Falling Economy, Falling Crime

Endless Origami: Crime Rates

Or maybe not…

For some reason, common wisdom would have it that crime should go up when the economy is going down. Violent crime in particular. Apparently, the thinking is that less prosperity leads to increased frustration and desperation, leading to more beatings killings muggings and rapes. As if the people who otherwise would commit such crimes are less likely to do so when banks are lending and people are investing in new and bigger business ventures.

Of course, common wisdom is frequently wrong. Which is good, because as we’ve pointed out before, the economy is going to continue to suck. Europe is facing massive uncertainty in the face of its Mediterranean peoples voting themselves the treasury. Here in the U.S., the Obama administration, elected on a platform of “hope,” is doing everything in its power to kill off any hope that investment in growth would be worth the risk. Instead of ensuring the stability and predictability necessary for economic growth, the governments of Europe and the U.S. are only spreading uncertainty and worry. It is now pretty much a certainty that a double-dip recession is upon us.

But the economy just isn’t that strong an influence on crime. During the prosperous 1950s and 1980s, violent crime went through the roof. During the Great Depression and the recent Crappy Recession, violent crime plummeted. The influence of economic hardship on crime is just not that strong. It is certainly not cause-and-effect — any effect is likely limited to exacerbating the effect of those things that actually do drive up crime. And right now, those things aren’t driving crime up.

So what are those things? What factors do drive violent crime? And are they going to come back any time soon?

Harvard professor Steven Pinker has a new book out addressing the history of human violence, and how it has decreased dramatically. Taking an Abraham Lincoln line for his title, in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (which he summarizes here), Prof. Pinker examines several “pacifying forces.” The greatest one, so far as we can tell, is the rise of empathic maturity. Seeing other people as, you know, people. It’s easier to visit violence upon those with whom we do not identify. Ever greater education, socialization, communication and mobility have made our tribes ever larger.

In our line of work, we have occasion to deal with people who are more likely to commit violent crime. The worst — the true thugs, the ones who do not see you as a person, who could hurt or kill you and never give you another thought — seem to be those where socialization failed. Whether through lack of parenting, through abuse or whatever it was, they didn’t develop the empathy that seems to be a prerequisite for not hurting other people. They have all the empathy of a 2-year-old, if that. Fortunately, they are fewer and farther between. Something tells us that they were not so uncommon in earlier centuries. And something tells us that stronger nuclear families and communities in impoverished neighborhoods — held together not by a public dole but by social bonds — can only make these more and more rare in the future.

These are, of course, an extreme end of the spectrum. But their dwindling is evidence of a general rise in empathic maturity across the board. And, along with other things such as economic interdependence and the rule of law, it has led to a dramatic decrease in violence in general.

But that’s a very long-term trend. What’s causing the short-term trend we’ve been seeing since the mid-90s?

We tend to think that demographics are the single biggest factor. Violent crime (and about half of all crime) tends to be committed by young men in their teens and twenties. Very few are committed by women, or by men over 35. And as it happens, the young male population has been down pretty much coincidental with the crime rate.

In a radio broadcast earlier today, Stephen Dubner listed some other factors that might be at work here:

I think there are three factors that explain most of it. The first is we’ve dramatically increased the prison population. There are now 3 million people behind bars in the United States up from maybe 500,000.

We’ve hired a lot of police as well. That’s another factor as well that matters.

The third factor people think a lot about that seems to be important is the rise and fall of the crack cocaine markets and the violence associated with that. That the rise in the late ’80s led to a lot of increase in crime and then the decline with the falling apart of those markets. I have my own pet theory. Not that many people agree with me but I do think the data support it. The legalization of abortion in the 1970s led many of the people most at risk for crime never to have been born. And so when they would have been grown up 20 years later they just weren’t here to do the crimes.

We tend to agree with Dubner’s first point. No matter what effects socialization and demographics may have, there are still those disposed to commit acts of violence, and who will have done so if left to their own devices. When they are removed from society, society suffers less violence.

We think the second factor is irrelevant. More police on the ground does not mean more crime prevention. Police don’t prevent crime; they react to it. A more visible police presence can have some deterrent effect, at least to crimes that would be committed within sight of a uniformed officer, but that’s just not big enough a factor to account for a significant reduction in the crime rate. No, this is just an enormous unionized government expense that happens to be palatable to both the Democratic big-labor-big-government base, and the Republican tough-on-crime base.

We think his third factor is not quite right. It’s an idea first popularized back in 1998 by Steven Levitt (who also spoke during the same radio broadcast), and is probably the most-cited idea in his and Dubner’s book “Freakonomics.”  And on its surface it seems intuitive. But just like the role of a bad economy on crime, the intuitive connection is probably no connection at all. In fact, after adjusting for the effects of the crack epidemic and the like, subsequent studies have shown that the apparent effect of abortion vanished. There just is no statistical evidence that the terminated pregnancies would have resulted in a larger proportion of people disposed to commit violence. The idea is mainly espoused by those who claim it in support for a political abortion argument these days, rather than as a serious reason for lower crime rates. (And if you want our opinion on abortion, we think it should be left up to legislatures and not the courts, the states would make it perfectly legal up to a point, everyone would shut up about it, and we could focus on other stuff. We’re obviously not running for office any time soon.)


So what factors do we think are influencing the drop in crime rates? (1) Demographics, mainly a blip in the population of young men. To be more accurate, young single men between the ages of 17 and 35. Exacerbating factors here do include economics, as violent crime tends to increase with the “bride price” of competing for a mate (think education + steady job + a future). Another exacerbating factor coincides with intense cultural heterogeneity — strong segregation tends to go along with less empathy and greater tribalism.

Factor (2) would be a long-term trend towards greater respect for other people as people, and greater identification with different people from different circumstances.

And factor (3) would have to be the (nonetheless appalling) dramatically greater imprisonment of those who have demonstrated a propensity for such crimes. It may not be just, and there are a lot of people being swept along and locked up to no good purpose, but amid all those who don’t belong in prison there are a significant proportion of those who would have committed violence. The NY Times and others like to call this a “paradox” — that there are more prisoners despite less crime — but it’s more of a cause-and-effect sort of thing, really.


So given those 3 main factors driving the violent crime rate, are they going to come back any time soon?

As for (1), oh you betcha. The blip in the relevant population was just that: a blip. The number of children has been on the rise since ’02 or so. Schools that had shuttered facilities thinking the blip was a long-term trend are now scrambling to provide space for the boom that’s hitting them. About half of these children are boys. Most of them are expected to live to 17, and even to 35. The proportion of them who aren’t properly socialized is probably not dramatically lower than in any other recent year. So the number of them committing violent acts is going to go up. The math is easy. And boys will be boys.

Factor (2) isn’t really changing much from year to year. It’s more of a long-term thing. Though its effects are trending positive, they’re not enough to outweigh immediate demographic effects.

Factor (3) is, sadly, not changing any time soon. Prison sentences only ratchet upwards. And with more and more crimes calling for prison, despite having zero relation to violence or any threat to public safety, it’s only going to get worse. But that’s not going to catch more violent types than we’re already catching. It’s just going to put more nonviolent types in with them, for longer. Unless we start magically catching a larger percentage of violent offenders than we’ve been doing, the absolute number of violent offenders on the streets is going to rise with the demographic change.

And oh yeah: the economy’s going to suck big time. For a while. That’s not gonna help.

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  1. May 29, 2012

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