From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Comments on Bill Bennett and Freakonomics
BY Steven Levitt
Bill Bennett and I have a fair amount in common. We’ve both written about crime (his “superpredator” theory gets a quick discussion in Freakonomics), we have both thought a lot about illegal drugs and education (he was the original “drug czar” and is a former Secretary of Education), and we both love to gamble (although it seems I do it for much lower stakes and perhaps with greater success).
Now we also share the fact that we have made controversial statements about the link between abortion and crime. Here’s what Bennett said during the Sept. 28 broadcast of Salem Radio Network’s Bill Bennett’s Morning in America:
CALLER: I noticed the national media, you know, they talk a lot about the loss of revenue, or the inability of the government to fund Social Security, and I was curious, and I’ve read articles in recent months here, that the abortions that have happened since Roe v. Wade, the lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30-something years, could fund Social Security as we know it today. And the media just doesn’t — never touches this at all.
BENNETT: Assuming they’re all productive citizens?
CALLER: Assuming that they are. Even if only a portion of them were, it would be an enormous amount of revenue.
BENNETT: Maybe, maybe, but we don’t know what the costs would be, too. I think as — abortion disproportionately occur among single women? No.
CALLER: I don’t know the exact statistics, but quite a bit are, yeah.
BENNETT: All right, well, I mean, I just don’t know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don’t know. I mean, it cuts both — you know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up. Well —
CALLER: Well, I don’t think that statistic is accurate.
BENNETT: Well, I don’t think it is either, I don’t think it is
either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don’t know. But I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could — if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.
Bennett’s comments have, not surprisingly, ignited a furor. For some of the media reactions, see here and here. Less than an hour ago, the White House weighed in. Here are my thoughts on this exchange:
1) People should bear in mind that this took place on an unscripted radio show in response to a caller’s question. It was clearly off-the-cuff. This is a very different situation than, say, Bennett’s writing an op-ed piece.
2) Race is not an important part of the abortion-crime argument that John Donohue and I have made in academic papers and that Dubner and I discuss in Freakonomics. It is true that, on average, crime involvement in the U.S. is higher among blacks than whites. Importantly, however, once you control for income, the likelihood of growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and how urban the environment is, the importance of race disappears for all crimes except homicide. (The homicide gap is partly explained by crack markets). In other words, for most crimes a white person and a black person who grow up next door to each other with similar incomes and the same family structure would be predicted to have the same crime involvement. Empirically, what matters is the fact that abortions are disproportionately used on unwanted pregnancies, and disproportionately by teenage women and single women.
3) Some people might think that my comments in (2) above are just ducking the race issue because it is politically correct to do so. Anyone who has read Freakonomics knows that I am not afraid to take issues of race head on. Much of the book deals with challenging issues of race (e.g. black-white test score gaps, black naming patterns, etc.). I mean it when I say that, from a purely fact-based and statistical perspective, race is not in any way central to our arguments about abortion and crime.
4) When a woman gets an abortion, for the most part it is not changing the total number of children she has; rather, it is shifting the timing so those births come later in life. This is an important fact to remember. One in four pregnancies ends in abortion and this has been true for 30 years in the U.S. But the impact of abortion on the overall birth rate has been quite small.
5) In light of point (4) above, it is hard to even know what Bennett means when he says “you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” Implicit in his comment is the idea that some external force, like a government, is forcing blacks to have abortions. This is obviously a completely different situation than abortion as we know it today, in which a woman chooses whether or not to have an abortion now, and then starts her family later in life, when her situation is more stable and conducive. The distinction between a woman choosing to control her fertility and the government choosing to limit her fertility is fundamental and people often seem to lose sight of that.
6) If we lived in a world in which the government chose who gets to reproduce, then Bennett would be correct in saying that “you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” Of course, it would also be true that if we aborted every white, Asian, male, Republican, and Democratic baby in that world, crime would also fall. Immediately after he made the statement about blacks, he followed it up by saying, “That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.” He made a factual statement (if you prohibit any group from reproducing, then the crime rate will go down), and then he noted that just because a statement is true, it doesn’t mean that it is desirable or moral. That is, of course, an incredibly important distinction and one that we make over and over in Freakonomics.
7) There is one thing I would take Bennett to task for: first saying that he doesn’t believe our abortion-crime hypothesis but then revealing that he does believe it with his comments about black babies. You can’t have it both ways.
8) As an aside, the initial caller’s statement is completely wrong. If abortion were illegal, our Social Security problems would not be solved. As noted above, most abortions just shift a child from being born today to a child being born to the same mother a few years later.
White House criticizes Bennett’s remarks on blacks
Sep 30 2005
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Friday criticized as “not appropriate” a comment from former Education Secretary William Bennett that aborting black babies would reduce the crime rate. Bennett, a conservative radio commentator, stirred outrage for saying on his talk show on Wednesday: “But I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down,” he said on his call-in program “Morning in America.”
“The president believes the comments were not appropriate,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Bennett has held various senior roles in administrations of President Ronald Reagan and Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush. He is a former education secretary and head of U.S. drug policy. Bennett, author of a book on morality called “The Book of Virtues,” faced controversy two years ago when it was revealed that he lost millions because of a gambling habit. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he was “appalled” by Bennett’s comments and said he hoped Republicans would condemn him. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the comments were “hateful, inflammatory” and asked whether they represented the values of the Republican party.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, a former campaign adviser to Bush, has been trying to reach out to African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. On his radio program on Friday, Bennett said “I was putting forward a hypothetical proposition … and then said about it, it was morally reprehensible to recommend abortion of an entire group of people. But this is what happens when you argue that the ends can justify the means.”
His remark was in response to a caller who had suggested that the Social Security system’s finances would be in a much better position if it were not for the 1973 legalization of abortion, because there would be more people paying into the system. Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton said on CNN that Bennett’s comments were “blatantly racist. (He) stated as a fact that if you did this it would in fact lower the crime rate which clearly is him making blacks and crime synonymous,” Sharpton said.
A true story about Bill Bennett
BY Reed Hundt
When I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (1993-97), I asked Bill Bennett to visit my office so that I could ask him for help in seeking legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. Eventually Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller, with the White House leadership of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, put that provision in the Telecommunications Law of 1996, and today nearly 90% of all classrooms and libraries do have such access. The schools covered were public and private. So far the federal funding (actually collected from everyone as part of the phone bill) has been matched more or less equally with school district funding to total about $20 billion over the last seven years. More than 90% of all teachers praise the impact of such technology on their work. At any rate, since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers,charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education. Well, I thought, at least he’s candid about his true views. The key Senate committee voted almost on party lines on the bill, all D’s for and all R’s against, except one — Olympia Snowe. Her support provided the margin of victory. On the House side, Speaker Gingrich made sure the provision was not in the companion bill, but in conference again Senators Snowe and Rockefeller, with White House support, made the difference. The Internet has been the first technology made available to students in poorly funded schools at about the same time and in about the same way as to students in well funded schools.