A Zombie in the Wild
(Eric Rasmusen) I have long thought fairly highly of the Atlantic, both as a magazine and as a blog. So the following article by Richard Gunderman1 is disheartening to read. It is a perfect example of the very zombie I am trying so hard to kill: the “Standard Story” that unquestioningly accepts the generally-incorrect conventional explanations without (for obvious reasons) providing data to back them up. So I thought I’d spend this post attacking it point by point, just so it is clear how deeply flawed the conventional story is, and to highlight the dubious arguments that are so often made in favor of it.
Gunderman starts with the standard it-isn’t-crime explanation:
Why have U.S. incarceration rates skyrocketed? The answer is not rising crime rates. In fact, crime rates have actually dropped by more than a quarter over the past 40 years.
His statement that crime has dropped by 25% over 40 years is wrong in several ways. As the graph below (taken from here) shows, crime has only been dropped since 1991, which is 24 years ago. Between 1974 (that’s 40 years ago) and 2011 (the last year for which the FBI has data), violent crime has risen by 23%, and property crime has falled by just over 2%. The net change: + 0.1% (since there is about 10 times as much property crime as violent crime). So he is just factually wrong.2
But looking at the graph reveals another, deeper problem with his analysis. Given that crime soared from 1960 to 1991 (with a little pause for violent crime in the early 1980s), why present just a single percent-change number? If we want to understand why prison populations have risen sharply since the mid-1970s, we can’t just ignore the unprecedented rise in crime that accompanied the first 20 years of prison growth.
Furthermore, if we want to understand why crime remains such a politically powerful issue, just note that despite the crime drop since 1991, violent crime is still 100% higher than it was in 1960, which were the formative years of the politically-powerful Baby Boom cohort. And much of the drop since 1991 has come through self-protective measures that don’t necessarily make us actually feel safer (security systems, not going out at night, etc.). So we are still a relatively violent country by historical standards for a large bloc of voters.
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