Sunday, October 31, 2010

Freakanonomics in Multiple Formats

Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, is one of the most controversial court decisions ever.

Critics blame it for allowing the termination of untold pregnancies - arguably through acts of homicide. Many other people believe Roe rightly allows for the decision on whether a woman should carry a pregancy to be made by the woman, her doctor and perhaps her partner (if she has one).

The divergence between these positions has created a generation-old fissure in the American body politic. And that divide, in turn, has contributed greatly to a virulent political dysfunction along partisan lines that has infected our common life like a cancer.

So Roe is fraught with the weight of history and the trauma that comes from spilled blood.

But do its effects also include a role in reducing the crime rate? Two economists, John Donohue and Steven Levitt, explored that question in a 2001 paper. Levitt teamed up with journalist Stephen Dubner to popularize it in the widely discussed book Freakonomics, published in 2005.

The idea is that legalized abortion in the U.S., starting in 1973, helped bring the crime rate down in the 1990s by engaging in the ultimate in incapacitation: preventing the birth of many babies from disadvantaged social circumstances who would have turned to crime upon growing up.

Not having delved into the data Levitt points to, I cannot really assess the theory in this post. I do know, however, that Freakonomics as a publishing phenomenon is going strong. The book led to a New York Times blog and now a movie. Covering the media bases, there is also a radio and podcast partnership with American Public Media.

Freakanomics, coming soon to a media format near you.

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