory than Jim Holt's Freakonomics review in the NYT, which simply consists of elementary school-style summarization with zero skepticism or outside Googling to find the facts that Levitt is covering up. Holt burbles:

And 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.

Many 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.

As 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 criminal's prime.

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.

Hence 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.

It's 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.

I 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 people 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 want to play the sap for deftly-marketed hooey?

I hope my review of Thomas Sowell's new book Black Rednecks and White Liberals that will appear Sunday night in shows what a motivated reviewer can actually accomplish in adding to the public's understanding rather than just summarizing a book.

IN 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:"

Magazine 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!

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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