Bill Bennett and Freakonomics

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.

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  1. Jonathan Schwartz says:

    Thank you for this great post. This is the Levitt that I know and love. How much of a factor did you find the higher incarceration rates to be in the reduction of the crime rate? As a couple people posted in the previous entry, the WSJ had an op-ed piece sugesting that criminality has in fact INCREASED, while crime has decreased due to much higher incarceration rates.

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  2. > 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.

    Do you have a citation for this? Some friends and I were looking for statistics about this just yesterday during a discussion of Bennett’s comments. I would be quite interested to read them.

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  3. Abul Azam says:

    The remark by Mr. Bennet reflects a deep rooted belief within the white persona that crime is a black thing. Given the studies, mentioned in your comment,(and other studies)which dismiss such linkage between crime and race, the statement truthfully reflects the mainstream perception on this subject.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    > 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.

    All these variables are highly correlated with race. So it is not at all surprising that race should cease to be a meaningful predictor once its variance is indirectly removed using the other proxies. Even so, it is interesting that the relationship with homicide remains to some degree.

    The more important question is: All of the above are risk factors for crime (gender and age as well; were these also factored out?). Why is it that african americans are disproportionately represented in these risk categories?

    On the other hand, if we compare it with the crime situation in south africa, the situation is much better here. So the environment can and has played a role in moderating crime.

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  5. I feel more than compelled to comment on this post about Bennett. While I would concede, although in less insensitive terms, aborting “every black baby in America” could have an impact on crime, the same could be said for any racial group. What irritates me however, is that the comment is based on the assumption that being black makes you more susceptible to crime. Such an argument, as I’m sure you would agree, is realistically flawed. Anyone put into a condition of being in poverty, raised in single parent family, and lives in an environment that doesn’t present a positive prospect for your future, can easily succumb to a life of crime. Whether that person is Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, or Martian is completely irrelevant. Being black myself, it offends me to hear such a comment because I’m hardly a criminal. Luckily enough for me, I was raised in an environment that presented me with opportunities and alternatives to a life of crime. How would aborting me have had any impact on reducing crime?

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Obviously crime is not a “black thing” just as it is not a male thing or a young thing. But it is indisputable that black males between the ages of 15 and 28 are responsible for a ridiculously high percentage of the violent crime in this country. Sorry.

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  7. Garnett Arnold says:

    I’m not fooled by Bill Bennett’s comments, because they reflect a common, misguided, deep-seated belief held by many elitists in this country. First of all, let’s examine the basis for the statement…”if all black babies were aborted tomorrow…” Well, it fails the common sense test, because black newborns don’t commit crimes. If the tone of his comments are familiar, it’s because Hitler used similar logic for blaming all of Germany’s problems on the Jews, and their elimination, would solve these problems. Second, many elitists in this country still don’t understand, that poverty is an industry in this country. Mayor Nagin wants those people back in New Orleans, not because it’s their home, but because their departure will trigger a shift in the political demographics of the area…it’s not about race, it’s about politics. The media (and America’s)fascination with black sociopathy make it a co-conspirator in a effort to feed a bias that came to America before the Mayflower…that these people, are different, and will never be “true Americans.” Every negative statistic in America boils down to race, because we can’t get beyond the notion of skin color, and we further victimize the victims, by blaming them for their situation. Some blacks kill other blacks over drug trade wars, just like whites killed other whites during prohibition…but what did whites do? They had the power to make alcohol legal. Up until 1972, de facto segregation was still legal in this country, which means that a black child with a high school diploma in 1972 probably got a sub-standard education. That same child is in their early 50’s now, and if he or she didn’t take advantage of the rising black militancy of the times that preached education and self-reliance, they were forever trapped in poverty, with their decendents. One final point. I believe abortion is a poor substitute for birth control. It’s usually unnecessary, invasive, morally reprehensible, but, it’s legal. The arguement that if those fetuses were not aborted, we wouldn’t have any social security problems, doesn’t hold water. Social Security is in trouble, because big government has made it into something it was never intended to be…an anti-poverty program, instead of a safety net for the elderly. We got more kids with learning disabilities, when the law changed authorizing them SSI…how stupid is this? Social Security pays out benefits to people who have never contributed anything to it, and probably never will. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, that eventually, this system will collapse under the weight of it’s own bureaucracy.
    Bottom line…Bill Bennett is just another elitist snob who has to climb off of his high horse every once in a while, and ring the bell of reich-wing …that “those people are causing all of our problems, and if they just went away…” This country may have to pay dearly if this attitude persists.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    The more you let people talk in a lesser formal way the more you my learn about what’s really in the mind of the “talker”. Formal op-eds may not show the true colours of the “talker”.

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