Sunday, October 02, 2005

I don't know whether my feelings are typical of other liberals, but I was deeply annoyed by this piece of hackwork over at the American Prospect blog. If you are not familir with this whole spate, it can be summarized as follows: Bill Bennett (a notable conservative) made some comments on abortion and African-Americans, which were criticized by some on the left, but also defended by some on the left. I'll get to Bennet's statement below, but at the TAPPED blog, Garance Franke-Ruta, expressing dismay that some liberals would defend Bennett, writes,

Bill Bennett yesterday offered left bloggers a golden opportunity to make political hay, and what do we have? The spectacle of them explaining his remarks away in order to prove ... what exactly? That they, too, studied Latin and philosophy?...Brad DeLong, however, sees this as a great opportunity to defend Bennett for "attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument." I mean, what is the point of this other than to prove his own cleverness?... the more time I spend on the blogs, the less I know what liberalism still stands for...
The point of this, of course, is to react to the intellectual content of Bennett's statement, rather than using it as fodder to score some cheap political points. It's clear that according to Franke-Ruta, what must take precedence is the political game, where liberals can use Bennett's comments to gain a small advantage; what is far less important is actually trying to figure out whether Bennett is right or wrong.

I'll comment on Bennett's comments next and I'll point out why Franke-Ruta's attempts to "make political hay" are so obviously wrong. But it's worth noting why Franke-Ruta is wrong: because being right is less important to her than being a pawn up in the political game.

Here is what Bennett said, courtesy of Media Matters:

CALLER: I noticed the national media, you know, they talk a lot about the loss of revenue, or the inability of the government to fund Social Security, and I was curious, and I've read articles in recent months here, that the abortions that have happened since Roe v. Wade, the lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30-something years, could fund Social Security as we know it today. And the media just doesn't -- never touches this at all.

BENNETT: Assuming they're all productive citizens?

CALLER: Assuming that they are. Even if only a portion of them were, it would be an enormous amount of revenue.

BENNETT: Maybe, maybe, but we don't know what the costs would be, too. I think as -- abortion disproportionately occur among single women? No.

CALLER: I don't know the exact statistics, but quite a bit are, yeah.

BENNETT: All right, well, I mean, I just don't know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don't know. I mean, it cuts both -- you know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up. Well --

CALLER: Well, I don't think that statistic is accurate.

BENNETT: Well, I don't think it is either, I don't think it is either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don't know. But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.

Of course, Bennett is not advocating aborting all black babies. Responding to a caller who argues against abortion based on the effect it has on social security, Bennet points out that such inferences are tricky, and the data on crime rates could be made into a case for abortion. Brad Delong puts it well when he writes,

Bennett did not "concede" that "aborting all African-American babies 'would be... morally reprehensible.'" That was his point. His caller said: "Abortion is bad because it has worsened the financing of Social Security." Bennett says: "Stay focused. We're anti-abortion not because we think that abortion is a means that leads to bad ends like a higher Social Security deficit; we're anti-abortion because abortion is bad; make arguments like 'abortion is bad because it increases the Social Security deficit' and other people will make arguments like 'abortion is good because it lowers the crime rate' and we'll lose sight of the main point."
All this, however, is lost on Garance Franke-Ruta:

One could equally well argue, since we are in the realm of science fiction, that such an occurence would wreak psychological, cultural, and economic devastation on America's cities, with God only knows what impact on crime. Every major city would start to look like Detroit, depopulated and run-down where it had formerly been vibrant. Elementary schools would be the first to close, then high schools, then colleges. Tax bases would be wiped out. Whole swathes of the workforce would disappear, simultaneously depriving people of needed jobs and cities of employees to run necessary services. Who knows what would happen in such an environment -- it is really both unknowable and unthinkable.

Anyone who thinks they know what would happen is making assumptions. Implicit in Bennett's statement is the assumption that African Americans contribute only criminality to America...

Of course, nothing of the sort is "implicit" is Bennett's argument. And Franke-Rutta is quite right that her scenario is "science fiction." Bennett's counterexample however is a straight extrapolation from the data. Bennett brings it up because his caller makes a straightforward extrapolation from the data (an incorrect one, I think, but whatever).

What annoys me most about conservatives in the public discourse today is their inability (unwillingness?) to understand complex statements. The difference between support for the Iraqi insurgency and opposition to American actions in Iraq, for example, is beyond their understanding (see for example these two posts). Its a shame that TAPPED is starting to take a page from their book. Such deliberate misunderstandings demonstrate little more besides an inability to think straight.


At 4:49 PM, Blogger John McAdams said...

Planned Parenthood Advocates Abortion to Reduce Crime

And the bizarre thing is that Bennett, who explicitly rejects abortion, is under attack.

At 8:01 PM, Blogger alex said...

Good point - the contrast between bennett and planned parenthood is especially stark. They both use basically the same kind of logic to make very similar inferences. Yet no liberals feel the need to attack Planned Parenthood or Steve Levitt (who came up with the the thesis originally); the intrinsic evilness of these kinds of arguments is only discovered when they are made by Bill Bennett.


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