Friday, July 18, 2008

Freakonomics Revisited

Why was there such a dramatic drop in violent crime
in the early 1990s in America?
by Charlie Leck

One of the most enjoyable books I've read in the last year is Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The two guys maintain a very unusual blog that I enjoy and with which I keep up regularly. In their book they grappled with weird and strange questions of economics and showed how the laws of economics could be applied to such bizarre situations.

  • What do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

  • Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?

  • How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents?

  • Where have all the criminals gone?

The chapter on the declining crime rate in America in the 1990s is particularly interesting and, if their logic is correct, it says we could be in for a soaring rise in the America crime rate if a certain very vocal and activist group gets its way. If it does, in about 17 years you should check the locks on your doors, make sure the security system is working, but, for heaven's sake, don't start packing heat. Here' how their thinking goes.

  • In the 15 years prior to 1990 the violent crime rate in American had risen 80 percent.

  • In the early 90s the crime rate dropped so dramatically that it stunned observers
    who expected the rate to keep rising

  • It continued to drop until it reached the level of 40 years earlier

Where, so suddenly did all those criminals go?
That became the question of the day. The experts (criminologists, sociologists, urban sociologists, psychologists and media pundits) began providing answers like the following (most popular are listed first):

  • New police strategies

  • Better use of prisons

  • Changes in the drug market

  • Aging population

  • Tougher gun control laws

  • Strong economy

  • Increased number of law enforcement officers

  • Others (more capital punishment, concealed weapon laws, gun by-back programs, etc)

Dubner and Levitt decided to apply the laws of economics to the question in order to secure a rational, sensible answer. Dubner wrote the following about Levitt:

"As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions…. Many people… might not recognize Levitt's work as economics at all. But he has merely distilled the so-called dismal science to its most primal aim: explaining how people get what they want… He figures a way to measure an effect that veteran economists had declared unmeasurable. His abiding interests – though he says he has never trafficked in them himself – are cheating, corruption and crime."

The question above, about the early 1990s, is just such an "interesting" question. Levitt (and Dubner, a writer) began to apply the "dismal science" of economics to the question. Chapter Four in their book carefully explains how, by using these rules of economics, they could dismiss any of the answers listed above. What then?

It wasn't Rudy
In New York City, an awful lot of people were crediting the newly elected mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and his personally chosen police commissioner, William Bratton, for the dramatic decreases in New York City's violent crime. We certainly heard Giuliani echoing the claim enough times in the recent Republican Party presidential primary campaign.

The facts, however, show that crime had already begun to dramatically decrease in New York City before Giuliani became Mayor and before he appointed Bratton. Giuliani came to office in 1994. Between 1990 and the end of 1993, the rate had already dropped by almost 20 percent. In addition, the attentive observer would have recognized that the crime rates were dropping all over the United States and even in urban areas where police departments were employing the status quo – even in Los Angeles, which bore the reputation of having an awful police department.

One by one, Levitt and Dubner dispatch all the possible causes, from our list above, for the drop in crime. Their logic is impeccable and it is difficult to disagree with them – impossible as far as I am concerned.

What then?
Perhaps the question should be: "When then?" Leavitt and Dubner date it. The change began on 22 January 1973 – seventeen years before the statistical start of the drop in the violent crime rate.

What? How? Why? Huh!
On that January day in 1973 the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Roe v. Wade, that abortion is legal under certain circumstances in the United States of America. Minnesotan, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the opinion for the majority and it included the following reasoning, which is quoted by Dubner and Levitt:

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent… Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and other wise, to care for it."

Could it be possible?
Levitt and Dubner's explanation and rationale are difficult to dismiss. I urge you to read the entire chapter. The children who were most likely to become criminals – the unwanted, improperly attended and unloved – were no longer on the streets – or, their number was greatly decreased.

The writers pose the question that all of their doubters and critics raise: "How, then, can we tell if the abortion-crime link is a case causality rather than simply correlation?"

Think about this! There were five states in the nation where this amazing statistical drop in the crime rate began at least two years earlier than 1990. In New York, for instance, the drop beginning in 1988 was staggering. Why? Because New York had legalized abortion two years earlier than the Supreme Court legalized it in 1973. The same was true in each of the other four states – California, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. All five states, each of which had made abortion legal at least 2 years earlier than 1973, saw dramatics drops in their violent crime rates at least two years earlier than the rest of the nation.

The next step in this economic trail led Levitt to look at the comparison of rates of decreases in abortion with the rates of decrease in crime. Voila! A virtual match! He also found that there is a similar link in the statistics in Australia and Canada between their legalizing of abortion and the drop in the crime rate some 17 years later.

"To discover that abortion was one of the greatest crime-lowering factors in American history is, needless to say, jarring. It feels less Darwinian than Swiftian; it calls to mind a long-ago dart attributed to G. K. Chesterton: when there aren't enough hats to go around, the problem isn't solved by lopping off some heads. The crime drop was, in the language of economists, an 'unintended benefit' of legalized abortion. But one need not oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds to feel shaken by the notion of a private sadness being converted into a public good."

Does it freak you out? Do you disbelieve it? That's Freakonomics! I'd like to read your comments.

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