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How helpful and insightful. One way to reduce violent crime is to reduce potential violent criminals by killing them before they can commit a violent crime (e.g. by aborting them). Is that "Freaky" or "No Duh." I remember at least a few discussions about abortion at least twenty years ago with my highly intutive and educated lunch pals (a mailman, barber, couple of assembly line workers) and one of the few points of consensus was, moral or immoral, abortion would eliminate a lot of problem kids likely to grow into criminal adults. Non-criminal violence has always been used to reduce criminal violence, and it has been effective. So what. We might also reduce violent crime by de-criminalizing certain types of violence. For example, gang wars could be recognized as wars and those killed would be war casualties, not murder, victims. The interesting question is, are we less violent, or have we just re-allocated it between criminal and non-criminal forms?

craig c

I am fascinated by "Broken Windows Theory (BWT)." However, I'm wondering; even if BWT wasn't a contributing factor to the crime drop, wouldn't legalized abortion (assuming this was the major contributing factor) qualify as a Tipping Point? I am probably missing something, but it seems to me the Tipping Point wasn't about BWT per se, but about small changes that had far reaching effects.

Thanks for this blog entry.


Haven't read Freakonomics but what do others think of the influence that the uptake of mobile phones has had on crime rates. With a large number of people now carrying cell phones it is easier than ever to report crimes as they are witnessed. Compare this to the pre-mobile era when if you were walking down the street and witnessed a crime you would have to first locate a phone in order to report crimes thus slowing down possible police response rates and limiting the number of reports.

An example of this was recently when my wife was in her car here in Australia and witnessed someone breaking into a house so she called the police on her cell phone and went on her way. Later on in the day the police rang to tell her that they had investigated and it was actually the person's own house they were breaking into. But the guy had outstanding arrest warrants for other break and enters and the cops had been looking for him.

On another occaision we were in a crowded park and witnessed an assault. Several people then got on their mobiles and within minutes the police were on the scene.

Now these are just my personal experiences but I would be surprised if this technological change wouldn't have led to a considerable increase in both the speed and the number of incidents getting reported to the authorities.

And yet it never seems to be brought up in these types of discussions. Bear in mind I'm not saying that Broken Windows etc. are not valid, just that mobiles may also be a contributing factor.


Listening to a psychologist debate an economist on the alleged causes of crime is about as impressive as hearing a ufologist debate a dowser on the putative causes of the Big Bang.
Neither economics nor psychology qualify as sciences, as becomes abundantly clear when we read either Gladwell's analysis or Dubner & Levitt's. Simple questions abound: what is the hard quantitative evidence, produced by repeatable experiments published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, that women have abortions because they are poor? What is the hard quantitative evidence, generated by quantitiative experiments able to falsify the hypothesis that unwanted children who are not aborted grow up to become criminals?
Statistics might show that poor people have more abortions per capita than wealthy women, but that demonstrates only correlation. Alas, correlation is not causation, as every freshman statistics student quickly learns.
Neither Gladwell nor Dubner & Levitt provide us with such hard evidence of causation. Instead, they offer reams of statistics with lots of hand-waving designed to convince us that correlation is indeed causation. They offer, as well, mighty prestidigitations of numerological data massaging to "explain" (translation: confect) the alleged meaning of those statistics.
If this were a murder trial, both Gladwell and Dubner & Levitt would be offering us the equivalent of hearsay testimony. Sorry, that won't do. It simply won't do. I require hard forensice evidence, not just-so stories and superficially plausible fairytales garnished with statistical legedermain.
Unfortunately, statistics prove endlessly susceptible to chicanery, as Darrel Huff & Irving Geis demonstrated in their exemplary book "How To Lie With Statistics."

The essential problem is that social trends like decreases or increases in crime do not lend themselves to investigation by the scientific method because definitions of a trend in violent crime remain fluid, and because much violent crime goes unreported. Viz., statistics showing an increase in rape could be due to more women being raped, or could result from more women being willing to come forward and admit they've been raped. Statistics showing an increase in murders could be due to more murders...or a tendency by poilce departments in the 80s to underreport violent crimes so as to make themselves look good, which led to the inevitable scandals and a reversal of the underrerporting by the 1990s:

In any case we'd like to see hard evidence, rather than statisticsl three-card monte. Alas, hard evidence in the form of experiments capable of falsifying the hypothesis is soldom forthcoming in psychology or sociology or economics, except in the rare exceptional case of Long Term Capital Managment...when the outcome of the real-world experiment testing those two Nobel laureates' mathematical theories of economics got dismissed, hidden, explained away as an "anomoly," and conveniently forgotten.
All of which goes to show that psychology and sociology and economics have as much relation to actual science as ufology or dowsing, which sensible people already know.

As for that lively lad who posted the cheery advice:

"Steve Sailer and a few others could spare all of us by limiting their l-e-n-g-t-h-y diatribes to their own blogs.

"We'll read you if you've something interesting to say - don't piggyback off someone else's forum - it's cheap, annoying, and far less likely to get you read."

Thank you for reminding us that "against folly, the gods themselves contend in vain," Shiller wrote. You've just parrotted the failed and foolishly false canard that the majority is always wise and brilliant -- an argument which may come as news to the writers of the TV show Playhouse 90, a show that got knocked off the air by The Beverly Hillbillies. In actual fact, the judgment of the majority is usually wrong, as successful Wall Street traders
or a glance at the best-selling authors of all time assures you. Number 2 best-selling book of all time remains "Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung," number 3 is The American Spelling Book by Noah Webster, number 5 is The McGuffey Reader, and number 6 is that immortal classic "A Message To Garcia" by Elbert Hubbard.
Ever read any of those?
Me neither. Quantity is not equal to quality, but, of course, in the land of the Golden Arches this statement of simple fact comes as heresy and blasphemy and (for all I know) barratry on the high seas.
In fact, experience shows that the comments in any blog usually prove far more interesting than the blog posts themselves. Which leads the sensible person to encourage the most l-e-n-g-t-h-y possible diatriabes in the comments section. They're sure to prove vastly more entertaining and far better-written than the blog itself. And no, as history shows, good writing typically *doesn't* get read -- just compare the sales figures for "A Message To Garcia" by Elbert Hubbard with the sales figures for Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."
And so the vacuous claim "we'll read you if you've something interesting to say" remains a typically ignorant and predictably arrogant example of the kind of gross incompetence we've all come to know & love as "that vast collective brain of humanity called the internet," or, in its short version, www.goatse.cx.


Thanks for your blog, Malcolm and the chuckle about your relation to Colin Powell.


That post should probably be deleted for linking to the worse-than-clown-porn goatse.cx.

David Welton

Pill data - I agree with another poster above who mentions that the pill might have had different effects than abortions. My intuition says the pill was more about middle class white women, but either way, I think that you'd want some hard data to confirm who was using it as opposed to who was getting abortions.


Perhaps inspired by a theme related to many of Gladwell's articles, I'll contend that, even if the comments of a blog are generally better than the blog itself--a statement that has absolutely no backing to it besides some anecdotal evidence, and, humorously, comes within paragraphs of a screed about the need for "hard quantitative evidence, produced by repeatable experiments published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals"--even if we take that as a given, I would contend it's not the individual rants, manifestos, and treatises that are better than the blog, but rather the discussion that emerges from the particular constellation of readers and commentors that a given blog collects.

It's not the lengthy diatribes that are interesting. Usually you either agree with them right off the bat, meaning you're probably well familiar with the territory already, or you disagree with them right away, meaning you stop giving their foolishness any credence after a handful of sentences.

It's the discussion that's interesting. Diatribes aren't discussions, they're lectures.

George Doctorow

Anyone who works with young women knows the primary beneficiaries of abortion are low income folks who don't have medical insurance, and do not buy birth contro pills because they are expensive. This alone lends credibility to the abortion-reduced crime rate theory. The average young woman on birth control DOES have medical insurance. Most poor people do not. Another example of our screwed up medical system in this country.

Jay Matthews

mclaren wrote: "Alas, correlation is not causation, as every freshman statistics student quickly learns."

Alas, in this instance, correlation (rather than causation) is all that we are interested in. If the women who happen to get abortions also happen to be poor, the the aborted fetuses would have been poor. That's as far as the point goes. But at least you wrote a big honkin' screed so your fallacies were not read by most people.

George Doctorow wrote: "Most poor people do not [have health insurance]. Another example of our screwed up medical system in this country."

Actually, almost all poor people have free medical care under Medicaid. Birth control is certainly available without cost under many programs. The ironic thing is those who are most without insurance are those who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

The real correlation is that people who make poor choices tend to make more poor choices. Some people make poor choices which result in or perpetuate poverty. A subset of those persons will make poor choices which result in unwanted pregnancy.


Instead of attributing the drop in crime mainly to greater police presence, perhaps we can find another possible contributing factor. I think something that is overlooked is the idea of hope. When people are poor and living in an oppressive environment ridden with drugs and scapegoating of other oppressed people, it is easy to become hopeless and therefore desperate. However, I think the cultural factors of improved race relations and the opportunity to engage in activism for a common goal (anti-racism, AIDS prevention, etc.) gives people a sense of hope and better yet, a purpose. I think this was a lot more prevalent in the mid nineties than in any other time since the 1960's. Also, while the economy was booming in the 50's for white suburban folks, it was by no means as great for other groups of people. In the 90's, however, I think it was more evenly distributed, making people see that things were a little bit more fair, or at least potentially fair. That's just my take.

Nick Nelson

I wonder if anyone out there has statistics about use of the Pill among low-income, low-education segments of the population. It occurs to me that with lack of education comes lack of prevention -- making for a population that is more reactionary (i.e. abortions after pregnancy instead of use of the Pill to prevent it) than prone to prevention. In other words, I wonder if use of the Pill was more common among middle- and upper-class Americans whose babies would have been less likely to become criminals. Perhaps this is one of the hypotheses Mr. Gladwell mentions in his entry.

Christina Barba

It's surprising to me that you, Mr. Gladwell, have not examined or attributed a drop in crime in New York to the policies and initiatives that District Attorney's Offices (Bronx, New York) have adopted in order to reduce the crime rate and recidivism.


"It's surprising to me that you, Mr. Gladwell, have not examined or attributed a drop in crime in New York to the policies and initiatives that District Attorney's Offices (Bronx, New York) have adopted in order to reduce the crime rate and recidivism."

How recent are those policies? Remember, NYC crime rates began to drop significantly over a decade ago.


"An economist is a man who states the obvious in terms of the incomprehensible." - Alfred A. Knopf

One who does otherwise is likely to be noticed.


This is just an anecdotal opinion, but I think Gladwell's point about the Pill versus abortion can be answered by looking at the demographics of who uses the Pill. I would bet that a disproportionate number of the women who use it, and use it properly, are middle or upper class, owing to the fact that it is fairly expensive compared to condoms or less effective methods. Ironically for Gladwell, the fact that many middle and upper class women were on the Pill by the mid-70's shifts the demographics of who was getting abortions at that time, probably toward the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Again, I have no evidence to support this, but this is exactly the sort of question that an economist could answer through a statistical analysis of survey or administrative data. A psychologist would be left to wave his hands and conjecture.


To comment briefly on the reason the Pill may not have the same effect as legal abortion: the majority of the women who use the Pill are married. This suggests that many, probably most, of them are using contraception for spacing or limiting their births, rather than trying to avoid having children at all because she doesn't wants them or her circumstances are impossible. It's two very different situations.


For more on the broken windows debate, I encourage folks to check out this recent and enlightening debate between Professor Harcourt and Professor Thacher:


With regard to your comments on the reduction of the crime rate being due to the Broken Windows theory or the legalization of abortion, don't you need to factor in the demographic affected by the arrival of the Pill? It was largely introduced to the Baby Boomers and even if fertility dropped markedly, which it did, there were still more people having children. I'd be interested in seeing the statistics on this.--EM


What is the broken window theory??

jacob septimus

One thing all the eggheads miss is the cultural influences on crime. simply put, hip-hop, while often criticized for condoning criminal behavior, is actually a stabilizing force in the hood. Sure, it glamorizes street life, but more importantly, it glamorizes self reliance. Particularly in the 90's, hip-hop galmorized business people like Russel Simmons, Puff Daddy and Jay Z. Robbing people on the corner was no longer something you bragged about. "Getting Paid", owning your own business (even if it was drug dealing) became the order of the day and petty crime declined as a result.


Other critics worth a mention are Robert Sampson, Stephen Raudenbush and Felton Earls, whose extensive study of Chicago neighborhoods did not find much support for "broken windows".


When writers review each other’s books we should be suspicious of their motives. That said, Freakonomics, Blink and the Tipping Point are great entertaining books. Almost as entertaining as A Million Little Pieces - LOL. They each pose some interesting hypothesis based on observations, assumptions, biases and experiences. Whether or not abortion led to a decline in crime we’ll never know. There are just too many variables not the least of which are human beings. We behave in weird and unpredictable ways and attempting to categorize these behaviors is interesting, stimulating and down right fun. Just like trying to predict the stock market. But I think people take these books too seriously.

My hat’s off to these authors for finding a way to make money writing entertaining books. Just like Harry Potter. But please lets not analyze their work for too much substance. It takes away from the entertainment value.


Here's an article that suggests a crime rate link from out of left field--lead-paint exposure.




I think your remark regarding the population decline as a result of the introduction of the Pill in the 1960s is an interesting one. However, if Levitt's argument center's on poor women having abortions, and therefore not raising their children in poverty to become criminals, should his argument (and your counter argument) also focus strongly on the practices of forced sterilization in practice --particularly on poor minority women?

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