Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Swift Proposal

Well, Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal has served up very well in these days.

I always laugh about my west coast education in Canada because it seemed a little weak or funny when I first compared my perspective on history and art with my friends who went to school in Ontario. In British Columbia on Vancouver Island particularily my learning in school didn't seem half as thorough as my peers when I got to college. My friends in Ontario displayed strong knowledge of art and history and read a lot more serious books than I had by the time wemet in university. For example in grade eight we read The Poseidon Adventure! Out loud! I remember my grade eight english teacher feeling that a trendy adventure novel might capture the attention of west coast slackers, he said so right to our faces. But he was right, a couple of my friends got permission to skip their classes and join mine to read along. In university I would laugh because friends had read, you know, Melville or Conrad, in school. My west coast education was a B movie affair.

But we did read A Modest Proposal. And I remember being completely shocked by the essay. The punch line seemed to shut the class right up, and then we went wild!

I also remember the proposal as being given at the end of the story, but no I see now with my re-read that it is delivered right in the middle of the essay. And the essay is really funnier and more shocking than I remembered. Yippee to great Swift!

"There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas, too frequently amoung us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhumane breast.

The number of souls in Ireland being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couples whose wives are breeders, from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many under the present distresses of the kingdom, but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand of poor parents annually born: the question therefore is, how this number shall be reared, and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs is utterly impossible by all methods hitherto proposed, for we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses(I mean in the country), nor cultivate land; they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing until they arrive at six years old, except where they are of a towardly parts although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier, during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers, as I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the County of Cavan,who protested to me that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.

I am assured by our merchants that a boy or girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodoty, and even when they come to this age, they will not yeild above three pounds, or three pounds and a half-a-crown at most on the Exchange, which cannot turn to account either to the parents or the kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been four times that value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope wil not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasse, or a ragout."

"I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh twelve pounds, and in a solar year if tolerably nursed increaseth to twenty-eight pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children."

Compare this to the economic study of Stephen Levitt in Freakonomics,

...a section titled, Jane Doe, Crime stopper; how the legalization of abortion changed everything,

"One way to test the effect of abortion on crime would be to measure crime data in the five states where abortion was made legal before the Supreme Court extended abortion rights to the rest of the country. In New York, California, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, a woman had been able to obtain a legal abortion for at least two years before Roe vs. Wade. And indeed, those early-legalizing states saw crime begin to fall faster than the other forty-five states and the District of Columbia. Between 1988 and 1994, violent crime in the early-legalizing states fell 13 percent compared to the other states; between 1994 and 1997, their murder rates fell 23 percent more than those of other states.

But what if those early legalizers simply got lucky? What else might we look for in the data to establish an abortion-crime link?

One factor to look for would be a correlation between each state's abortion rate and its crime rate. Sure enough, the states with the highest abortion rates in the 1970's experienced the greatest crime drops in the 1990's, while states with low abortion rates experienced smaller crime drops. (This correlation exists even when controlling for a variety of factors that influence crime: a state's level of incarceration, number of police, and it's economic situation.) Since 1985, states with high abortion rates have experienced a roughly 30 percent drop in crime relative to low-abortion states. (New York City had high abortion rates and lay within an early-legalizing state, a pair of facts that further dampen the claim that innovative policing caused the crime drop.) Moreover, there was no link between a given states's abortion rate and its crime rate BEFORE the late 1980's-when the first cohort affected by legalized abortion was reaching its criminal prime-which is yet another indication that Roe vs. Wade was indeed the event that tipped the crime scale.

There are even more correlations, positive and negative, that shore up the abortion-crime link. In states with high abortion rates, the entire decline in crime was also among the post-Roe cohort as opposed to older criminals. Also, studies of Australia and Canada have since established a similar link between legalized abortion and crime. And the post-Roe cohort was not only missing thousands of young male criminals but also thousands of single, teenage mothers-for many of the aborted baby girls would have been the children most likely to replicate their own mothers' tendencies.

To discover that abortion was one of the greatest crime-lowering factors in American history is, needless to say, jarring. It feels less Darwinian than Swiftian; it calls to mind a long ago dart attributed to G.K. Chesterton: when there aren't enough hats to go around, the problem isn't solved by lopping off some heads. The crime drop was, in the language of economists, an "unintended benefit" of legalized abortion. But one need not oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds to feel shaken by the notion of a private sadness being converted into a public good."


As much as I may have been embarrassed by my west coast trendy education I see some wisdom in it these days. I am as addicted to reality tv asmuch as the next person. I watch Survivor with devotion, analysing the personalities of the people involved and the way they problem solve and compete in order to win a million dollars. It is a Shakespearean narrative. It is more Swiftian than Darwinian, but it is the same genre as Poseidon Adventure. In a literary format the shipwrecked characters struggling to survive a night lost in nature despite their selfish motives gives us as many answers on how to live as does any economic study of behaviour. I loved the book Freakonomics and we can study human motives and patterns as much as possible but we will need our imagination and compassion for problem solving to get through the night. A remake of The Poseidon Adventure is hitting theatres soon. I am so there!

2 comments:

greatwhitebear said...

LOL... I caused such an online fury when I blogged about Levitt's findings! I got called lots of bad names. A huge and sometimes personal debate raged for days. God it was fun! Hope this subject turns out to do the same for you!

Candy Minx said...

Oh Hi, I am sorry I didn't respond to your post earlier. I didn't see it here! Thanks for checking out my site. I love finding other fans of books. I guess I can see why Freakonomics might have choked up some people...but I don't know it seemed so logical to me. If you liked Levitts book, check out Marvin harris's Our Kind. He was writing about this kind of thing culturally before the economic perspective of Levitts kicked, although Harris is still ultimately economically based insight and observations.

Cheers! Thanks for stopping by!
Candy