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by Peter Moskos

December 23, 2016

"How much do they care?"

My previous post was supposed to be about this article by Frank Zimring from 42 years ago. But then I got caught up in the false data put out by the Brennan Center.

A friend sent me this fascinating article ("A Tale of Two Cities," Franklin Zimring, December 20, 1974, Wall Street Journal, p.14) because some of it regarding "the troubles" in Northern Ireland is blessedly dated. But much of what he wrote could be published tomorrow and considered current. (Also, I was a little shocked to learn Zimring was a professor and writing in 1974. I was three. And he's still doing well.) His point was that more people, by far, are killed in Detroit. But everybody is much concerned about violence in Northern Ireland. (By American standards, Northern Ireland was never that lethal with (3,600 killed over 32 years.) Why?:
When do people perceive violence as a major social problem, and why? What kinds of antiviolence programs will they tolerate? How much do they care?

Detroit is used to high homicide rates; most of those killed in Detroit are ghetto dwellers; and killings in Detroit are not a direct threat to public political order as it is in Ulster,
The first reason why Detroit (and her sister cities) can absorb so much violence without alarm is that Americans have had ample time to get used to high homicide.
But how is it possible to adjust to such rates of violence? In an important sense, it’s easy.
Because most of the urban body count in the United States involves the faceless young black male “non-citizens” who live and die without conspicuous outpourings of social concern. It is, in fact, misleading to talk of a single homicide rate in American cities, because ghetto-dwelling blacks kill and are killed at rates 10 times as high as big-city whites. Urban violence does, of course, affect a broader spectrum of society--small shopkeepers, street robbery victims, and men, women and children who just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But the great majority of victims are the black poor.
And most of us are pretty safe, after all....Perhaps we can protect ourselves and accept violence as an occupational hazard of urban life for the poor?
Yet there are moral and practical problems with learning to live with violence... The moral problems lie at the heart of the American dream our national greatness is defined in large measure by what we can provide for the least-advantaged among us
Yet the prospects for constructive action are dim.... The political cant that passes for dialog on violence in this country is simply another symptom of failure to face up to our profoundly serious problems.

Even with the best of intentions, our urban body count will be hard to diminish. If we continue to adjust to bloodletting, and to view violence as a nonproblem, there is every chilling prospect we will get what we deserve.
In another 42 years, in 2058, I'd like to think this piece will no longer be timely. But I doubt it. What's happened in the past 42 years? Half of Detroit left, literally. The population of Motor City dropped from 1,513,000 to 689,000. And the homicide rate? It's right where it was, 42 year ago, just under 50 per 100,000.

No, it's not just Chicago

Homicide is up at a record setting two-year pace. But you wouldn't know it from yet another press release by the Brennan Center. I think they time these to provide a "crime is not a problem" narrative to journalists, quite a few of whom are about to write year-end stories with the headline: "Oh shit, homicide is way up!" While I can't really question the motives of crime increase deniers, I can debunk the worst of their claims:

False claim #1) "Nationally," says the Brennan Center, "The murder rate is projected to increase 31.5 percent from 2014 to 2016 — with half of additional murders attributable to Baltimore, Chicago, and Houston."

This is so not true, I don't know where to start.

It's the "half" part I'm talking about. (In a previous post I mentioned that 31.5 percent should be 23.2 percent.)

Collectively, Baltimore, Chicago and Houston will see about 540 more murders in 2016 than in 2014 (my numbers are 1,406 vs. 866). Meanwhile, nationally, there will be roughly 3,600 more murders (17,768 vs. 14,164). Ergo, QED, and I told you so: Baltimore, Chicago and Houston account for 8 percent of all murders and fifteen percent of the additional murders in the US from 2014 to 2016.

8% = 1,406/17,768
15% = (1,406-866)/(17,768-14,164)

A few days ago, they doubled down, "The 2016 murder rate is projected to be 14 percent higher than last year in the 30 largest cities. Chicago is projected to account for 43.7 percent of the total increase in murders." I guess this depends on what "total" means. Because Chicago will be 14 percent of the "total" national increase.

14% = 300 / (17,778 - 15,696)

Now I think Chicago might be 43.7 percent of the increase in the top 30 cities. But that is some meaningless made-up playoff stat. I mean, if you look at the top three cities, it turns out Chicago makes up 102(?) percent of the "total increase." When your formulas can get you absurd results, it means you're doing it wrong!

Are they lying or just in error? Are they making honest mistakes or intentionally misleading? I don't know. But these "fact" are up there, cited by many, corrected by none.

False claim #2) It's all Chicago's fault

Stop blaming Chicago just because it's leading the pack.

Imagine I said, "the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were really good!" And you replied, "No, not really, because Michael Jordan was playing for them."

Or if I said, "the Alps are a really tall mountain range!" And you replied, "Well, they wouldn't be so tall without Mt. Blanc."

It's difficult to respond to the reply because though substantively irrelevant, it is technically and semantically correct. (Is there some rhetorical term for this kind of distraction argument? Something in Ancient Greek for "hey look, a squirrel!") Indeed, Michael Jordan led the Bulls and the Alps would not be as tall without its tallest mountain. But so f*cking what? The rest of the Bulls were good basketball players. And the Alps would still be tall without its tallest mountain!

The national increase in homicide is a problem with or without Chicago. As I've written before, you can remove Chicago and other cities (not that you should) and the increase in homicide is still very large (albeit, yeah, smaller). There will be about 17,800 murders in 2016. About 4 percent of these [800 / 17,800] happen in Chicago. The two-year increase in Chicago homicide is about 10 percent of the national total  [(777-407) / (17,800-14,164)]. Conversely, 90 percent of the national increase in homicide is not in Chicago.

Chicago, of course, is special. But let's not get distracted. The rise in homicide is not just a problem in "a few, select cities." It's a problem except in few select cities.

False claim #3) Some years murder goes up and some it goes down.

Well, yes, that's true. But not right now. The increase in murder is not, despite what they say, some story of random statistical year-to-year fluctuation:
A similar phenomenon occurred in 2015, when a group of three cities — Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — accounted for more than half of the increase in murders. This year Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are projected to see their murder rates decline, by 6 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively.
Well, you know, up one year and down the next.... Except murder is up. Not up-and-down. And when a few cities go up one year, and other go up next, and all of them go up overall, it's we who took advanced statistics call "a trend."

And dammit, cause Baltimore is personal, Baltimore is not a city running contrary to this upward trend. 2015 was off-the-charts bad for crime Baltimore, after the riots. 2016 was horrible, as in the worst year ever... except compared to 2015. I mean, it's good 2016 is not worse than 2015, but it's not good. To say crime is down in Baltimore is disingenuous at best. The highest murder rate ever -- 2015 -- should not be the new normal by which we judge success.

False claim #4) "Concerns about a national crime wave are still premature."

OK, but if not now, when? 27(?) of the 30 biggest cities have seen an increase in murder over the past two years. We need to do more than simply, "suggest a need to understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities." Are we not supposed to care as long as violence remains segregated in poor segregated black neighborhoods? And we know why murder is increasing in some cities. It's not rocket science. "Lack of socioeconomic opportunity has long been credited with high levels of crime." Yes, no shit. Of course violence happens more in shitty neighborhoods without "socioeconomic opportunity." But that's neither here nor there because "socioeconomic opportunity" hasn't gone down the shitter in the past two years. "Socioeconomic opportunity" might explain (part of) the problem. But it doesn't explain the increase in homicide in the past two years. (Last year, in fact, saw a record decrease in poverty).

False claim #5) Sure homicide is up, but not crime overall.

First of all, if you think rising homicide doesn't matter because other crime is steady, for shame. Second, homicide matters more than other crime. Period. If homicide is up, stop right there. But the statistical problem is that data on crime overall is not that good. A lot of crime isn't reported. We know that. (There's the NCVS, but they have their own problems.)

And I'm not even talking about intentional data manipulation here. An unreported mugging is still a mugging. And the reality gap between crime and reported crime is worse than you think. And it's even worse from a statistical perspective, because there's no reason to think that errors and missing data are consistent year-to-year. (I'm a big stickler about non-random missing data, if that means anything to you.)

When police get out of their car less, they make fewer arrests. And when cops make fewer arrests, *poof* reported crime goes down in sync. It's like a crime never happened. (Except, of course, it did.) If cops get out of their cars more, if cops confront more criminals, there will be more crime recorded. (Which can be falsely interpreted as an increase in crime.)

So when it comes to crime, I trust murder. And very little else. Conveniently, homicides are correlated with all kinds of crime. So if homicides are up (and I'm using "homicide" as synonymous with "murder"), and somebody tries to tell you crime is steady... you shouldn't believe them (even if they believe what they're saying). Question crime data. Hell, question all data. How else will we know if data is valid or from some fakenews meme. And when bad data gets out there, it's a problem for all data.

False claim #6) Crime is still at a historical low

Kind of, sort of. But who's to say what "normal" is? Why should the high crime decades be the standard bearer? Why not the lower crime decades? Crime is kind of where it's always been, if one excludes the high crime 1970s and 1980s. And certainly by civilized world standards we're still crazy murderous.

The point shouldn't be some arbitrary historical date but current trends. And we don't apply that "historically low" BS to other issues. You know what other things, big picture, are at historical lows despite recent uptick? Racism, hate crimes, authoritarian rulers, scurvey, and the bubonic plague. I can't put this strongly enough, but f*ck historic lows (and keep in mind when it comes to crime our "lows" are pretty high). When bad things rear their ugly head, of course we worry and try to nip the problems in the bud before they become an epidemic.