Headlines in recent weeks blared that crime is down, all based on a new report from the FBI.
News media picked it up and did the predictable kabuki dance over the greatness of the Biden administration, as if the president has anything to do with it.
Mainly, the point is that all is well.
There’s nothing about which to complain.
You’re safe and prosperous, so just stop your kvetching.
The report stated the following:
“The FBI’s crime statistics estimates for 2022 show that national violent crime decreased an estimated 1.7 percent in 2022 compared to 2021 estimates: Murder and non-negligent manslaughter recorded a 2022 estimated nationwide decrease of 6.1 percent compared to the previous year. In 2022, the estimated number of offenses in the revised rape category saw an estimated 5.4 percent decrease. Aggravated assault in 2022 decreased an estimated 1.1 percent in 2022. Robbery showed an estimated increase of 1.3 percent nationally.”
Before we examine this reported data, consider that there’s no reason to believe that it’s even close to the truth.
In all the chaos of the last several years, people have mostly stopped reporting theft and even assault. It’s so routine and everyone knows that the police will not and probably cannot do anything anyway. This truth is easily confirmed by asking any street-level store owner in any big city. Theft is rampant. Cameras are everywhere. But there’s nothing they can do about it.
Just a couple of days ago, I was in a CVS Pharmacy and startled that the toothpaste was under lock and key. That’s how terrible things have gotten in formerly civilized places.
One wonders about assaults, too. Based on what you can see in midtown Manhattan on any night, does anyone believe that assaults in this setting are being reported? What precisely would be the point?
To be sure, murders are different. Those data are less subject to reporting problems. But here’s another problem: a basic statistical error in how it is presented. It’s a sophomoric point but nonetheless real. Whether something is up or down, getting better or getting worse, entirely depends on the baseline that you choose as your starting date. If you choose the absolute worst peak of a trend, everything else looks good by comparison.
That’s precisely what the FBI has done.
It has chosen the worst possible year in order to make our present hellish reality seem great by comparison. Joshua Crawford of the Georgia Center for Opportunity explains:
“Part of the problem with most media analysis is that 2019 didn’t represent a historical baseline of homicide and violent crime rates in America—2014 did. Nationally, violent crime and murder were much more prevalent in 2019 than in 2014. So though U.S. rates have fallen back to pre-pandemic levels, the country is well above normal violent-crime rates. Total violent crime in 2022 was 5 percent higher than in 2014, an increase that represents tens of thousands of additional victims in a single year. The national homicide rate in 2022 was 43 percent higher than in 2014. Since 2015, there have been roughly 30,000 more murders in the U.S. than there would have been if the homicide rate had stayed at the 2014 low.”
Which is to say, this is all terrible news. It’s only not as terrible as the most terrible possible reality of 4 years ago. This isn’t crime being down; this is crime persisting and even worsening in many respects in many places, especially in blue areas such as San Francisco.
We’re all getting pretty fed up with the lying by statistics. Sadly, it often works. It depends fundamentally on the public’s statistical ignorance, which is undoubtedly very high. People can only understand the most rudimentary notions, such as “up” and “down,” without asking more important questions such as “Compared with what?” much less more sophisticated questions such as “Are we talking about an absolute fall or a drop in the rate of increase?”
We experience this constantly with inflation data. For more than two years, we’ve kept hearing about a fall in the inflation rate. People hear that and think, “Oh, prices are coming back down,” without even realizing that this isn’t what it means. It means a falling rate at which prices are going up. Prices are still going up.
Mass statistical ignorance is extremely costly. It allows a ruling class to toss around numbers all the time to sound vaguely sciency but without having any real substance behind the claims. This is what enabled the Biden administration to say daily that the job market is great, that economic growth is strong, that Americans are growing wealthier, and now, that crime is down. It’s all completely gibberish and contradicted by every bit of reality that we observe with our own eyes.
The crime problem is a major one because it directly affects two fundamental points of security that are essential to the good life: security of property and security of person. Both are in deep trouble in America today. It only adds insult to literal injury that our own FBI is tossing around extremely misleading data to suggest that it’s all in our heads.
If and when things settle down, and America gets its act together again, there needs to be a mass educational campaign to do remedial classes in math and statistics (and probably logic, too). It was the ignorance of the basics that allowed so many people to be bamboozled during the COVID-19 era. When you don’t really understand the math or data, you have no real choice but to trust the interpretation of the featured experts. This is a huge problem.
During this period of our lives, property became ever less secure, first wrecked by government edict and then threatened by mobs of riots and now under assault from petty thieves and organized shoplifting gangs. Respect for life has declined, too. Generally, the very notions of human dignity and bodily autonomy have declined in moral legitimacy in the public mind.
Foot traffic in our cities has fallen dramatically, and this is partially a result of crime fears. Will murders decline from their highs, too? Certainly. But this isn’t because our streets are safer. It’s because people are too terrified to go there. This isn’t an improvement but evidence of a worsening problem.
That kind of analysis is too deep and rich for sound bites in today’s manipulated public square, where propaganda always seems to prevail over facts. It’s true in economics. It’s true in public health. And now we see that it’s true in crime reporting as well. It’s just another sector of life in which the decline in trust is much merited.