Humility and History

People who follow these things tell me that the specific changes Attorney General Eric Holder is introducing this morning tied to non-violent drug offenders are more symbolic than substantive. Not that many people are in the federal system on those kinds of charges. But the larger push to ramp back a generation of mass incarceration, driven in large measure by mandatory minimum sentencing laws, is just an incredibly important development. Especially when it comes from the very top of the criminal justice system in the United States.

But to put the news in perspective – not just today’s news but the news of the last half century which has gotten us to this point – you need to look at this chart.

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I would venture to say that while relatively few of us have been directly affected by what is behind this data it is unquestionably one of the most significant charts in any of our lifetimes. As you can see, it’s the trend of US murder rates going back 51 years from 1960 to 2011. The rate starts a steep climb through the 1960s, bounces around a bit at a very high rate for about a quarter century and then starts a steep drop in the early-mid-90s. It stabilizes for a while in the Bush years and then starts falling again late in the Bush administration. It may still be falling.

It all kind of hit me a few years ago when I realized that murder rates had fallen so low that you’re standard police procedural like Law and Order just wasn’t realistic any more. There just weren’t enough murders to go around.

If you’re interested in US politics, I think there are few datasets that have more defined our politics over the last quarter century. The only other that really compares is the stagnating or declining incomes of the lower 3/4 on the income scale. But I think this may be even more important. You can pretty much chart the rightward turn in American politics against that first slope and plateau and the increasing openness to reformism of various sorts on the downward slope.

Look at this chart and you understand the paramountcy of Nixon and Reagan.

But what I take away from this is that as much as I’m a critic of much of many aspects of the war on crime over this period, certainly its excesses (as though we could agree on what those were), I think that if you stand back and look at that chart and try to take a disinterested analytical look, it’s wildly unrealistic to think you wouldn’t have a generation plus of draconian laws tied to people’s fears of violence and personal safety. That’s totally different from saying right or wrong. Just totally unrealistic.

One of the earliest pieces I wrote as a working journalist, was this piece for The New Republic on the politics of the death penalty in the United States and Europe. At the time, it was popular to contrast the US obsession with the death penalty with the fact that the practice had been outlawed across Europe. What I was able to show though is that if you looked at public opinion data, a very different picture emerged. Europeans wanted the death penalty almost as much as Americans. It was just that there political systems were less porous to populist politics. So they didn’t get it.

But again, surprising that the death penalty became a winning political issue during that surge in the murder rate? Or, more specifically, that opposition to it became politically toxic in many parts of the country? Hardly.

I don’t write this as a recipe for inaction in the face of public policies we believe are wrong or ineffective. But again, when you step back, it can’t help but induce a humility that in political action and as citizens we are awash on a sea we don’t control which dramatically constrains what is and is not possible.

And there’s even a deeper level to it: not only do we not control it. We seldom even much understand it.

We’ve all heard numerous arguments about why murder rates (and to a lesser extent other violent crimes) began to fall in the early Clinton years. Broken windows and Comstat with Giuliani in New York. Abortion. Even lead poisoning (about which there’s some pretty strong data). The simple fact that so many people are incarcerated and thus not on the streets committing crimes. But in that case, even many of the criminologists and sociologists who were the biggest supporters of the program of mass incarceration now say it’s gone too far, that the degree of community disruption and criminalization behind bars is outweighing the ‘upside’ of keeping additional people off the street.

If you take New York City, where I live, the city has managed even starker drops in crime than most other cities in the country. But when you look at that downward arc, you realize that very clearly something was changing in the society nationwide (and by some evidence worldwide) that went way beyond whatever novel policing methods the NYPD had put into effect. I think good decisions in New York City catalyzed even great drops. But this chart makes it totally evident that something much bigger was afoot.

And what was it? I think the honest answer is we don’t know. There are a few concrete things we can point to like the crack epidemic and crack wars of the late 80s that again spiked rates after a slight drop. But overall, we don’t know.

There’s an interesting book called The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History written by one of the country’s most curious and idiosyncratic historians, David Hackett Fischer. The very, very simplified version of his argument is that the last couple thousand years of history have seen successive periods of inflation and price stability. If you lived in the periods of chronic inflation, things kind of sucked – good art, literature and philosophy maybe but living really sucked. If you lived in the periods of price stability things were pretty good.

I’ve thought for some time that eventually historians and sociologists decades from now will find similar trends explaining the rise and fall of lethal violence in our times. But they’ll be things we’re wholly unaware of or only dimly aware of.

Notably, if my memory serves, at the end of his book, Fischer notes that the historical patterns suggest we’re entering into a period of long time price stability. And he was writing ten or fifteen years from now. So maybe that’s the answer. And maybe we give Paul Volcker and Greenspan way too much credit.

However that may be, if you’re open to history and data, it forces humility. We’re in control of less than we imagine and know perhaps even less than that.

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