Former Education Secretary and Drug Czar Bill Bennett caused a stir when, on his talk show, he suggested that aborting all black babies would cause the crime rate to drop. Bennett made clear that such a policy would be "impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible." Nonetheless, the remarks touched a nerve, insofar as they reinforced racial stereotypes.Insofar as Bennett's remarks drew on the controversial work of economists Steven Levitt and John Donohue on the relationship between abortion and crime rates, Levitt's comments on the Bennett controversy are particularly interesting. According to Levitt, writing on his Freakonomics blog,
It is true that, on average, crime involvement in the U.S. is higher among blacks than whites. Importantly, however, once you control for income, the likelihood of growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and how urban the environment is, the importance of race disappears for all crimes except homicide. . . . In other words, for most crimes a white person and a black person who grow up next door to each other with similar incomes and the same family structure would be predicted to have the same crime involvement. . . . He made a factual statement (if you prohibit any group from reproducing, then the crime rate will go down), and then he noted that just because a statement is true, it doesn't mean that it is desirable or moral. That is, of course, an incredibly important distinction and one that we make over and over in Freakonomics.While Levitt seems to think Bennett's statement was generally defensible -- if ill-advised, as many other analogies could have been used to make Bennett's argument -- he does have some criticism of the Drug Czar turned talkshow host.
There is one thing I would take Bennett to task for: first saying that he doesn't believe our abortion-crime hypothesis but then revealing that he does believe it with his comments about black babies. You can't have it both ways.Levitt's whole post is interesting, as are many of the extensive comments. In a different vein, Scrappleface has a different take on the Bennett brouhaha.