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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.