Legalisation of abortion and decline in crime

By Jori Korpershoek

In the 1970s and 80s New York was a dangerous, dodgy city. In the early 90s this suddenly started to change. Many claimed Mayor Giuliani's policies had done the trick. But then people noticed it was not just New York, it was in all of the United States that was becoming safer. Homicide and crime rates dropped dramatically. John J. Donohueand Steven D. Levitt agreed with Giuliani that a policy change lay at the heart of the decline. Just not a recent one; they pointed to the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which had made safe abortions legal and accessible all over the country.

Structural determination is when there is a causal link between two events, but with a temporal separation between these events. How? Before 1973, it was especially underprivileged women who did not have access to safe abortions. So if a poor, single woman became pregnant at an unwanted time, she would have no choice but to have the baby. These are the same women who often lack a support network and access to government services. This obviously does not mean all children in poor families are destined to become criminals, but growing up in poverty or in a single parent household are very strong predictors of having a criminal future. When these women gained access to safe abortions, they could delay their pregnancy until a better time or opt out of having children at all.

From 1973 onward, many children that would have been raised in difficult circumstances were simply not born. In the early 90s, the first wave of children born after Roe v. Wade was starting to reach maturity. And for the first time since abortion became illegal in the 19th century, among them were not “the children of mothers who did not want to bring a child into the world.”

Trapped in the institutional matrix

By Jori Korpershoek

When he was accused of not having enough experience in politics, 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot claimed that “I don’t have any experience in gridlock government … I don't have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world. ... [But unlike my competition] I’ve got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem.” Much like the social scientists Pierson describes in the introduction of "Politics in Time", Perot only looked at a snapshot of the problems of government. Not the moving picture. Nobody would consciously design the American public school systems like it is today, but that is not how politics work. It has been pieced together from legislation to legislation.

Steven Teles borrows an analogy from technology to describe this process; he calls it “kludgeocracy.”  A kludge is an “an ill-assorted collection of parts” put together to solve a problem. This can be compared to an old software program to which additions and patches have been made for decades and decades. It might still technically work, but it is probably not pleasant to use and it is impossible to add new functionality.

In technology, the slate can be wiped clean. The introduction of iOS and Android kept many of the useful aspects of their desktop predecessors, but also removed a whole lot of the weird workarounds that accumulated over the years.

In a political democracy, such a reset button is harder to push. The question is whether this is a bug or a feature. Designing a new starting point and breaking away from history has given us The Weimar Republic,  Soviet Russia and Revolutionary France. But increasing complexity, indecipherable laws and a lack of choice is also a threat to democracy. It slowly shifts the power from the people to the thousands and thousands of pages ofaccumulated legislation. We become trapped in the “institutional matrix.”

Missouri Compromise

By Jori Korpershoek

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was an agreement between the slave owning South and the abolitionist North of the United States of America. Congress drew a line through the American continent and declared that on one side slavery would be legal, on the other side it would be illegal. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson look at institutions on the national level, but in this case the level of inclusiveness clearly differed within the nation. Can the same mechanism of higher settler mortality leading to extractive institutions be used to explain these intra-national differences?

When talking about diseases in the New World, the main culprits are usually smallpocks, measles and chickenpox which wiped out a significant percentage of Native Americans. But not all newly imported diseases would be as harmless to the new settlers. Ships from Africa did not only bring slaves, but also carried malaria falciparum, an especially deadly strain of malaria that many West-Africans developed immunity to. 

In "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development" Acemoglu et al. argue that the higher the mortality rate for Europeans in a colony, the worse its institutions. In his book "1493" Michael C. Mann proposes a similar hypothesis for America. In early colonies where malaria falciparum thrived, death rates for Europeans would be higher than for their immune slaves. These place would in turn rely more heavily on that most ‘peculiar’ extractive institution of African slavery rather than (European) indentured or wage labor.

Mann provides potential evidence that suggests this hypothesis is worth further investigation. Malaria falciparum is very temperature sensitive. The difference between it thriving and not being a problem depends on a temperature difference of a few degrees each winter. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, the mosquitos would die every year. 190 Kilometer south in Washington D.C. the mosquito would survive the slightly warmer winters. Between these cities runs the Mason-Dixon line, which roughly divided the North from the South.