Things Are Not Always As They Seem

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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything is a book by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. In the book Levitt applies economic principles to situations not usually covered by traditional economists.

While I don’t know if I completely agree with his view on a number of subjects, he has caused me to consider that the cause of things may not be as clear as we think it is.

Speaking about the crime problems in the US in the 1990’s he attributes the very unexpected decline in crime to something most of use would never consider.

This is what he writes.

“In 1995 the criminologist James Alan Fox wrote a report for the U.S. attorney general that grimly detailed the coming spike in murders by teenagers. Fox proposed optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. In the optimistic scenario, he believed, the rate of teen homicides would rise another 15 percent over the next decade; in the pessimistic scenario, it would more than double. “The next crime wave will get so bad,” he said, “that it will make 1995 look like the good old days.”

Other criminologists, political scientists, and similarly learned forecasters laid out the same horrible future, as did President Clinton. “We know we’ve got about six years to turn this juvenile crime thing around,” Clinton said, “or our country is going to be living with chaos. And my successors will not be giving speeches about the wonderful opportunities of the global economy; they’ll be trying to keep body and soul together for people on the streets of these cities.” The smart money was plainly on the criminals.

And then, instead of going up and up and up, crime began to fall. And fall and fall and fall some more. The crime drop was startling in several respects. It was ubiquitous, with every category of crime falling in every part of the country. It was persistent, with incremental decreases year after year. And it was entirely unanticipated—especially by the very experts who had been predicting the opposite.

The magnitude of the reversal was astounding. The teenage murder rate, instead of rising 100 percent or even 15 percent as James Alan Fox had warned, fell more than 50 percent within five years. By 2000 the overall murder rate in the United States had dropped to its lowest level in thirty-five years. So had the rate of just about every other sort of crime, from assault to car theft.

Even though the experts had failed to anticipate the crime drop— which was in fact well under way even as they made their horrifying predictions—they now hurried to explain it. Most of their theories sounded perfectly logical. It was the roaring 1990s economy, they said, that helped turn back crime. It was the proliferation of gun control laws, they said. It was the sort of innovative policing strategies put into place in New York City, where murders would fall from 2,262 in 1990 to 540 in 2005.

These theories were not only logical; they were also encouraging, for they attributed the crime drop to specific and recent human initiatives. If it was gun control and clever police strategies and better-paying jobs that quelled crime—well then, the power to stop criminals had been within our reach all along. As it would be the next time, God forbid, that crime got so bad.

These theories made their way, seemingly without friction, from the experts’ mouths to journalists’ ears to the public’s mind. In short course, they became conventional wisdom.

There was only one problem: they weren’t true.”

While the conventional and widely accepted wisdom was that the programs put into place were what caused the drop, they were simply a reaction to a problem that was getting out of control. Levitt explains that it was something that happened many years before that he attributes to the drop in crime.

To find out what it was you’ll have to wait until Thursday’s post. Or read his book before then. Either is a good choice.

What do you think he attributed to the tremendous drop in crime rate?

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  1. Things Are Not Always As They Seem – Part 2 | Fall Into Timtation - January 30, 2014

    […] is a continuation of “Things Are Not Always As They Seem“. In the last post I told you about Steven Levitt’s analysis of the drop in crime rate […]

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