Sunday, October 02, 2005
Bill Bennett V Freakonomics
To address the main issue. Is Bill Bennett a racist? I don't know, but it seems to me that Freakonomics advanced a de facto racist argument, and that Bill Bennett was trying to point out the perils of justifying what should be a moral issue on economic grounds.
From Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
"So, how did Roe v. Wade trigger, a generation later, the greatest crime drop in recorded history?Now, it is both a true and basic liberal argument that the legacy of racism still exists in the form of disproportionate numbers of poor black Americans. It does. What the argument above advances is the viewpoint that the way to deal with at-risk populations is to kill 'em off before they are born. Decades ago, the Chinese decided to eradicate venereal disease from their population by killing off those who were carrying it. It's the same agenda, in my eyes.
"As far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal. Not even close.
"Decades of study have show that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade--poor, unmarried and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get--were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade these children weren't being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet.
"It wasn't gun control or a strong economy or new police strategies that finally blunted the American crime wave. It was, among other factors [including building more prisons and incarcerating criminals with longer sentences], the reality that the pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk."
A different way to address the issue is to figure out how we could change the societal dynamic for those at-risk populations. That's the classic American way. I prefer it on both moral and pragmatic grounds. This passage from Freakonomics advances a very anti-humane argument, and it is one which disproportionately affects black Americans. The idea that we should encourage abortions because it reduces the at-risk population really means, to most Americans, that we don't have to worry about changing the underlying conditions of those populations. Instead, we can use abortion to kill them off. We don't have to worry about poor kids getting a good education, or making sure that they are healthy, or making sure that they have enough to eat. Instead, we can just let the market take care of itself. That is the thinking of many in the upper socioeconomic strata today, both liberal and conservative.
Moving on to Bill Bennett, first I reviewed Media Matters, tumbled into Sister Toldjah, collided with John Cole, and exited the information super highway at Bill Bennett's excerpt page, where I listened to the segment for myself. Bennett seemed to me to be pointing out the fallacy of justifying social policies purely on economic grounds. His caller had advanced the anti-abortion argument that we would have no problem funding social security if all the babies who had been aborted had been born:
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—It would. For that matter, you could abort every baby in the US, and in a few generations you'd have virtually no crime at all! But that's hardly a solution. And if you killed everyone who had the genetic tendency to diabetes you'd get a lot less diabetes. And if you killed all the babies who are born to poor people you'd have less disease as well! And all of these strategies are morally reprehensible. Given the statistics for prisoners who are illiterate and/or mentally disturbed (about half), you could kill everyone who couldn't pass a reading test at 18 and cut the crime rate too. But I am not advocating that either. That's a communist way of thinking, and it's one of the reasons I hate communism so passionately. What I advocate is changing the underlying conditions that contribute to such statistics.
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.
When Bill Bennett says that it is "ridiculous", I think he is making a broader point. If you define people as economic problems, they will be. If you look at trying to release their potential, you can eliminate the problem and then they become an asset. Because of this, a solid moral appreciation of the innate and absolute dignity of the individual and our duties to every human being tends to make societies richer.
For example, if you don't want poor people to be criminals you can make sure that they have access to good schools and avoid segregating them in large ghettoes of public housing which have access to virtually no job markets. The basic fallacy here is looking at people in terms of economic statistics rather than in terms of the moral precept that the individual has a dignity that transcends economics. It is "morally reprehensible" to define people by their worth to you. It is "impossible", because once you go this route you do end up killing millions of people and creating poverty in a society. All the communist societies have proved that.
Now, Bill Bennett could be a racist for all I know, but I'm amazed that the criticism is focusing on his identification of the underlying message of the Freakonomics passage rather than the mindset behind the Freakonomics passage himself. I suspect that's because a lot of his critics agree with Freakonomics, and don't wish to have any discussion of the de facto racism behind it. Tough. I'm glad Bennett brought it up.
No one has the right to argue on one hand that the disproportionate incidence of poverty among minorities in this country is evidence of racism and then argue that Bill Bennett is somehow racist for coming out and saying what the economic argument for life or no life amounts to, which is disproportionate numbers of black kids who are not born. That's a fact.
As for Freakonomics, one of the authors weighs in, trying to differentiate his argument from Bill Bennett's:
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.Yes, but this passage utterly begs the basic question: Why is there such disproportionate number of black children living in low-income, urban households headed by a single mother who became pregnant as a teenager? We know the answers, and they lie in a history of discrimination, the loss of jobs from inner cities, and well-intended social policies that produced a concentration of at-risk people in areas in which there were very few jobs to which they could commute.
"Controlling for income" is precisely the point. What the Freakonomics argument comes down to is that poor people cause crime, and therefore, if poor people abort their children we will have less crime. I am not convinced that the answer to structural poverty in this country is for poor people to abort their children - but many people are. That belief absolutely has an effect upon the social programs we are willing to fund. That is a social fact, and it is one which does involve racial discrimination. Many people are willing to buy into what is really nonsense because of racial attitudes.
I also believe that the underlying mindset expressed in Freakonomics perpetuates poverty rather than reducing it. The mere fact that we do have vastly disproportionate numbers of black kids living in poverty in this country ought to be a clear indication that poverty does have social causes (largely, no jobs where you live for which you are educated) and that those social causes can be addressed. If we are not willing to do that, then let's admit that we are not rather than flinging wild accusations of racism around.
In the above passage, the point is made that if you control for income, people of different races who grow up in similar circumstances have very similar statistical chances of committing crimes. A very logical deduction would be that by figuring out how we can alter the social dynamic we could have more people and less crime. Somehow, this seems like a better alternative to me. We can't change history, but we can change the future.
I'd like to see this whole discussion take place on a higher ground, but I suppose that given political realities it won't. So I'm going to close by writing with the most absolute sincerity that after puzzling over this for days, I cannot see how someone can accuse Bill Bennett of racism without making the same accusation against Freakonomics, and that I think Bill Bennett (whether he is a racist or not) is being more honest about underlying social realities than Freakonomics. I am not accusing either the Freakonomics' authors or Bill Bennett of being racists. I don't know and it is really irrelevant to my particular viewpoint.
Anyone who cannot stand to admit that a claim that we can reduce crime by having poor women abort their children is also a claim that we can reduce crime by having a lot of black women abort their children is tied in mental knots. Such a person is not necessarily a racist, but nonetheless such a person is dodging reality to some extent. I say, let's talk about the reality. Let's figure out how we can change the reality. Economic abortions are hardly a badge of social justice, are they?
And the bizarre thing is that Bennett, who explicitly rejects abortion, is under attack.
Young adults are much more likely to commit crimes, and I have read articles purporting to predict future crime rates just by projecting the numbers of people in certain age brackets.
There are other problems with the argument that abortions reduced crime. Specifically, the authors of freakonomics looked at all crimes which tend to have large variance in reporting error. If however, the murder rate is used, their argument that abortions caused a drop in crime falls apart. Also, it is my understanding that they also confined the period of time they looked at to '85 thru '97 or '98 and that a larger sample also would prove them wrong or at least inconclusive.
I don't find the argument convincing, personally. It holds everything else static and presumes to project based on demographics, but when you investigate the figures more closely, the demographic trends don't hold.
It's stupid to say that the child of every single woman has a distinct and fixed probability of becoming a criminal, and that is what the argument presumes.
However, changing the name of the thing does not change the offense. My feeling is that Bennett called it by the right name. Because the people who buy into the Freakonomics argument are people who consider at-risk populations undesireables.
Believe me, I have been around enough of the people who think "they" should stop having children to know who "they" are. There is no way I can pretend to myself that I don't know why these sorts of arguments (which are, to me, flatly ridiculous) are accepted.
It is the same mindset that accepts the idea that minorities are stupider. I have had it with all this closet racism.
As for why these arguments are ridiculous, you can look at Europe and see that totally different demographic populations exposed to the same conditions show high crime rates. It is a function of de facto exclusion and cross-generation hopelessness. So until you change the conditions you don't change the results.
I guess I did find Bennett's words offensive, but I'm glad he said them. I would like to change the idea he was discussing for what it is, and not what it pretends to be. It is a terribly ugly idea that should be challenged.
In fact, the authors of Freakonomics made explicitly racial arguments in economics journal articles. They said nothing remotely racist, but they did stress the empirical connection between race and abortion and crime.
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