Freakonomics 3 – Criminality and Parenting


Today’s post is our third visit to a classic book – Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.


At the end of the last section, the authors promised to explain why the predicted crimewave in 1990s America failed to materialise.

They begin in Romania where, in 1966, communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made abortion illegal.

  • The idea was to increase the growth rate, and hence the population, and hence the GDP and power of the country.

He even introduced a “celibacy tax” on women who failed to conceive.

  • The birth rate went up, and a particularly miserable cohort of Romanian children (in terms of school results, work success and rates of criminality) was born.

In 1989, Ceausescu was overthrown and executed, the only communist leader to be killed in the uprisings of that year.

  • The authors claim that the uprising was lead by the youth of the country, who has been created by the abortion ban.

In America, the opposite happened – abortion was legalised and it helped to prevent a crime wave.

The usual suspects

Lots of other explanations were offered for the fall in the crime rate:

  1. innovative policing strategies
  2. more use of prisons
  3. fewer drugs on the streets
  4. population ageing
  5. more gun controls
  6. stronger economy
  7. more police
  8. more capital punishment

A few of these have some merit.

A stronger job market may make certain crimes relatively less attractive. But only crimes with a direct financial motivation – burglary, robbery, and auto theft.

Homicide fell at a greater rate during the 1990s than any other sort of crime, and a number of reliable studies have shown virtually no link between the economy and violent crime.

The evidence linking increased punishment with lower crime rates is very strong. Harsh prison terms have been shown to act as both deterrent (for the would-be criminal on the street) and prophylactic (for the would-be criminal who is already locked up).

Imprisonment is certainly one of the key answers. It accounts for roughly one-third of the drop in crime.

Given the rarity with which executions are carried out in this country and the long delays in doing so, no reasonable criminal should be deterred by the threat of execution.

Executing 1 criminal translates into 7 fewer homicides that the criminal might have committed. In 1991, there were 14 executions in the United States; in 2001, there were 66. Those 52 additional executions would have accounted for 364 fewer homicides in 2001 – less than 4 percent of the actual decrease in homicides that year.

Additional police substantially lower the crime rate. The hiring of additional police accounted for roughly 10 percent of the 1990s crime drop.

The broken window theory argues that minor nuisances, if left unchecked, turn into major nuisances: if someone breaks a window and sees it isn’t fixed immediately, he gets the signal that it’s all right to break the rest of the windows.

New York City was a clear innovator in police strategies during the 1990s crime drop, and it also enjoyed the greatest decline in crime. But innovative policing strategies probably had little effect. Crime was well on its way down [already, and] the new police strategies were accompanied by a hiring binge.

Guns do not cause crime. That said, the established U.S. methods of keeping guns away from the people who do cause crime are, at best, feeble. [And] regulation of a legal market is bound to fail when a healthy black market exists for the same product.

The typical gun buyback program yields fewer than 1,000 guns – hich translates into an expectation of less than one-tenth of one homicide per buyback. If the death penalty were assessed to anyone carrying an illegal gun, and actually enforced, gun crimes would surely plunge.

The violence associated with crack began to ebb in about 1991 [but] smoking crack remains much more popular today than most people realize.

What did go away were the huge profits for selling crack. As veteran crack dealers were killed or sent to prison, younger dealers decided that the smaller profits didn’t justify the risk. It was no longer worth killing someone to steal their crack turf, and certainly not worth being killed.

The crash of the crack market accounted for roughly 15 percent of the crime drop of the 1990s.

The real population growth in the 1990s was among the elderly. Elderly people are not very criminally intent; the average sixty-five-year-old is about one-fiftieth as likely to be arrested as the average teenager.

[But] demographic change is too slow and subtle a process – you don’t graduate from teenage hoodlum to senior citizen in just a few years.

Back to abortion

All of which leaves abortion.

When a woman does not want to have a child, she usually has good reason. Where [a] woman was denied an abortion, she often resented her baby and failed to provide it with a good home. These children were more likely to become criminals.

By 1980 the number of [US] abortions reached 1.6 million (one for every 2.25 live births). Before Roe v. Wade, it was predominantly the daughters of middle-or upper-class families who could arrange and afford a safe illegal abortion.

The typical child who went unborn in the earliest years of legalized abortion would have been 50 percent more likely than average to live in poverty; he would have also been 60 percent more likely to grow up with just one parent.

These two factors – are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future. Low maternal education is the single most powerful factor leading to criminality.

In the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen years – the criminal prime – the rate of crime began to fall. The states with the highest abortion rates in the 1970s experienced the greatest crime drops in the 1990s.


Parenting experts contradict one another and even themselves.

An expert must be bold if he hopes to alchemize his homespun theory into conventional wisdom. His best chance of doing so is to engage the public’s emotions, for emotion is the enemy of rational argument.

Fear is more potent than the rest [and] no one is more susceptible to an expert’s fearmongering than a parent. The problem is that [parents] are often scared of the wrong things.

As an example, the authors use an 8-year-old whose two friends’ parents have respectively a gun and a swimming pool.

In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (Roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.)

Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million- plus guns. (Roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.)

So Molly is in fact much more likely to die in a swimming accident.

See also:  Freakonomics - A Summary
Flying vs driving

“Risks that you control are much less a source of outrage than risks that are out of your control”, said Peter Sandman (a “risk communications consultant”).

Sandman’s “control” principle might also explain why most people are more scared of flying in an airplane than driving a car. It’s the imminent possibility of death that drives the fear – which means that the most sensible way to calculate fear of death would be to think about it on a per-hour basis.

Many more people die in the United States each year in motor vehicle accidents (roughly forty thousand) than in airplane crashes (fewer than one thousand). But it’s also true that most people spend a lot more time in cars than in airplanes.

Per hour, driving and skying are similar.

  • Boats, on the other hand, are more dangerous than either.

Similar problems arise when comparing death by terrorism (low probability) with death by heart disease (very common).

  • And at the time of writing, the various possible responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Outrage and familiarity

According to Sandman:

Risk = hazard + outrage.

When hazard is high and outrage is low, people underreact. And when hazard is low and outrage is high, they overreact.

Familiarity is another factor:

  • We know about swimming pools and driving, so they feel safe.

Guns and flying are unusual for most people, and so they feel riskier.

But swimming pools are dangerous and difficult to make safe.

  • So parents buy less effective safety systems (car seats, cribs, flame-retardant pyjamas etc).
Do parents matter?

Bad parenting matters a great deal. Unwanted children have worse outcomes than children who were eagerly welcomed by their parents. But genes are responsible for perhaps 50 percent of a child’s personality and abilities.

The Colorado Adoption Project followed the lives of 245 babies put up for adoption and found virtually no correlation between the child’s personality traits and those of his adopted parents.

Judith Rich Harris argued in her book The Nurture Assumption that the top-down influence of parents is swamped by peer pressure.

  • The authors test this idea by looking at school performance data.

True believers of school choice argue that their tax dollars buy them the right to send their children to the best school possible. Critics worry that school choice will leave behind the worst students in the worst schools.

The authors looked at the school choice system in Chicago, which used a lottery to allocate places.

School choice barely mattered at all. A student who opted out of his neighborhood school was more likely to graduate whether or not he actually won the opportunity to go to a new school.

The students–and parents–who choose to opt out tend to be smarter and more academically motivated to begin with. But statistically, they gained no academic benefit by changing schools.

The book also describes the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) from the late 1990s.

The data reveal that black children who perform poorly in school do so not because they are black but because a black child is more likely to come from a low- income, low-education household.

[But] the black-white gap reappears within just two years of a child’s entering school. The typical black child goes to a school that is simply … bad. Not in terms of class size, teachers’ education, and computer-to-student ratio.

The typical black student’s school has a far higher rate of troublesome indicators, such as gang problems, non-students loitering in front of the school, and lack of PTA funding. These schools offer an environment that is simply not conducive to learning.

Perhaps educators and researchers are wrong to be so hung up on the black-white test score gap; the bad- school/good-school gap may be the more salient issue.

Overall, there are 8 factors highly correlated with good test scores:

  1. The child has highly educated parents.
  2. The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status.
  3. The child’s mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth.
  4. The child did not have low birthweight.
  5. The child’s parents speak English in the home.
  6. The child is not adopted (since mothers who give up their children tend to have low IQs and offer poor prenatal care).
  7. The child’s parents are involved in the PTA.
  8. The child has many books in his home.

Parents who are well educated, successful, and healthy tend to have children who test well in school; but it doesn’t seem to much matter whether a child is trotted off to museums or spanked or sent to Head Start or frequently read to or plopped in front of the television.

By the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late. Most of the things that matter were decided long ago – who you are, whom you married, what kind of life you lead.

That’s it for today.

  • We’re 60% of the way through the book now, with another two articles to come, plus a summary.
See also:  Freakonomics 4 - Names

Until next time.

Mike is the owner of 7 Circles, and a private investor living in London. He has been managing his own money for 40 years, with some success.

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Freakonomics 3 – Criminality and Parenting

by Mike Rawson time to read: 7 min