International House of Dan: Say What?!?!

Friday, September 30, 2005

Say What?!?!

In case you've been living under a rock somewhere, former Reagan Education Secretary Bill Bennett got himself into some hot water by saying that abortions among blacks would lower crime. Yeah... I heard that this morning on CNN and was at a complete loss for words. Over the course of the day, the media has been scrambling to both condemn and contextualize the ridiculously idiotic remark. White House Press Secretary Scott "Skippy" McClellan explained that the President "believes that the comments were inappropriate." Quite.

Firmly wedded to my belief that an impartial evaluation of most things will prove that I am right, I listened to the controversial call on Mr. Bennett's show (which airs on "Christian Radio's #1 News Network": Salem Radio Network). Basically, the caller said that he opposed abortion because he read somewhere that that Social Security could remain solvent if we had the tax revenue from all the people that would have been born since Roe had abortion not been legalized. Bennett responded that abortion should be opposed for moral, not economic reasons, lest someone should defend the practice by linking its legalization to a desirable policy outcome, such as a reduction in crime.

Let's get away from what he said for a second and consider the argument itself. Mr. Bennett steps into the shoes of a hypothetical pro-choicer who would selectively use data to divorce the high incarceration rate among African Americans from factors such as racial profiling, poverty, and the state of inner city schools, and then extend that out-of-context statistical link between race and crime to say that the crime rate would be astronomical had abortion among African Americans not been legalized. I'm not sure what the fiscal impact of these never-born taxpayers later collecting Social Security would be, but I suppose this hypothetical idiot could bolster his argument by noting that the unaborted criminals would kill productive citizens, leading to a quicker collapse for Social Security funding. In other words, Bennett's comment, while racist on its face, was not made to assert the position it expressed, but rather to rebut a caller's ridiculous anti-abortion proposition by virtue of its own absurdity. So does this excuse him for saying something very bad during an impromptu on-air exchange? I think no, not so much, no...

Bennett said that his hypothetical pro-choice response to the caller was in reference to the connection between crime and legalized abortion that was drawn in the book Freakonomics. I have not read the book but, I understand that the connection is drawn for entirely different reasons than those adopted by Mr. Bennett's hypothetical pro-choicer:

First, women who have abortions are those most at risk to give birth to children who would engage in criminal activity. Teenagers, unmarried women, and the economically disadvantaged are all substantially more likely to seek abortions [Levine et al. 1996]. Recent studies have found children born to these mothers to be at higher risk for committing crime in adolescence [Comanor and Phillips 1999] ... Second, women may use abortion to optimize the timing of childbearing.
What does that mean exactly? Levitt and Dubner posit that abortion doesn't necessarily affect the number of children a woman will have, but rather the conditions under which she will have them. In other words, a woman who before Roe would've been forced to raise a child under conditions that would lead it to crime could instead wait to have that child at a later stage in her life and raise it in a less crime-prone environment. The point missed by the caller is that he assumes that a woman who had two abortions and later had a child would have had three taxpayers (children) were it not for Roe.

Steven Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics, points out that though the bare numbers suggest higher crime by African Americans, "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." This is why I don't believe I'll excuse Mr. Bennett's comment because of its context: the context is what makes the comment bad.

If Bennett meant to refute the caller's premise by citing Freakonomics, then why the inclusion of race, and why in that way? It's completely superfluous, the abortion-crime argument as originally presented would suffice to make the point Bennett intended to make. The example he chose wasn't aborting white men to get rid of hate crimes, serial killers and child molesters, it wasn't aborting rich people to eliminate corporate fraud, it wasn't even aborting poor people to get rid of crime (though the very example he turns to places poverty above race as a cause of crime): no, he chose to add that aborting black people would eliminate crime. His choice was irresponsible, it was unnecessary for the purpose of making his point, and it was statistically misleading. I'm not ready to call Bill Bennett a racist, but I will call him an idiot.

Sorry, but that's just how I roll...


Blogger thinksam said...

Nice analysis. I knew about the Freakanomics theory. I agree with you.

01 October, 2005 20:14  

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