Abortions For Some, Miniature American Flags For Others

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Freakonomist Steven Levitt hears a familiar sound in that Zell Miller belch I linked yesterday:

Miller's argument, ostensibly, is similar to that of my work with John Donohue on legalized abortion and crime. As discussed in Freakonomics, unwanted children are at increased risk for crime, and legalized abortion reduced the number of unwanted children, thus less crime. Miller, however, makes a key mistake in his logic. While it is true there have been many millions of abortions (although according to the official statistics more like 35 million than 45 million), even if those abortions had not occurred, there would not be that many more Americans today. The reason is that the primary impact of an abortion is not to reduce a woman's lifetime number of children born, but rather, to simply shift the timing of a woman's fertility from early in life to later in life. Based on a paper by John Donohue, Jeff Grogger, and I which will be out in a few weeks, I would estimate that each teenage abortion reduces lifetime babies born to the mother by maybe one-tenth of a child, or possibly even less. (For a woman who gets an abortion in her forties, the impact is obviously larger, but there are very few of those type of abortions.)

The moral of our story is that assessing the economic usefulness of hypothetical humans is a terrible way for pro-lifers to argue their cases. If Miller believes that a fetus is a viable human, and that plunging it constitutes murder, he can stop there: He can't predict what millions of people born to reluctant or unready mothers would have done when they grew up.

That said, fingers are crossed that Steve Sailer will offer a take on this.

NEXT: Paul Defeats Huckabee!

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  1. David Weigel today:

    The moral of our story is that assessing the economic usefulness of hypothetical humans is a terrible way for pro-lifers to argue their cases. If Miller believes that a fetus is a viable human, and that plunging it constitutes murder, he can stop there: He can’t predict what millions of people born to reluctant or unready mothers would have done when they grew up.

    David Weigel yesterday:

    I like the honesty in not claiming that millions of babies born to mostly 15-21 year old poor women without college educations weren’t going to grow up to be lawyers, astronauts, and former senators. Still, sort of creepy to wish that there were millions of Americans working low-income jobs or joining the army.

    Were you not doing the very thing you just said Miller can’t do? Like the Kang and Kodos reference, BTW.

  2. Kevin: I don’t see the link. That doesn’t mean I ain’t stoopid, but I don’t see it.

  3. Hah! I was right!

    (Not that anyone reads my comments anyway. Most people just breeze right by them because they like it in the pooper.)

  4. Here’s what’s on the back of my envelope.

    You could still argue against abortion by making this economic case. You just have to value each unborn child by taking into account the effect of an abortion on a woman’s total fecundity. So in this case, if we assume that a woman will have .1 fewer children in her lifetime as a result of having an abortion, then the total effect (assuming, unrealisitically, that a woman never has more than one abortion), then we’re missing out on the economic output of 3.5 million births total over the course of the last 30-odd years.

    You need to then take account for the cost of having some number of the 35 million aborted children become troubled youths, some of whom will grow up to be criminals, who may well cause more trouble, cause more damage, and cost more to house than the 3.5 million extra people we would presently have if there were no abortion.

    So don’t avoid economic arguments. Just don’t make childishly simple ones.

  5. wow perhaps the worse economist in history attacking blow hard miller….

    By the way his crime rate drop/abortion up does not correlate at all with legalization of abortion before roe vs wade….

    Crime in Washington state which had legal abortion rights before roe v wade did not have a drop before other states did.

    It also does not correlate with similar crime rate drops in Canada.

  6. Well, if the children were born earlier at a time when the women weren’t ready to pregnant, maybe they’d be 10% smaller owing to malnutrition.

  7. Lamar:

    Miller claimed abortion was robbing us of untold numbers of achievers. Weigel claimed said unborns would most likely turn out to be an underclass. Equally specious, IMO. Today, Weigel calls Miller out for the disingenuousness of predicting the unpredictable when he did the same, only in a different direction. Just struck me as strange.

  8. Miller claimed abortion was robbing us of untold numbers of achievers.

    My impression of Miller’s comment was not that abortion was robbing the U.S. of achievers – but of taxpayers to fund S.S. and soldiers. not that they are mutually exclusive categories, but one does not imply the other.

  9. Let’s not ad-hominemize Mr. Weigel. I’m sure no criticism we here can dish out is as bad as the thoughts he has each morning as he looks in the mirror and realizes he has no integrity.

  10. brooklyntj,
    If the 3.5 million were “bad seed” types, they would generate revenue in the form of taxable wages paid to people building prisons and the staffing and support for those prisons. Prisons support a lot of people.
    point is, its revenue either way.

  11. I like how abortions are the prime cause of lower crime rates….not putting violent criminals in jail who are not only prevented from committing violent crime but also prevented from producing and educating children who are more likely to grow up to become violent criminals…..

    but hell that can’t make any sense…it does not give us reasons to support abortion rights…so lets get away from stupid unsupported reasons we should support abortion rights…and lets talk about stupid reasons we should support inequality..

    Like how about how income inequality from 1980 has increased but the crime rate has dropped….so the correlation must be greater income inequality leads to lower crime rates.

    This shit honestly makes me like the Randians.

  12. My impression of Miller’s comment was not that abortion was robbing the U.S. of achievers – but of taxpayers to fund S.S. and soldiers. not that they are mutually exclusive categories, but one does not imply the other.

    Well, I think you’re right, but I see why Kevin characterized his comments the way he did. Nothing Miller said led me to believe that he regards people who work, pay taxes, and join the military are in any way an underclass, and further, I assume that an avowed social conservative would view such people as making as very positive contributions to our society – hence, as being achievers.

    It was Weigel who supplied the term “underclass.” Then he provided an update to defend himself, yet dug himself deeper by stating “I’m taking a whack at Miller’s apparent belief that the millions of babies snuffed out by abortion would have 1) grown up to be mediocre members of society…” But that is not Miller’s apparent belief. It was Weigel who characterized the aborted/unborn as “mediocre.” Which suggests to some of us at least that Weigel thinks the working class is composed of mediocre people making mediocre contributions to their society.

  13. It was Weigel who characterized the aborted/unborn as “mediocre.” Which suggests to some of us at least that Weigel thinks the working class is composed of mediocre people making mediocre contributions to their society.

    Very well. The only point I’d like to make is when we interpret what people have said, it is helpful to keep in mind a bit of perspective that would take the edge off an interpretation – and IMO, lead to a more accurate understanding of their point. Here, the question to ask is if you really think that David Weigel honestly believes that the working class is full of mediocre people making mediocre contributions to society.

  14. joshua, have you read the paper? it’s a teeeeeny bit more nuanced than that.

    [teeny]

  15. “Based on a paper by…I”? Let’s hope the rest of it was better-edited.

  16. Downstater,

    OK, point taken. I cannot say that I believe with 100% certainty that David Weigel views the working class as uniformly or even predominantly mediocre. Looking back at yesterday’s thread, I see several points of confusion based on assumptions and interpretations of another’s statements.

    Honestly, I don’t have time right now to work my way through it. But I’ll have time later.

    I will say that after looking over yesterday’s thread again, I still think Weigel’s comments are strongly suggestive of elitism, and that his update/disclaimer made things worse rather than better for him, assuming of course that he wished to communicate that he is not elitist.

    I’ll also say, just in case you’re wondering, that I am not on any sort of anti-Weigel bandwagon. I really tend to skim over the statements of the bloggers at this site and focus on the links and the responses from other posters. I have no idea if Weigel is a shill for the democratic party, though I am aware that others make this complaint repeatedly.

  17. Zell Miller is (mostly) wrong because of one of the major reasons that Steven D. Levitt’s wildly popular theory that legalizing abortion cut the crime rate has taken such a hammering from other researchers who have tried to replicate his findings: On balance, legalizing abortion drove up the number of unwanted pregnancies more than it drove down the birth rate.

    The most striking fact about legalized abortion, but also the least discussed, is its sizable pointlessness. Legalized abortion turned out to be a lot like Homer Simpson’s toast: “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution for, all of life’s problems.”

    Legal abortion is a major cause of what it was supposed to cure — unwanted pregnancies. Levitt himself notes that following Roe, “Conceptions rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent ?” So for every six fetuses aborted in the 1970s, five would never have been conceived except for Roe! This ratio makes a sick joke out of Levitt’s assumption that legalization made a significant difference in how “wanted” children were.

    Indeed, perhaps the increase in the number of women who got pregnant figuring they would get an abortion, but then were too drunk or drugged or distracted to get to the clinic has meant that the average quality of the upbringing of surviving babies has declined. There’s a reason Levitt only cites European studies about the impact of legalizing abortion on the quality of upbringing to support his theory about the American crime rate — the American studies point in the opposite direction. The unwed pregnant women tended who got abortions tended to be better organized and more future-oriented than their more lackadaisical peers who just went ahead and had the baby out of wedlock.

    You can read more about the Freakonomics Fiasco here:

    http://www.isteve.com/Freakonomics_Fiasco.htm

  18. Levitt makes the point that an abortion most often doesn’t mean a net birth lost, but rather a birth deferred to a time when it’s better for the mother (and presumably for the child).

    If so, what does that say about net souls lost (for those who think in those terms)?

    Does the soul of the abortee just get back in queue and then inhabit its deferred human host?

    Or do we believe that all the souls that ever will be are already enqueued, and so a ‘deferral’ is really a permanent loss?

    I wish I were religious so I’d know how that works. As it is I don’t have clue one.

  19. If the 3.5 million were “bad seed” types, they would generate revenue in the form of taxable wages paid to people building prisons and the staffing and support for those prisons. Prisons support a lot of people.
    point is, its revenue either way.

    Josh, I think we just found a worse economist.

  20. I am not a bad economist, I am pro-life and will use any, I say any half-assed plausible argument to support my beliefs.
    I hope someday to get a position where I can charge a person 10% of their income to believe things my way.

    can I get an amen?

  21. Steve Sailer,

    The most striking fact about legalized abortion, but also the least discussed, is its sizable pointlessness.

    Well, it isn’t pointless if one wants to more freely engage in sexual activity while controlling reproduction.

  22. Women just can’t shift fertility to later in life.
    Sure, we have the oddball out there who has a child at 50, but in a statistical sense this ought to be pure lunacy.
    Is biology addressed at all?

  23. >Does the soul of the abortee just get back in queue and then inhabit its deferred human host?

    According to western astrology the soul enters the body at birth. It is believed that the rising sign, which is the sign that falls on the cusp of the first house at the time of birth, is as important an influence on the personality as the sun and moon signs, if not more so.

    I ain’t making it up.

    I have no idea what any other belief system that posits the existence of a soul has to say on the matter.

  24. It’s all irrelevant. If abortion is immoral, well, it doesn’t matter the pragmatic effects. If it’s cool, well, ditto.

    We don’t care if legalized dope equals more addicts (or less). Let’s argue on it’s moral face, not on the pragmatic.

    My father argues that his life and my mother’s would have been infinitely better had my sister been aborted, which wasn’t legal at the time. She doesn’t agree. Go figure.

  25. So on the subject of David Weigel and elitism, in case Downstater or anyone is still interested, here is how I see it, despite acknowledging that I can’t be 100% certain.

    Weigel substituted his own assumption about the likely outcome had those pregnancies led to live births, and then attributed this assumption to Miller. But Miller was clearly describing working class people. Where did Weigel get the idea that it is appropriate to describe such people as an “underclass?” The underclass, by and large, doesn’t work much. That’s a major criterion for a group to qualify as “underclass.”

    When Weigel characterized the type of people that Miller described – working people and military people – as “underclass,” my assumption is that he was telling us what he himself thinks of them. Where else should I suppose this characterization came from? Weigel said that Miller didn’t claim that these people would have become astronauts, lawyers, or senators, and that he was honest for not doing so. But honesty has nothing to do with it. The fact is that Miller didn’t say a word about these elite professions, much less suggest that the aborted would have been likely to enter them had they been born. He spoke only of people who work, pay taxes, and defend our country. Weigel really raised the bar on what jobs (and the people who fill them) are worthwhile by citing these professions.

    I want to post Weigel’s update in full, because it is what nailed it for me.

    “UPDATE: Hm, I phrased that poorly. I’m taking a whack at Miller’s apparent belief that the millions of babies snuffed out by abortion would have 1) grown up to be mediocre members of society, and that 2) this would have been great for America. I disagree with this on both counts, but I’d be interested to know why Miller thinks the problems of unfilled jobs and low Social Security payments couldn’t be filled by legalized immigrants.”

    It is not apparent that Miller thinks these babies “would have?grown up to be mediocre members of society.” It is apparent that he thinks they would have grown up to be working, tax-paying people, and that he regards these as valuable and worthy contributions. It is Weigel who is placing a negative value on them, his disclaimer (“I disagree on both counts”) notwithstanding. Based on the above paragraph, I’m not even really sure he understands why he has been accused of elitism, because he doesn’t bother to explain his position; he just reiterates it.

    What it boils down to is that Miller thinks those babies would have grown up to be something that Weigel does not respect, and Weigel is so blinkered by his own values and assumptions that a) he can only interpret Miller’s words according to those values and assumptions, and b) he can’t adequately address the charges of elitism because he doesn’t really get where they’re coming from. It also seems like Weigel fails to comprehend that people who are pro-life, by and large, really do believe that abortion is murder, and that it is appropriate to examine their beliefs about issues relating to abortion in that context. One doesn’t have to respect those beliefs to examine them thusly.

  26. Let’s argue on it’s moral face, not on the pragmatic.

    Pretty tough when we can’t even agree on what abortion is.

    You can’t have a relevant moral discussion when one party thinks they’re talking about birth control and the other thinks they’re talking about murder.

    According to western astrology

    In the bookstore the other day I saw “Astrology for Dummies”. Yep.

  27. “We don’t care if legalized dope equals more addicts (or less). Let’s argue on it’s moral face, not on the pragmatic.”

    why? arguing morality is pointless. it is a great hammer, rhetorically, if you want to really lay it on thick – or to otherwise shame or motivate an audience, perhaps – but in terms of actual debate, it’s basically pissing on the floor unless someone agrees with you.

    i.e. i think you own your body, so you should smoke crack presuming you do not fuck with the rights or property of others. someone else will say “WHAT? NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO SMOKE CRACK IT MAKES YOU CRAZY!!!!.” and then accuse you of being a crack smoker yourself. why? because drug use/abuse is a sign of a moral failing, both of the individual and of society, and cannot be argued against by saying over and over again that it is unjust to throw people in cages for doing things to themselves.

    however, spin that around and you can create a nice pragmatic rhetorical trap for someone – “do you like supporting the taliban financially?” etc. it is emotional enough to give the appearance of moral emotionalism but pragmatic enough to avoid the whole “you’re a filthy crack smoker” sidetrack.

    i mean, hell, go read that right wing news thread from a while back. all those mentally ill commentators are probably representative of a good chunk of mainstream ‘merica. trying to argue morals with them is like fighting in a sports bar. everyone already knows they’re right.

    besides, its good to have multiple modes of attack to address other kinds of audiences.

    short version: “morals” in public discourse is generally a code term for “emotional masturbation.” like bad teen goth poetry, but for high minded types.

  28. Steve Sailer (if that is his real name) makes an interesting point here:

    legal abortion is a major cause of what it was supposed to cure — unwanted pregnancies

    It makes sense. With legal abortion the opportunity cost of getting pregnant goes down drastically because one can simply opt out. Therefore the pregnancy risk of having sex goes way down, hence “unwanted” pregnancies go way up.

    However he missed one important part of the equation – people having more sex. In terms of the population growth rate declining, it begs the question to attribute the rise of unwanted pregnancies to abortion alone. In the absence of legal abortion people will simply have less unprotected sex, or less sex in general to avoid getting pregnant. Either way the growth rate in population stays the same.

  29. Let’s argue on a moral face….menstruation is murder. You are snuffing out a potential life. Nothing in the Bible pinpoints the beginning of life at conception. It says be fruitful and multiply. You menstruate, you kill.

  30. Lamar,
    In the first chapter of Luke, Elisabeth is 6 months pregnant with John the baptist. She is greeted by mary, mother of jesus, and when mary speaks, the baby in her womb leaps. Verse 44 says, “For,lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.”

    Can this be a sign of an awareness of life in the womb?

    Oh, and thanks. You have made me feel real guilty about spankin the monkey now.

  31. People always adapt to technological change. For example, as cars have been made safer, people have tended to drive worse, consuming the changes not as additional safety, but by increasing speeds, decreasing following times, etc.

    Same with abortion. Having a fallback position means sex is a lot less risky, so people can have a lot more of it. This is what the data show. Legalizing abortion increased pregnancy rates substantially. Birth rates were not much affected. People consume abortions in the form of more and riskier sex.

    Can’t say as I have a problem with that.

  32. Birth rates were not much affected. People consume abortions in the form of more and riskier sex.

    Can’t say as I have a problem with that.

    This pretty much assumes that the moral objection to abortion is groundless – that having an abortion is a morally neutral act, on par with stubbing out a cigarette.

  33. “Can this be a sign of an awareness of life in the womb?”

    It could be interpreted that way, sure. Not to be crude, but (1) it could also be interpreted as gas (pregnant office mate just confirmed this) and (2) that’s 6 months down the road, it has nothing to do with conception.

    I wonder if anybody knows the origin of the “life begins at conception” belief?

  34. Anybody know the origin of the “life begins at conception” belief?

  35. How does Leavitt go about proving that having abortions only shifts the timing of how and the amount of children a woman might have?

    I can see arguments for that position, but not a scientifically supportable number.

  36. My guess for how he got the number would be a study where he compared the number of children had over a liftime for women who had teenage abortions, and those who did not. Of coures one would need to control for socioeconomic factors. This doesn’t necessarily predict what would happen for women forced to bear unwanted children, however.

    One would imagine that forced nonabortion would lead to a lifetime increase in number of children that was between that assumed by miller, and that observed by Levitt. The exact number would probably depend on the economic impact of the unwanted child on the mother, which would be affected by adoption rates and other factors, which would not be the same for wanted and unwanted children.

  37. It reminds me of last night’s Bill O’Reilly. He insisted that those 9 people that recently died in a Bronx apartment fire “didn’t have to die.” They were apparently illegal immigrants, and O’Reilly insisted that if INS did it’s job, those people would not have been in that apartment when the fire started. Of course, anybody who knows the NYC rental housing market knows that the apartment would have been equally stuffed with American poor people.

    This is the same thing. A woman who has two kids and has had two abortions would not automatically have four kids if abortion were illegal. She would just have had the first two and tied the tubes. I would like to see it in a more scientific format though.

  38. Concerning the “postponement of having kids till they are better timed. Would the past abortion(s) have any emotional effect on the mother? How might that how her children are raised? Are there studies showing higher rates of addiction or other self destructive behaviours?
    I am not trying to be difficult. I just don’t think it can be solely about the numbers.

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