Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The most underreported news story of my lifetime

This link shows the overall and per capita crime rates for the U.S. from 1960 to 2010:

Scroll down and look at the crime rates per 100,000 inhabitants. To anyone braying that civility is dead and that we are on the brink of societal collapse, um, yeah:

The rate of overall violent crime has dropped from a peak of 758.1 per 100,000 to 403.6 - nearly cut in half. This is the lowest figure in any year since 1972.

The murder rate in 2010 was 4.8; this is less than half of the peak rate, in 1980, and lower than any year since 1963.

Oh, but surely rape is on the rise, given the changes in our culture...nope. Peaked in 1992, down over a third from that peak, and the last year lower than 2010 was 1976.

Aggravated assault? Peaked in 1992, now down over 40% and at its lowest rate since 1977.

The peak robbery rate, in 1991, was 272.7 robberies per 100,000 people. Last year the rate was 119.1. The most recent year lower than that was 1967.

The rate of vehicle thefts is similarly down from its peak, and lower now than in 1964, despite the ratio of cars to people being considerably higher than it was then.

And all these numbers are rapidly trending downward.

It's not my point here to speculate on why the crime rate has fallen so sharply in the past 20 years - the rate of crime in a society as large and diverse as ours is an exceedingly complex thing, and anyone who attributes the drop to one or two pet causes is, well, I'd say he's talking out of his ass. I don't know very much of the answer, and neither do you, and neither do the politicians or the pundits or the cops or the criminals.

But we never, ever hear about this. I would bet a good sum of money that if you polled a random sample of people my age or close to it (I'm 41), the majority of them would guess that crime in the U.S. has either stayed about the same or increased since they were kids. And, as the statistics above show, they'd be ludicrously wrong. (I would also bet that those respondents identifying as social conservatives would be even more likely to get this wrong than the sample average; however, before we heathens get too giddy about that, if the same poll were conducted in 1995, the reflexive "the world was better when I was six" response would have happened to be correct. Crime did go way up before it went way down.) How is it that perhaps the biggest societal shift in the past twenty years has glanced off our skulls?

People freak out nowadays even more than I remember them doing when I was little and they were scaring us with the specter of the Soviets nuking us. Terrorist attacks. School shootings. Mexican drug cartels. And every time they turn on TV news, it's another story about some crazy woman killing her 3-year-old or something else horrific and a half dozen commentators in suits are dissecting the crazy woman's court case in the tone used by studio analysts at halftime of NFL games...well, yeah, if you drink a steady 24-hour diet of that psychological poison, which now you can, you're bound to think, oh my god, the world is gonna end. And even if you can ward off the assault well enough to avoid consciously being paralyzed by fear, well, fear operates well below the conscious, does it not? Ask any advertising exec or political speechwriter, they'll tell you. Scaring people for no reason pays. People eat that up.

I was in high school in the 1980s. Yeah, yeah, the world back then had drugs and gangs and child abuse and serial killers and all that dark side biz, trust me. Quite a bit *more* than we have now, apparently. My parents' world had less of it than that, but their world was far from perfect or sustainable and the social upheaval that followed happened for good reason, despite some of its more troublesome side effects...and if you go back five or six hundred years, you were WAY more likely to die a violent death by another's hand than at any time in the last century. (Steven Pinker's latest book discusses this.) What is it? No news is good news, therefore good news is no news? The overall rate of violent and property crime, in a multicultural nominally democratic society of over 300 million people, is down over FORTY PERCENT from just 20 years ago, and the next parade or Nobel Peace Prize awarded to this mind-boggling achievement will be the first. Yeah, I don't get it. Shouldn't *somebody* throw out a high five or two for this?

This isn't to say we should sit on our laurels. Of course not - we should keep trying to get those numbers down. I'm in favor of longer sentences for most violent crimes than we have now, and more resources toward early intervention for those at risk of becoming violent offenders. Even with our recent massive improvement, the U.S. is still far behind most other industrialized nations, though we have some challenges to a degree most of them don't. But jeez, when I was a kid, yeah, the boogie man stories existed, paranoia existed, dead animals with open eyes on the side of the road existed, but at least I was allowed to play outside. And, by the numbers, I was more at risk than the kids of today are.

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