July 10, 2007
It's well known that crime declined significantly in the 1990s and early 2000s. And thanks to Steve Levitt, we have a pretty good idea of why. (See his "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not," 18 J. Econ. Persp. 163 (2004).) The Economist magazine of June 9, 2007, has a lead article in its United States section on current crime trends. That article has some fascinating new information For example, although many large cities continue to have historically low levels of crime, a few have seen recent spikes. The three largest cities -- New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago -- have had continuing declines in serious crime. Los Angeles (which has had the same police chief, William Bratton, since 2002 as New York had in the 1990s) has experienced remarkable recent drops: burglaries down by 20 percent, murders down by 50 percent, and serious assaults down by more than 33 percent. According to The Economist, LA is now safer than Salt Lake City. Oakland, California, by contrast, had a 50 percent increase in homicides in 2006 over 2005. Philadelphia had 406 homicides in 2006, back to the level of the early 1990s. Homicides increased in U.S. large cities by 7 percent between 2000 and 2006, but not in the three largest cities, all of which had significant declines. Indeed, if the declines in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles had not been so large, the increase in homicides nationwide would have been 11 percent. Why these differences?
One thing that does not differentiate New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago from other large cities is the number of police. (A significant increase in the number of police was one of Levitt's four factors that helped to explain the decline in crime in the 1990s.) New York's police force has 4,000 people fewer today than in 2000. Chicago and Los Angeles also have smaller police forces.
What the three cities share, according to The Economist, are two practices and two demographic facts: first, a new method of allocating police called "putting cops on the dots": second, giving local police commanders responsibility for their own territories; and third, a declining percentage of young and African-American populations. The "dot" idea, pioneered in New York, is simple. The police have mapped each incidence of crime by putting a dot where each particular kind of crime occurs. Where the dots are most numerous are clearly areas that need more policing. So, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are deploying their police in greater numbers where the incidence of crime is greatest. (However,the number of dots may not be large. Los Angeles deployed more officers to only 5 hot spots last year.)
Now, i confess that I find this to be an astonishing fact -- astonishing in the sense that it defies credulity to think that only in the last six years have police departments learned where crime is most likely and decided to put more police there. I would have guessed that this practice was one of very long standing. But apparently not (and for reasons that it would be interesting to know).
The second practice is local responsibility and accountability. And that, it turns out, is surprisingly rare. Some police departments, such as Oakland, do not have neighborhood divisions. They are, rather, organized on a city-wide basis. As a result, the localized knowledge of hot spots for crime may be more difficult, but not impossible, to come by.
The third factor that may help to explain why the three largest cities have experienced declining crime is demography. Each of those three cities is losing young people at a rapid rate. All three, taken together, lost 200,000 15-24 year-olds between 2000 and 2005. Males in roughly that age range account for between 40 and 50 percent of most crime in most societies. Additionally, during the same period those three cities lost 10 percent of their African-American populations, while the percentage of black residents remained the same in other large cities. Because that age group commits a disproportionate share of crime, having fewer of them means, all other things equal, less crime. And because African-Americans constitute roughly half of all homicide victims and roughly half of all those who commit homicide, the loss of black population could cause, all other things equal, a reduction in crime, too.
July 9, 2007
Conglomerate's Junior Scholars Workshop: Alexander Volokh
The Conglomerate Blog's Junior Scholars Workshop today features Alexander Volokh's "Privatization and the Law and Economics of Political Advocacy." You can find an abstract of the excellent paper, a link to the paper at the BE Press website, and comments by Paul Rubin, Brian Galle, and me here.
July 8, 2007
The Rational Voter
The July 9 & 16, 2007, issue of The New Yorker has a review by Louis Menand of Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), available here. Menand is usually a very reliable and helpful reviewer. But this book seems to mystify him, and his usual helpful insights seem to desert him. There are snarky comments about economics and economists and only in the last two paragraphs does Menand make substantive critical points. And those are not terribly insightful.
Nonetheless, the review does contain this marvelous catalogue of U.S. voter ignorance:
“The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty percent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty percent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid constitutes twenty-four percent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one percent.
"Even apart from the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as 'affirmative action' and 'welfare' is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they should favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions -- if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer -- but the opinions are not based on on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal or ad hoc."