The most celebrated nonfiction book of the year is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by U. of Chicago superstar economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner. The most admired aspect of the book has been Levitt's theory that legalizing abortion cut the crime rate, which became Instant Conventional Wisdom. Now, it turns out, according to two economists at the Boston Fed who have checked Levitt's calculations in detail, that the abortion-cut-crime theory rested upon two mistakes Levitt made. So far, Levitt admits to making one error, saying it "is personally quite embarrassing."Although the gilt has clearly not all rubbed off Levitt and his best seller (which I must confess a certain curiosity to read, though it sounds like it's main problem is that rather than being a serious book it falls more in the catagory that could be subtitled "Some cool and outrageous statements somewhat supported by economic analysis which you can use at your next cocktail party) some major publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, have been running stories about a paper just out from Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz, two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Ever since my 1999 debate with Levitt in Slate.com, 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 econometric 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.
This fiasco reveals much about what's wrong with public policy discourse in modern America. Fifteen minutes of Googling would have shown book reviewers of Freakonomics 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 this theory. Being largely innumerate and unenterprising, the punditariat is unable or unwilling to apply simple reality checks to complex models. It's easier to simply engage in intellectual hero-worship and take a guru figure like Levitt on faith. A few book reviewers, like James Q. Wilson (America's leading expert on crime for several decades), expressed deep skepticism, but most were negligent.
There are a whole host of interesting problems and counter trends to Levitt's theory, many of which Sailer covers in the linked page and elsewhere on his site. Ironically, if anything, it may well be that Levitt has it exactly wrong and abortion increased crime rather than cutting it. Econimics being the sort of science that it is, there are strong cases to be made in various and opposing directions.
Plus, as Bill Bennett got in so much trouble for pointing out, even if Levitt's analysis is correct, that doesn't make abortion right or desireable.