Sunday, April 01, 2007

Freakonomics

What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. So wrote Francis Bacon in the 16th Century, quoting from St John's Gospel. Pilate was responding to Jesus' assertion "I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

A primary school teacher, an engineer and an accountant each answered the question, "What is the sum of 2 plus 2?"

The teacher answered, "Four."

The engineer was more specific, "If by two, you mean 2.00, then the answer is 4.00, but if your twos are really 2.28s rounded down to 2 to zero decimal places, then the correct answer is five, or 4.56 rounded up to 5."

The accountant was worldly-wise, "How much would you like it to be?"

I have been thinking about truth ever since reading a book called 'Freakonomics' by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. This book hit the headlines when it made the astonishing claim that the falling crime rate in America was a direct consequence of Roe v Wade.

Freakonomics is about challenging the conventional wisdom. Between 1975 and 1990 violent crime in America had risen by 80%. Experts were predicting a bloodbath. Fueled by crack cocaine, the black areas of inner cities were exploding. Then in the nineties it all began to go away. Crime levels have fallen back to the levels of 1960. Why?

There have many suggestions: The 'broken windows' approach to inner city policing introduced by Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, in New York City has gotten a lot of the credit, but so has simply putting more police on the streets. Tougher gun-control laws, gun buy-back schemes, laws against concealed weapons, all have their advocates. Or is it simply a strong economy cutting down the numbers of unemployed? The devil makes work for idle hands. Is harsher punishment acting as a deterrent - longer prison sentences or the return of capital punishment? Or is it a change in the market for crack? Or simply the greying of the population?

Levitt and Dubner have considered all these possibilities. About a third of the decrease comes from locking up criminals. Prisons are expensive, they often brutalize the inmates, and often it is the inadequate, the addict and the mad that are locked up, but there is no getting away from it; career criminals commit no crime when incarcerated. On the other hand capital punishment, as it is practised, makes little difference. The truth is it turns out to be safer for a criminal on death row than it is selling crack on a street corner in Chicago. He is less likely to die.

Criminals didn't march to jail by themselves; someone had to put them there. Homicide rates in New York City fell from 30.7 per 100,000 in 1990 to 8.4 per 100,000 in 2000. However, the fall began before the broken windows strategy began. It began when the previous Mayor, David Dinkins, started increasing police numbers in response to Mayoral contender Guiliani's law and order campaign, four years before 'broken windows' was instituted. In fact the homicide rate fell in other cities that increased their police numbers and didn't adopt the Bratton philosophy of policing. Increased police numbers accounts for about 10% of the drop in crime; less unemployement on the other hand cannot be responsible for more than 1% or 2% of the total fall.

Tougher gun laws have had little effect. Indeed, in Britain where all hand guns are banned, gun crime is increasing. Surprisingly, criminals don't obey gun control laws any more than they obey the laws of property.

More important was the fall in the price of crack cocaine. Most of the inner city murders were not by crackheads but part of the intense competition for prime selling sites. Gang member shot gang member. These were turf wars. The use of crack has not diminished since 1990. The supply has become more available, but roughly the same number of users are able to obtain more for their money. The profits have diminished, the street corners aren't so valuable and not worth dying for. The change in the crack economy accounts for 15% of the fall in crime.

The greying of the population accounts for the rest - about 40% of the fall. On the whole the over-65s tend not to commit violent crimes. But why are there fewer young people? Obviously contaception is part of it, but abortion available to all is the major component. Every year in America over one and a half milion babies are aborted. By and large these are the children of the young, unemployed, unmarried, inner city poor. These are the characteristics of those most likely to become criminals. Unintentionally, America has been aborting its potential criminals.

Lies, damned lies and statistics! Statistics are notoriously misused to mislead. Levitt and Dubner's assertion received a bad response from those on both sides of the abortion debate. However, the figures seem to me to be true. The greatest contribution to the fall in crime in America is the fall in the number of those likely to become criminals and the reason for this is the increased availability of abortion. Since Roe v Wade conceptions have risen by 30% but live births have fallen by 6%.

Consider this. Had the American government, as a solution to the crime wave, brought in a law that ordered the killing of a large proportion of babies born to unmarried, teenage, black mothers who were poor and unemployed, the world would rightly have been in uproar. Headlines would have screamed George W Herod (or William J Herod - take your pick). Instead, women of America have freely chosed to abort these babies before they were born.

Try as I might I have difficulty in seeing a fundamental difference between killing a developing fetus and killing a newborn. I know that a certain proportion of fetuses will not reach term, but nobody is concerned about them; the reason for an abortion is to kill the fetus that will come to term. I know about a woman's right to choose, but that presupposes that she harms no-one but herself. It presupposes that the developing fetus is not an individual in its own right. When does it become an individual? At 8 weeks or 13 weeks or 24 weeks or 28 weeks or when it is born or when it begins to talk? Legislation in the UK forbids experimentaion on an embryo after 14 days, when the primitive neural streak appears.

As a man I struggle with this area. To bear a child is a particularly female thing; no man can begin to understand the intimate relationship between a mother and child. Of course there is a difference between killing a fetus and killing a baby. It is an esthetic difference; it is an emotional difference; but is it an ethical difference? And should we beguided by ethics or esthetics or emotions?

I suspect that I will have responses from both sides of the debate. I have my views, but I'm not calling anyone by a rude name. Please refrain from calling me by one. However, the debate is enhanced by facts that allow us see clearly what is actually happening.

If you haven't read Freakonomics than I recommend that you do. There are other topics like why do drug dealers live with their mothers, and how you detect a cheating Sumo wrestler. And the next time you move house or sell your car you might want to ponder on the power of experts to rig the market against you.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

In general, I agree with you, though I am more of a 'lock them up and throw the key away' type of guy.

I believe in capital punishment. Dead murderers don't kill people. We should make it quicker to put evil people to death. DNA evidence and improved forensics make it very unlikely that an innocent man or woman would be put to death.

And I believe there is a deterrent effect.

I believe that life begins at conception. All other definitions are 'squishy'. I depart from the Catholic church in that I believe contraception should be readily available; this cuts down on the abortion factor.

I totally disagree with the idea that there is some mystical bond between mother and child that no man can understand.

This is nonsense propagated by women.

What about adoption? Is the mother somehow imbued with some special relationship after picking a photo out of a book? Nonsense. Yet the husband and wife are the child's parents, we all would agree.

Abortion for any reason is wrong. It isn't the child's fault he is the product of a rape, or incest. As far as the life of the mother being endangered, maybe, but it is all to often used as a catch-all to circumvent the law. Mom's 'mental health' would be disrupted.

Right. Tell me another fib.

Anonymous said...

I also disagree that there is some mystical bond between a mother and her baby. I am an adoptive mother and must say that remark hit a nerve for me. In a way it infers that because I am an adoptive mother, I must somehow miss out on that so-called mystical bond because I did not give birth to my children. I don't hold it again you, however. I've heard it said many times before.

Terry Hamblin said...

Interesting to hear the perspective of a man and an adoptive mother. Obviously I am unable to give first hand evidence of a special biological mother/child relationship. I would be interested to hear from someone who can enlighten us.

The problem with capital punishment as it is practised is that very few murderers are actually executed, so it does not remove many from the field of play, nor is it much of a deterrent if the chances of dying are greater on a street corner in Los Angeles than on death row in Texas.

Jenny Lou said...

As a man I struggle with this area. To bear a child is a particularly female thing; no man can begin to understand the intimate relationship between a mother and child. Of course there is a difference between killing a fetus and killing a baby. It is an esthetic difference; it is an emotional difference; but is it an ethical difference? And should we beguided by ethics or esthetics or emotions?

We all have our views on abortion. I have stated this before and will again. I am pro-abortion for many reasons. If we are going to get into the "religious" area, then to believe in the death penalty for "sinners", but not in abortion because it is killing a "maybe" life, is just "squishy to the extreme." All sinner's would be forgiven by God, and it is not man's place to make that decision--if you really believed in the way of the Christian.
If the day ever comes where an "embryo" can be removed from the uterus and be viable without the help of any medical intervention, then we will discuss when life begins.

Anonymous--you seem to have a rather bitter side to you.
Abortion for any reason is wrong. It isn't the child's fault he is the product of a rape, or incest. As far as the life of the mother being endangered, maybe, but it is all to often used as a catch-all to circumvent the law. Mom's 'mental health' would be disrupted.

So, are you saying that it is the Mother's fault for rape or incest? Should the Mother have to look at the face of her rapist the rest of her life? How about incest? Will the child be deformed? Who will support this child? The Rapist? The Uncle? It is so easy to reject abortion when your body doesn't have to carry an unborn child. When you have no future financial responsibility.....if you understood what I just wrote, then reexamine your thoughts. I said "unborn child"--not a life yet. It hasn't been born.

Terry Hamblin said...

Jenny Lou,

Although all sinners could be forgiven by God, the Bible makes it very clear that not all sinners will be. Even so, that argument is extraneous to the one about capital punishment. Jesus was witness to two occasions of capital punishment apart from his own. One thief on the cross was forgiven, but the other was not. Being forgiven by God did not ameliorate the fact that the thief died on the cross, and Jesus, though he had the power to halt his crucifixion, did not do so. He simply told him that this day he would be with Him in paradise.

Being forgiven by God has nothing to do with the punishment of criminals.

There are several arguments against capital punishment, the most telling of which is that too many innocent people have been executed.

I suppose an argument could be made by the Freakonomics authors that abortion is justified because many of the fetuses being aborted would have grown up to be criminals; if it were made then the same counter-arguement could be made - that too many innocent people had been executed.

Jenny Lou said...

Terry,
Thanks for your reply....what I am saying is that to me the life of a fetus begins when it is a viable life outside the womb. This discussion is a lot like CLL. Many different ideas but not one that trumps another. Lot's of questions, but not one finite answer.

CLLer said...

I agree with your views on abortion but I reserve judgment on the magnitude of the effect on crime statistics. Interesting though.

I find it upsetting in discussions on abortion how no consideration is given to the rights of the father of the child.

Men are supposed to be the violent sex but here in New Zealand every single year as many NZ lives are lost through abortion as were lost in the four years of the first world war.

They died that SOME might live?