Abortion or Broken Windows - How can the US be safer?

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Analysis Fly to just about any Westernized country, and you're sure to see Freakonomics and The Tipping Point in the airport bookstore. The two volumes have quite a lot in common, including catchy titles, bestseller status and the allure of turning very plebeian readers into pseudo-intellectuals. Of particular note, however, is what the books fail to share - an explanation for why crime has fallen in New York.

Authors have disagreed about popular, contemporary topics since authors became authors. Although, this crime disagreement does stand out because no one seems to have noticed it despite the enduring presence of both books on the prominent bestseller rack. We read both books and feel safe assuming that others of you have as well. So, with the time being right, let's share a bitch.

Freakonomics and The Tipping Point don't really spar over the New York crime issue. At least not in the sense that a gay TV show star might spar with his coworker over an epithet and then talk about it on TV with a gay talk show host. There's no direct confrontation between the Freaks Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and the Tipper Malcolm Gladwell. The two sides just wrote their own books and happened to touch on the same issue in different ways.

One could wonder if one side is even aware of the other side's work.

Well, one could wonder that except that Gladwell's name is plastered all over Freakonomics. The New Yorker reporter warns readers to "Prepare to be dazzled" on the front of Freakonomics and claims that "Levitt has the most interesting mind in America" on the back. Gladwell goes on to say, "Reading Freakonomics is like going for a leisurely walk with (Levitt) on a sunny summer day as he waves his fingers in the air and turns everything you once thought to be true inside out."

Those of you yet to read Freakonomics should repel any feelings of insecurity aroused by Gladwell. Levitt does not have the most interesting mind in America, according to most scientific studies, and reading his book will not make you feel like everything you once thought has been turned inside out. Gladwell has a penchant for hyperbole and an aversion for fact. [Geek-based evidence for this comes from a 2005 story called "The Bakeoff" in which Gladwell makes up a connection between baking cookies and open source software programming. The piece was so well researched and fact checked that Gladwell spent the entire story referring to Finnish Linux kernel inventor Linus Torvalds as "Norwegian hacker Linus Torvald" not to mention that the cookie baking experiment cited in the piece actually has nothing at all to do with coding models. Linux fans should feel free to call the reporter Mexican stenographer Malco Gladbag.]

The Tipping Point came out years before Freakonomics, which helps explain how Gladwell could marvel at the Freaks while not paying any actual attention to the work. Although, you would think Gladwell's apparent Levitt lust would have been more effective, and there's more on that later.

The Freaks and their abortions

Freakonomics proves concise in explaining New York's phenomenal, oft cited crime drop.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect of legalized abortion . . . and one that would take years to reveal itself, was its impact on crime. In the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen years - the years during which young men enter their criminal prime - the rate of crime began to fall. What this cohort was missing, of course, were the children who stood the greatest chance of becoming criminals.

Few could be so blunt and get away with it. Levitt and Dubner turned the harsh logic into a bestseller read with pride by hundreds of thousands.

Their success hinges on the solid looking evidence behind the assertion that wiping out potential criminals in the womb wipes our crime.

The number of "at risk" youth dwindled as poor, single teenagers turned to legal, affordable abortions, so the authors argue. That's in large part because poverty and single-parent homes "are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future."

Anyone can fiddle with numbers to prove a point, so the authors do their best to back up such a strong claim with multiple sources of data. They show that states with legalized abortion in place before Roe v. Wade enjoyed an earlier drop in the crime rate than those that followed the landmark court decision. They also show that states with the highest abortion rates enjoy the most severe drops in crime.

There are even more correlations, positive and negative, that shore up the abortion-crime link. In states with high abortion rates, the entire decline in crime was among the post-Roe cohort as opposed to older criminals. Also, studies of Australia and Canada have since established a similar link between legalized abortion and crime.

And the post-Roe cohort was not only missing thousands of young male criminals but also thousands of single, teenage mothers - for many of the aborted baby girls would have been children most likely to replicate their own mothers' tendencies.

The authors also explore the myriad reasons often listed for New York's crime drop such as innovative police strategies, increased reliance on prisons, changes in the drug market, an aging population, tougher gun control laws, a strong economy and more police. The researchers found that most of these factors had little actual affect on lowering crime, although the longer prison terms did account "for roughly one-third of the drop in crime."

All told, the Freaks dish out a convincing yet "jarring" case for the fantastic reduction in New York's crime.

So where does our friend Malcolm Gladwell fall in the debate?

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Next page: Call me Malco

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