April 16, 2005


The Miracle That Wasn't (JOHN TIERNEY, 4/16/05, NY Times)

It is an inspirational urban lesson from the 1990's: take back the streets from squeegee men and drug dealers, and violent crime will plummet. But on Thursday evening, the tipping-point theory was looking pretty wobbly itself.

The occasion was a debate in Manhattan before an audience thrilled to be present for a historic occasion: the first showdown between two social-science wonks with books that were ranked second and third on Amazon.com (outsold only by "Harry Potter"). It pitted Malcolm Gladwell, author of "Blink" and "The Tipping Point," against Steven D. Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago with the new second-place book, "Freakonomics."

Professor Levitt considers the New York crime story to be an urban legend. Yes, he acknowledges, there are tipping points when people suddenly start acting differently, but why did crime drop in so many other cities that weren't using New York's policing techniques? His new book, written with Stephen J. Dubner, concludes that one big reason was simply the longer prison sentences that kept criminals off the streets of New York and other cities.

The prison terms don't explain why crime fell sooner and more sharply in New York than elsewhere, but Professor Levitt accounts for that, too. One reason he cites is that the crack epidemic eased earlier in New York than in other cities. Another, more important, reason is that New York added lots of cops in the early 90's.

But the single most important cause, he says, was an event two decades earlier: the legalization of abortion in New York State in 1970, three years before it was legalized nationally by the Supreme Court.

The result, he maintains, was a huge reduction in the number of children who would have been at greater than average risk of becoming criminals during the 1990's.

The book is terrific--as is just about everything written by his coathjor, Stephen Dubner. The two have even started a blog. Interesting though how quickly Mr. Leavitt himself descends into probably nonsensical reasoning about why abortions have such an effect when it seems likely it's just the reduction in young people in and of itself, those most likely to commit crimes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 16, 2005 12:00 AM

The problem with Levitt's theory is that when looked at closely, it falls to pieces.

See my article "Pre-emptive Executions?" in the May 9th issue of The American Conservative for a thorough debunking of Levitt's theory of social history.

Also, I have lots posted about it on www.iSteve.com.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at April 16, 2005 4:07 AM


Yes, the whole idea of wantedness playing a role is especially silly. Isn't it odd that even as he's trying to debunk easy assumptions he makes them?

Posted by: oj at April 16, 2005 7:29 AM

If you graph homicides, you get a huge dip 1942-46.

Not hard to guess why.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 16, 2005 2:16 PM

Excellent point.

Posted by: oj at April 16, 2005 5:36 PM

Meanwhile, in Bombay, they've reduced violent crime by the most direct way possible..."encounter specialists".

Posted by: at April 16, 2005 6:03 PM