Hard Times, Tough On Crime

One of the few issues broached in an issue-free presidential campaign has been crime. Trump, as usual, asserts that crime is a dis-as-tah and prescribes hang ‘em high law and order, straight out of the Richard Nixon Southern Strategy, racial dog-whistle playbook. Hillary, also characteristically, has a sweeping multifaceted socio-economic wish list.

Among the oddities of Trump’s heavy breathing is that crime has been decreasing for twenty years before a slight uptick recently. Yes, there are pockets of urban violence which Trump cherry picks to make a blanket case, Chicago most notably. And of course here have been numerous cases of police shootings involving excessive force. But racial minorities have been victims of those, and lawmen the perpetrators.

In a different category entirely are mass murder by terrorists or deranged people, but they fall outside the usual run of violent crimes that make the statistics rise and fall. However, a demagogue like Trump is not into distinctions but into alarmist generalizations.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that as regards the sort of street crime that is amenable to rational analysis, unlike the random acts of psychotics or self-radicalized jihadis, two factors are paramount. They are addressed only glancingly in the rush to crack down with stop and frisk, broken windows, paramilitary policing and other faddish, simplistic solutions beloved of law and order proselytizers.

First is simple demographics. A huge number of crimes are committed by young men in their teens and early twenties. Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythic psychology, once noted that all cultures have to deal with this potential anarchic, testosterone-laden cohort. And most have devised a similar solution — “Sonny, have we got a soldier suit for you.” Either the macho young come back heroes which is socially useful or don’t come back.

Crime statistics tend to peak when a demographic bulge in young men 15 to 25 occurs and ebb when there’s a demographic trough. That helps explain the baby boomer generated rise in crime that gave Nixon grist for his law and order mill and accounts too for the drop in the last couple of decades. If it is on the rise again, look to demographics for part of the answer.

The other cause is economic hard times. If young men are ill-educated, jobless, hopeless, at loose ends, dabbling in drugs and thuggery, trouble is inevitable. And the worst trouble will come from the disadvantage who, for example, have to steal or deal to feed a drug habit and don’t have prosperous parents to hire lawyers and pay for rehab when they go off the rails.

A pair or recessions between 1969 and 1975 hit minorities hard and contributed to an increase in crime that allowed Nixon to make a winning issue of law and order. The eight years of hard times since the 2008 debacle have created a similar excuse for Trump’s rhetoric, but won’t solve the problem.

The underlying issue, or constellation of issues, is important and includes policing strategies, but also income inequality, education ill-adapted to a changing economy and many other factors. Candidates might be expected to address them out of a simple regard for social justice, not to mention societal self-preservation. But solving problems rooted in discrimination and poverty is difficult and is likely to be expensive.

Worse, it is sure to be polarizing. Politicians who propose fixes are liable to be accused of being weak on crime, coddling criminals, offering handouts to the shiftless and tarred with all the racial and class code words that can spell electoral annihilation. And so, we get the kind of “law and order” that only increases alienation and despair and preordains more dysfunction.

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