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Seminar on Levitt

May 26th, 2005

I forgot to mention that Crooked Timber has posted a seminar on Steve Levitt’s Freakonomics including a contribution from me, and, more significantly, a response from Levitt. As usual with CT seminars, Henry Farrell put it together and did a great job.

  1. May 26th, 2005 at 19:02 | #1

    Sure did – I’m in awe. Terrific stuff.

  2. May 27th, 2005 at 00:28 | #2

    Its always good to encourage debate over controversial and novel ideas. And one is grateful for the benevolence and intelligence of the participants. Still, I was disappointed with thre results.
    Why didnt any of the esteemed academics and intellectuals participating engage in any, you know, serious empirical critiques of Levitt’s work? Especially the headline “Abortion-cuts-crime” claim? The seminarians seem to be happy enough celebrating the fact that a wunderkind social scientist has cracked the big time, apart from the usual sterile musings about methodology, ideology etc.
    There are massive empirical problems with Levitt ‘s headline thesis. The simple fact that the Crack Wars occurred in the post-abortion generation, and were prosecuted the teenage cohort who were supposed to be more civilized on account of the family planning benefits of legal abortion, pokes a gigantic hole the size of a Mack truck in his precious theory.
    There are also ethical problems with Levitts thesis. I would have thought that his notorious (implied) claim – that legalised abortion reduced the population of potential criminals by culling the ranks of underclass pregnancies to prevent unwanted babies from becoming unparented and hence feral-criminal – merited some sharp words. This amounts to support for accross the board pre-natal capital punishment, which is troubling to me at least.
    The comparison between the kid-gloves handling of Levitts flawed central thesis with the firestorm of abuse that greeted Charles Murray’s far more extensively and intensively researched work on the relationship between IQ and ethno-socio stratfication is striking. This is especially so given the tacit racist and sexist assumptions of Levitt’s work, which imply that urban minority single mothers will tend to be bad mothers.
    PS In my opinion, crime went down in the nineties because welfare reform(conditional benefits) and lawfare reform (three strikes and you are out) provided a stick, and wealthfare reforms (new economy) provided a carrot, to keep young males on the path of the straight and narrow in both family and work.

  3. jquiggin
    May 27th, 2005 at 07:28 | #3

    I don’t know about others, but, speaking for myself, I’m simply not on top of the empirical issues. As I said, more work is needed on this. The fact remains that no-one has managed to produce a counterargument sufficiently convincing to get past peer review in a major economics journal (I’m not sure about the status of the Joyce paper).

    In addition, as I mentioned, the fact that John Lott is involved in a field of research makes me want to steer clear of it, unless I’m confident in advance that he’ll be on the other side. Any argument he touches is tainted, since you know that he will cook the data as much as is necessary to win, and anyone who follows has to clean up the resulting mess before they can start work.

  4. May 27th, 2005 at 08:39 | #4

    jquiggin Says: May 27th, 2005 at 7:28 am

    no-one has managed to produce a counterargument sufficiently convincing to get past peer review in a major economics journal.

    Oh for goodness sake! One doesnt need to publish a “peer reviewed article” to poke holes in Levitts “Abortion-Cuts-Crime” thesis. We dont need to retire to the ivory tower to nut this one out. The facts are there in front of your nose.

    As it happens there is a scientific paper critiquing Levitt written by Ted Joyce, a reputable economist at NYU. It is currently being peer-reviewed prior to publication soPr Q cant be blamed for not coming accross it, I suppose, There are abstracts of it out there on the web, together with other work by Joyce critical of Levitt. Joyce concludes:

    [Levitt's]analyses provide little evidence that legalized abortion reduced crime.

    Sometimes a simple anecdotal account can be better guid to the truth than a complex theoretical interpretation. I travelled around the US in 1993 working at all kinds of jobs, a generation after the legalisation of abortion, just after the riots and at the height of the Crack Wars. I can tell you from first hand that a state of virtual civil war in many US cities. The footsoldiers were young urban males, those Levitt supposes most civilized by better family planning. Who am I going to believe, the theory of a contrarian social scientist making a play for the lecture circuit or the evidence of my own lyin’ eyes?

    John Lott is involved in a field of research makes me want to steer clear of it, unless I’m confident in advance that he’ll be on the other side. Any argument he touches is tainted,

    Its unfortunate that Lott may be on the side of the angels in this debate, but we may just have to be brave about that. As Orwell said, in respect of another embarassing bed-partner:

    These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one’s eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened.

  5. jquiggin
    May 27th, 2005 at 09:07 | #5

    Umm, Jack did you read the bit where I said: I’m not sure about the status of the Joyce paper?

    I don’t think the timing is as neat as you would like, Jack. Roe vs Wade was in 1973, and I’d guess that a change like that would take a couple of years to have its full effect. Then the question is whether the peak age for criminal activity is teenage (which would suit you) or early 20s (which would suit Levitt and Dubner).

  6. May 27th, 2005 at 11:20 | #6

    Pr Q, I apologise for my egregious ingnorance of your Joyce remark.
    Abortion was first legalized in 1970 in the key high-crime states of NY and CA. This fits the (contra-Levitt) pattern of crime peaking and subsiding earlier in these jurisdictions. It seems that the first post-abortion wave of illegitimate (not-shotgun wed) children came of age in the Big Cities first, and went on a crime rampage first. Crime went down in these areas in the nineties as the Crack Wars burnt out because this avant-garde were imprisoned, disabled or killed.

    Or they, and later cohorts, learned their lesson and went on the straight and narrow. Remember the million-man march of promise keepers, which reflected the change of heart in that generation? The Ice Storm reflects the change of heart in the next generation.

    I know this “Abortion-did-not-cut-crime” counter-narrative does not fit the progressive theory of history, which puts Wet Cultural Revolutionaries as the agents of sweetness and light. Quite the opposite, society got worse as the seventies wore on and fashionable “constructive” ideologues trashed traditional conservative institutions. And they got better as Dry Cultural Reactionaries restored order in the nineties, with various sticks – tougher law enforcement, tighter welfare entitlements. (Also the carrot of a buoyant job market.)

    Unfortunately this was too late for the hundreds of thousands of young, poor and ill-educated Americans who were massacred during this period of the US’s second civil war.

  7. jquiggin
    May 27th, 2005 at 11:51 | #7

    Jack, I don’t see how the pattern of an early crime peak in early legalizing jurisdictions is contra-Levitt. Not only does it appear exactly consistent, but as I understand things, that’s exactly the test they use.

    In any case, the discussion so far has already convinced me of the correctness of my position in the first comment. Whether he’s right or wrong, there is no simple slap-down answer to Levitt on this issue, and any refutation or qualification will require a lot of work, preferably undertaken by someone with no axe to grind and a well-established reputation for sound empirical work.

    I don’t think there’s much point in carrying this one further, and I certainly don’t intend to refight the culture wars in this thread.

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