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Zell Miller is wrong, but he isn’t crazy

Zell Miller got into trouble with the media a few days back when he made the following statement, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution website:

… former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller made a little news this week in Macon when he declared that abortion has contributed to the military’s manpower shortage, the Social Security crisis, and the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.

“How could this great land of plenty produce too few people in the last 30 years? Here is the brutal truth that no one dares to mention: We’re too few because too many of our babies have been killed,” Miller said.

“Over 45 million since Roe v. Wade in 1973. If those 45 million children had lived, today they would be defending our country, they would be filling our jobs, they would be paying into Social Security,” the former Georgia governor said.

Miller’s argument, ostensibly, is similar to that of my work with John Donohue on legalized abortion and crime. As discussed in Freakonomics, unwanted children are at increased risk for crime, and legalized abortion reduced the number of unwanted children, thus less crime.Miller, however, makes a key mistake in his logic. While it is true there have been many millions of abortions (although according to the official statistics more like 35 million than 45 million), even if those abortions had not occurred, there would not be that many more Americans today. The reason is that the primary impact of an abortion is not to reduce a woman’s lifetime number of children born, but rather, to simply shift the timing of a woman’s fertility from early in life to later in life. Based on a paper by John Donohue, Jeff Grogger, and I which will be out in a few weeks, I would estimate that each teenage abortion reduces lifetime babies born to the mother by maybe one-tenth of a child, or possibly even less. (For a woman who gets an abortion in her forties, the impact is obviously larger, but there are very few of those type of abortions.)

The key to our abortion argument is that women shift their births to a time when they can better care for the children. So even though there is not a big change in the size of the cohort born, the kids still turn out less criminal. Miller’s statement, however, is all about the cohort size, not about the unwantedness.

By the way, Miller’s argument is the same one a caller to Bill Bennett’s radio show made a few years back, the response to which got Bennett into so much trouble — a lot more than Miller is in so far.