First they’d need to give a sh*t

Well, it was Ross Douthat’s turn to fill some space on the NYT opinion page again yesterday, telling a story about how it was Republican ‘tough on crime’ incarceration policies that brought down the late-20th century crime wave, and how it is now Republicans’ turn to reform the worst abuses of the judicial system. I have 2 criticisms of Douthat’s argument. First, he casually asserts causality on a complicated topic that academics spend careers analyzing – and he gets it badly wrong. Second, he seems either naive or willfully ignorant of the Republican Party’s demise into a state of total obstruction and pandering.

First, the problem of causality. Douthat argues that it was “soft-headed liberalism” that worsened the crime wave of the 1070s-1990s:

The surge in crime rates, which lasted until the early 1990s, was driven by a variety of factors — the demographic bulge created by the baby boom, the crisis of authority in the late ’60s, and the heroin and crack epidemics that followed. But it was abetted by a softheaded liberalism that emphasized rehabilitation to the exclusion of retribution and deterrence. (Across the Great Society era, as crime rates started to take off, America’s prison population actually went down.)

In Douthat’s world, it’s a good thing conservative Republicans showed up to save us from liberal softheadedness. After all, without the wave of incarceration that conservatives initiated, “America might still be swamped by the crime wave that engulfed the country in the 1960s and ’70s.”

To back up this view, Douthat offers … no evidence, whatsoever. The question of what led to the crime wave of the latter third of the century is certainly interesting and worthy of analysis. So is the effect of varying policy responses (counseling, decriminalization, mandatory minimums, etc). In fact, academics do this kind of analysis for a living. Unfortunately, Douthat isn’t one of them.

The argument Douthat offers is too simplistic to be taken as a serious explanation, and it runs counter to actual data. Let’s take a look at the crime wave Douthat is talking about. Below are two graphs showing rising incidences of property and violent crime that continues from the late 1960s through the early 1990s:

Property Crime Rate in the US, time series

Violent Crime Rate in the US, time series

The wave in property crime seems to reach its height in the 1980s and stay high until falling in the early ’90s only to plateau around 1999. Similarly, the wave in violent crime peaks dramatically in 1992 before falling precipitately and plateauing in 1999. So, did mass incarceration break the back of the crime wave, as Douthat suggestions? If so, we might expect levels of incarceration to inversely track crime rates. But this doesn’t seem to be the case, at least on a cursory inspection. Let’s look at the data:

Americans in Jail, time series

Mass incarceration starts in the very early 1980s with the advent of mandatory minimum sentencing – 10 years before the big drop off in crime rates around 1992. That’s odd. Maybe it takes a while to lock up the criminals and instill a real deterrent to the would-be’s. But we would still expect a gradual decrease in crime during this time. What could possibly account for the steepness of the decline around 1992? I don’t know, but it doesn’t look like it’s incarceration, since that grows at a fairly constant rate. In fact, incarceration growth all the way through today (2006 on the graph), even though crime rates stop falling around the turn of the century. Another oddity. Did incarceration work, and then just stop working? Why didn’t crime rates continue to fall like they did in the early 1990s? Again, I don’t personally know the answer. I bet a lot of smart academics are working on it right now. But I also bet that Douthat really has no idea, either. And the simple explanation of “incarceration” doesn’t look like a good candidate for an explanation.

Such are the pitfalls of journalists (or opinion writers) ignoring scholarship and imposing overly-simplistic explanations on complicated systems. The question remaining is: did Douthat make such a ridiculously-simplistic and falsifiable argument by mistake? Was he even arguing the point in good faith? Or was this the result of an attempt to paint Democrats as the problem and Republicans as the answer when it comes to crime, the facts be damned?

That’s hard to settle in the context of one column. Douthat does have a history as a more moderate, fact-based Republican, and as someone willing to take on others in his party. But his conclusion that Republicans have an opportunity to reform the excesses of the judicial system smacks of willful naivety:

Above all, it requires conservatives to take ownership of prison reform, and correct the system they helped build. The Democrats still lack credibility on crime policy. Any successful reform requires the support of the law-and-order party.

Two problems here.

  1. “Democrats still lack credibility on crime policy”. Says who? From my seat, it looks like Democrats have bent over backwards to be at least as ‘tough on crime’ as any Republican. It was the Democratically-controlled Congress that passed mandatory minimums in the 1980s, and it is a Democratically-controlled Congress and Presidency that has completely refused to tackle the issue of gun control for fear of appearing ‘soft on crime’. Democrats are as much Law and Order politicians these days as Republicans — because of the success of a Law and Order platform in winning elections.  Conservatives didn’t get behind mass incarceration merely as a selfless attempt to quell crime. Law and Order was also a key part of their Southern Strategy, which helped them realign the party, capture the Democrat’s Solid South, and dominate the political landscape for the latter half of the past century. Law and Order was a political winner for Republicans. And just like any business whose competition comes out with a great new product, the Democrats copied it and resold it as their own. That’s politics in late-20th Century America.
  2. “Any successful reform requires the support [of Republicans]”. This is undoubtedly true, in a Nixon-goes-to-China way. Wary of the ‘soft of crime’ label, few Democrats are willing to go there without cover from Republicans. Ok. But Douthat seems to think it’s likely that some Republicans might actually take him up on his idea. For anyone who’s been paying attention during the past year, the idea that Republicans might actually take an active part in policy discussions seems laughable. Why would they, when playing the Law and Order card has been their electoral bread and butter for over 20 years? What makes Douthat think that the Republican Party is willing to give up an electoral asset in the name of making good policy? As the title of this post says, first they’d need to give a shit about the problem. THEN they’d need to have the political courage to do something about it. I haven’t seen much evidence of either point being true. Which is why Douthat’s entire argument seems disingenuous at worst, or just willfully naive at best. His argument imagines a Republican Party that’s a lot like science’s spherical cow: a simplification that doesn’t exist in nature.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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