Freakonomics

Criticism

Freakonomics has been criticized for being a work of sociology or criminology, rather than economics. Israeli economist Ariel Rubinstein criticized the book for making use of dubious statistics and complained that "economists like Levitt ... have swaggered off into other fields", saying that the "connection to economics ... [is] none" and that the book is an example of "academic imperialism".[5] Arnold Kling has suggested the book is an example of "amateur sociology".[6]

The impact of legalized abortion on crime

Revisiting a question first studied empirically in the 1960s, Donohue and Levitt argue that the legalization of abortion can account for almost half of the reduction in crime witnessed in the 1990s. This paper has sparked much controversy, to which Levitt has said

"The numbers we're talking about, in terms of crime, are absolutely trivial when you compare it to the broader debate on abortion. From a pro-life view of the world: If abortion is murder then we have a million murders a year through abortion. And the few thousand homicides that will be prevented according to our analysis are just nothing—they are a pebble in the ocean relative to the tragedy that is abortion. So, my own view, when we [did] the study and it hasn't changed is that: our study shouldn't change anybody's opinion about whether abortion should be legal and easily available or not. It's really a study about crime, not abortion."[7]

In 2003, Theodore Joyce argued that legalized abortion had little impact on crime, contradicting Donohue and Levitt's results ("Did Legalized Abortion Lower Crime?" Journal of Human Resources, 2003, 38(1), pp. 1–37). In 2004, the authors published a response,[8] in which they argued that Joyce's argument was flawed due to omitted-variable bias.

In November 2005, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston economist Christopher Foote and his research assistant Christopher Goetz published a working paper,[9] in which they argued that the results in Donohue and Levitt's abortion and crime paper were due to statistical errors made by the authors: the omission of state-year interactions and the use of the total number of arrests instead of the arrest rate in explaining changes in the murder rate. When the corrections were made, Foote and Goetz argued that abortion actually increased violent crime instead of decreasing it and did not affect property crime. They even concluded that the majority of women who had abortions in the 1970s were middle class whites rather than low income minorities as Levitt stated; this was, they stated, because white middle class women had the financial means for an abortion. The Economist remarked on the news of the errors that "for someone of Mr Levitt's iconoclasm and ingenuity, technical ineptitude is a much graver charge than moral turpitude. To be politically incorrect is one thing; to be simply incorrect quite another."[10] In January 2006, Donohue and Levitt published a response,[11] in which they admitted the errors in their original paper but also pointed out Foote and Goetz's correction was flawed due to heavy attenuation bias. The authors argued that, after making necessary changes to fix the original errors, the corrected link between abortion and crime was now weaker but still statistically significant, contrary to Foote and Goetz's claims. Foote and Goetz, however, soon produced a rebuttal of their own and said that even after analyzing the data using the methods that Levitt and Donohue recommend, the data does not show a positive correlation between abortion rates and crime rates.[9] They are quick to point out that this does not necessarily disprove Levitt's thesis, however, and emphasize that with data this messy and incomplete, it is in all likelihood not even possible to prove or disprove Donohue and Levitt's conclusion.

Freakonomics commented on the effects of an abortion ban in Romania (Decree 770), stating that "Compared to Romanian children born just a year earlier, the cohort of children born after the abortion ban would do worse in every measurable way: they would test lower in school, they would have less success in the labor market, and they would also prove much more likely to become criminals. (p. 118)". John DiNardo, a professor at the University of Michigan, retorts that the paper cited by Freakonomics states "virtually the opposite of what is actually claimed":

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On average, children born in 1967 just after abortions became illegal display better educational and labor market achievements than children born prior to the change. This outcome can be explained by a change in the composition of women having children: urban, educated women were more likely to have abortions prior to the policy change, so a higher proportion of children were born into urban, educated households. (Pop-Eleches, 2002, p. 34).

— John DiNardo, Freakonomics: Scholarship in the Service of Storytelling[12]

Levitt responded on the Freakonomics Blog that Freakonomics and Pop-Eleches "are saying the same thing":

Here is the abstract of the version of the Pop-Eleches paper that we cited:

…Children born after the abortion ban attained more years of schooling and greater labor market success. This is because urban, educated women were more likely to have abortions prior to the policy change, and the relative number of children born to this type of woman increased after the ban. However, controlling for composition using observable background variables, children born after the ban on abortions had worse educational and labor market achievements as adults. Additionally, I provide evidence of crowding in the school system and some suggestive evidence that cohorts born after the introduction of the abortion ban had higher infant mortality and increased criminal behavior later in life.

The introduction of the Pop-Eleches paper says:

This finding is consistent with the view that children who were unwanted during pregnancy had worse socio-economic outcomes once they became adults.

Effects of extra police on crime

Freakonomics claimed that it was possible to "tease out" the effect of extra police on crime by analysing electoral cycles. The evidence behind these claims was shown to be due partly to a programming error. McCrary stated "While municipal police force size does appear to vary over state and local electoral cycles ... elections do not induce enough variation in police hiring to generate informative estimates of the effect of police on crime."[12]

Defamation case

On April 10, 2006, John Lott filed suit[13] for defamation against Steven Levitt and HarperCollins Publishers over the book and against Levitt over a series of emails to retired economist John B. McCall.[14] In the book Freakonomics, Levitt and coauthor Stephen J. Dubner claimed that the results of Lott's research in More Guns, Less Crime had not been replicated by other academics. In the emails to McCall, who had pointed to a number of papers in different academic publications that had replicated Lott's work, Levitt wrote that the work by authors supporting Lott in a special 2001 issue of The Journal of Law and Economics had not been peer reviewed, alleged that Lott had paid the University of Chicago Press to publish the papers, and that papers with results opposite of Lott's had been blocked from publication in that issue.[15]

A federal judge found that Levitt's replication claim in Freakonomics was not defamation but found merit in Lott's complaint over the email claims.[16]

Levitt settled the second defamation claim by admitting in a letter to John B. McCall that he himself was a peer reviewer in the 2001 issue of The Journal of Law and Economics, that Lott had not engaged in bribery (paying for extra costs of printing and postage for a conference issue is customary), and that he knew that "scholars with varying opinions" (including Levitt himself) had been invited to participate.[17][18] The Chronicle of Higher Education characterized Levitt's letter as offering "a doozy of a concession".[18]

The dismissal of the first half of Lott's suit was unanimously upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on February 11, 2009.[19]


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