Lies, Damned Lies and Freakanomics

Freakanomics. Like every sophisticated American looking for a conversational entry point at a cocktail party, you’ve read it and been astounded by the conclusions. Yes indeed, Virginia, economics can be applied to everything! As per the free associative argumentative style that seems to run rampant and unchecked in today’s popular nonfiction titles. (Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell, for opening that Pandora’s box.)

Well, as it turns out, the two Steves got the economics wrong. Two economists (both of them, strangely enough, named Chris, proving an economic equation I’ve always found true: Two Steves + Two Chrises = Mayhem) from the Federal Reserve Bank have come forward, finding the research and statistics to be of questionable value.

Economist Christopher Foote notes that he spotted a missing formula in Steven Levitt’s initial research and that this programming oversight makes Levitt’s conclusion that the legalization of abortion reduced crime rates invalid. Apparently, Levitt failed to account for the crack wave of the 1980s and 1990s and, Foote says, Levitt’s failure to count arrests on a per-capita basis renders the abortion effect null and void.

This isn’t the first time that Levitt’s conclusions have come under attack, but this is the first time a high-profile economist has taken on Levitt at length. Levitt says that he hasn’t changed his stance and that the abortion effect holds true in Canada and Australia. Levitt himself has responded to these charges on his blog, noting that he will post a lengthy response once he has fully parsed Foote and Goetz’s paper. For the moment, Levitt confesses that he’s embarassed that he forgot the pivotal data, but insists that the data still matches up “when you run the specifications we meant to run.”

I’m quite curious about the viability of the abortion effect myself, but I’m quite surprised to see one of the world’s top economists insist that his hypothesis is right without actually running any results. I’m no scientist, but I know that my high school chemistry teacher would never give me a pass until I had proven a hypothesis. (The exploding test tubes that resulted from these experiments are another story.)

So, Dr. Levitt, when will you run these specifications? This correspondent, for one, will be watching.

One Comment

  1. This fiasco reveals much about what’s wrong with public policy discourse in modern America. Fifteen minutes of Googling would have shown that the abortion-cut-crime theory hadn’t come close to meeting the burden of proof, but, instead, much of America’s intellectual elite fell head over heels for it.

    Ever since my 1999 debate with Levitt in,

    Levitt’s fans have been telling me that my simpleminded little graphs and ratios of national-level crime trends showing, for example, that the teen homicide rate tripled in the first cohort born after Roe v. Wade couldn’t possibly be right because Levitt’s state-level analysis was so much more gloriously, glamorously, incomprehensibly complicated than mine, and Occam’s Butterknife says that the guy with the most convoluted argument wins. Now, two economists have finally redone Levitt’s work and found two fatal mistakes in it.

    You can learn far more than Freakonomics dares tell you about the abortion-crime controversy at

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