Thursday, October 13, 2005


John Kenneth Galbraith once said that economics had never quite been able to shed its “dismal science” label because it was never quite undeserved. Despite a devil-may-care approach, Freakonomics does little to improve the discipline’s tarnished image. Indeed, the book’s macabre, cost-benefit abortion ratios vie with Thomas Malthus’s starvation-population equation for primacy in the economics Hall of Shame.

Authored by University of Chicago pop-economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics revels in eccentricity and seldom misses a chance to surprise readers with brash comparisons that, on reflection, are less impressive than advertised. Its first chapter juxtaposes sumo wrestlers and school teachers but produces the hardly stunning conclusion that both groups contain persons willing to cheat when stakes are high. Elsewhere, Levitt and Dubner link the Ku Klux Klan with real estate agents by noting that both have access to inside information. The operative principle in these “Who’d a thunk it” pairings is that any two things are remarkably alike--provided the analyst disregards the ways they aren’t alike.

The most explosive correlation in this scatter-shot compendium is the one that links recent reductions in the crime-rate to the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973. By itself, this proposition isn’t stunning news since abortions occur disproportionately among demographic groups that produce more than their share of criminals. Thus, when those groups have fewer offspring, fewer criminals are the result. Put succinctly: more abortions, less crime. Freakonomics provides a cursory summary of statistical evidence to buttress the idea that some unspecified part of the recent drop in crime is due to the million-plus abortions performed annually in the U.S. since 1975. Booming incarceration rates and increased police numbers are two other factors the authors credit when explaining the recent crime bust.

Freakonomics stops short of putting a seal of approval on abortion as an effective crime-fighting technique--but just barely. The book repeatedly portrays women’s motives for receiving abortions in glowing terms. In an effusive eulogy to Roe v. Wade, Levitt and Dubner assert that “The Supreme Court gave voice to what mothers in Romania and Scandinavia ... had long known: when a woman does not want to have a child, she usually has good reason.” Later the authors expand this broad endorsement of motives and imply that most abortions have beneficial social consequences.

Not coincidentally, Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania is presented as the prime counter- example to America’s post-Roe, abortion-on-demand regime. The dictator’s abortion ban, it appears, produced a bumper crop of children more likely to engage in crime than their predecessors. Leaving aside the fact that, as usual, no details of this study are provided, one can’t help but wonder whether Communist Romania is the place where “other things being equal” comparisons are most prudently invoked.

Statements about abortion demographics provide a glaring example of scholarly lassitude. “One study,” the authors inform us, shows that these potential children would have been “50% more likely than average to live in poverty.” Another study says they would have been 60% more likely than average to grow up with one parent. Since these two factors, taken together, comprise the strongest predictors that children will have a criminal future, the authors offer the following conclusion to these widely-acknowledged premises: “...the very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.”

Confusion arises, first of all, because the preceding statement blurs the distinction between all women who receive abortions and the much smaller subgroup of poor, single women who undergo the procedure. More blatant is the distortion created by substituting a sentence of universal despair (“their children...would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.”) for the possible criminality of some unstated fraction of these fetuses--certainly less than 20% of the high-risk cohort. Only blindered ideology, or a craven desire to mirror elite opinion, can explain this oversight that is repeated a second time (at least in spirit) at chapter’s end: “When the government gives a woman the opportunity to make a decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a good position to raise the baby well.”

Even if one concedes that the crime-abortion link constitutes prima facie evidence of good decision-making, the authors present no evidence (and certainly no moral argument) to suggest that the overwhelming majority of women whose children would not become criminals did a “good job.” Perhaps this is the reason the elastic word “unhappy” was inserted into a statement whose precedents only concerned criminality. In any case, both summaries transform philosophically-grounded assessments of decisions made by a small fraction of women into empirically-buttressed validations of abortions had by all women.

The only thing positive about these acts of linguistic-statistical legerdemain is that they spare readers from being subjected to another utilitarian calculation that pits the potential happiness of 80 to 90% of aborted fetuses against the potential havoc wrought by the other 10 to 20%. This thought experiment would mirror one actually provided by the authors where a 100:1 fetus to human being ratio is employed to show abortion’s inutility as a serious murder-reduction strategy. (In this case a popular methodological observation is turned on its head. Insane means are used to attain a morally reasonable end.)

Amazingly, this allusive mixture of statistical data and careless rhetoric about the link between abortion and reduced crime rates takes place in scarcely more space than is devoted to the topic in this review. Curious readers are left to themselves to sift through a list of reference works that appear only at the back of the book and without extended annotation.

Ironically, Freakonomics says a good deal more about parenting than it does about abortion and crime. Not surprisingly, what it says is neither consistent nor compelling. At one point we are told that good parenting (what we do as opposed to what we are) doesn’t matter much (p.175). Elsewhere the authors assert that bad parenting “Clearly...matters a great deal” (p.153). Single-parent homes are said to be irrelevant when it comes to school performance (p.174), yet the same condition is dubbed a prime indicator of criminal behavior (p.138). On a related topic, data drawn from Chicago’s public schools are used to show that school choice, in itself, matters little (p.158). But a few pages later we are informed that the poor performance of blacks and their white classmates is caused by the abysmal quality of the schools they attend (p.165).

This lack of intellectual rigor is previewed in an introductory chapter where Levitt and Dubner assert that morality concerns the way people “would like the world to work”--as if wishes and moral obligations were the same thing. The authors then claim that economics, by contrast, deals with the way things “actually do work”--an assertion rooted either in disciplinary amnesia or, more likely, philosophical naiveté.

A dearth of moral gravitas is also communicated by observations such as the one that compares foot-soldiers in the crack cocaine “business” with “a McDonald’s burger flipper or a Wal-Mart shelfstocker.” Here and elsewhere an elitist disposition is evident--an attitude more interested in projecting an aura of trendy insouciance than in acknowledging the gulf that separates honest work from an occupation where the four-year chance of being killed is 25%. Of a piece with this cavalier attitude are the sleazy rumors that are casually dropped about CIA drug trafficking and More Guns, Less Crime author John Lott.

A final chapter devoted to children’s names provides more evidence that this book doesn’t take itself seriously. After concluding that names, in themselves, don’t impact a child’s future, a dozen more pages follow that contain comments about names that have been popular with upper and lower class parents--not, of course, that it really matters.

What Freakonomics highlights, more than anything, is an adolescent mentality that enjoys iconoclasm for its own sake. Investigations conducted in this frame of mind are relished more for their shock value than for any insight they provide into the human condition. Such an attitude breeds the careless rhetoric and cursory treatment that the authors exhibit when discussing the most sensitive issues. What Levitt and Dubner obviously don't appreciate is the price society pays for adopting a cost-benefit perspective that happily views forty million aborted fetuses as a successful crime-fighting effort.

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