April 18, 2005

A Crime Misery Index?

The murder rate is down, but we are still paying a huge price for this improvement. How we can quantify the total picture?

Ronald Reagan used the "Economic Misery Index" -- the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate -- to quantify in an understandable away how bad the economy had gotten under Jimmy Carter. A reader suggests we create a Crime Misery Index composed of, say, the homicide rate plus the incarceration rate. In the 1960s, the incarceration rate went down while the murder rate went up. In the 1990s, the imprisonment rate went up while the murder rate went down (funny how that works). But just because the murder rate is down now, we are still paying a huge price for how much we have had to deform our lives to reduce the danger of being murdered or otherwise victimized. He explains:

We do not have any real data on how violence-prone are males, males by race, males by age or state or any other classification. What we have are data on how successfully violent these classes of males are. There is another piece of the index that we need to measure the tendencies of people to commit crime. That is some measure of the various efforts other people must make to avoid being killed, robbed or raped and the efforts society must make to keep the violence-prone under control.

In a way, thinking about the effects of criminal behavior or criminal tendencies is like thinking about the performance of the economy. You want to measure both some underlying problem and the costs to society of keeping the problem very roughly under control. Both the underlying problem and the various cures cause pain. And sometimes the magnitude of the underlying problem is chiefly expressed in the extraordinary efforts society must make to keep it under control.

In principle, that second half of the index would include things like migration of law-abiding people to ever-further exurban areas, money spent on home alarms, Plexiglas shields for taxis and gas stations, and so forth. And it would include the public expenditures on police, criminal justice and the prison system

The highly simplified way of expressing both halves of our economic problem used to be the "misery index," which was simply the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate. You could take unemployment as the basic problem, which we were trying to cure by accepting high inflation rates. Or you could take inflation as the problem - because it damaged some people's living standards and hurt productive planning - which we were trying to cure by putting people out of work. But both were clearly part of the same problem, the apparent inability of the economy to provide work for everyone without creating chaos and confusion in everyone's lives.

A similarly simplified index of the breakdown of traditional restraints on violent behavior might be simply the murder rate plus the incarceration rate, appropriately converted. I have not looked up the numbers, but I would be very confident that the post-1960s world looks much different, and much worse, than it did before courts started solving all our problems for us.

I can find the homicide rate going back 100 years, but I haven't been able to find an imprisonment rate going back before 1973, and, obviously, the decade before 1973 is the crucial one. Anybody know where to look?


One enormous cost of the 1960s Murder Wave was the vast disruption of stable urban neighborhoods, and the dispersion of people into the lonely suburbs, far from their old friends and relatives.

I've got to say that the pre-Murder Wave white urban ethnic lifestyle, like my wife's family enjoyed on the West Side of Chicago, sounds like a pretty good way for kids to grow up, because the population density was high enough that there were lots of other kids to play with on the sidewalks of their street, their were plenty of adults around to glance at them occasionally and see all was well, they could walk to school and to stores, and, when they got older, they could take public transportation. Mom didn't have to chauffeur them around, like in the modern suburban lifestyle, so they grew up less dependent on their parents, and parents felt like they could handle having more children. But that way of life was pretty much obliterated between about 1965 and 1975.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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