Begging The Question

Saturday, January 06, 2007

BTQ - 1, Ayatollah - 0
I was scrolling through our Site Meter records last night, and noticed that BTQ got a visitor from the Islamic Republic of Iran. I guess that's not too unusual, but what struck me is that the reader arrived here by doing a Google Image search for "virginity." Somehow, he or she was directed to this image Fitz once posted (totally work safe). I wonder why the visitor clicked through to BTQ after seeing that image, but maybe the reader thought there was more to the story. Or maybe the person thought the image here was some kind of metaphor. Anyway, I hope our Iranian friend didn't leave too disappointed. Maybe if they overthrow Ahmadinejad, they can find the real thing on the internets like all of us decadent, infidel Americans. Good luck, and happy surfing!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Crime Statistics and Agendas
Inspired by Freakonomist Stephen Dubner's appearance on "Beauty and the Geek" tonight (fairly entertaining), I was reminded of something Freakonomic I saw last week when I was too lazy to blog. According to the FBI, crime stats are up. Here are news summaries from the Times and the Post. (The Times has more regional breakdowns, while the Post has colorful arrows.)

A couple of thoughts. Overall, violent crimes increased over the first half of 2006 (the time period for which the latest stats are available, apparently) by 3.7% compared to the same portion of 2005. But what's interesting is how the increases are confined to certain crimes. Murder and assault were up between 1% and 1.5%, not a negligible amount but hardly an epidemic. Rapes were down by .1%. Property crimes overall were down 2.6%. All those numbers sound pretty good, and not worthy of the doom-and-gloom feel of the news coverage.

The increase is tied to large upswings in the numbers of robberies (up 9.7%) and arsons (up 6.8%, and not sure if they classify that as a "violent" crime or a "property" crime). The robbery numbers, especially, skewed the average. Now, the Post credits "many criminologists" with the position that robberies and burglaries (slightly higher numbers) are "leading indicator[s] of coming trends," but provide no further support for that assertion. But even assuming that's true, it's one thing to say that violent crime may be worse soon, and another to imply it's very bad now.

Given the sharp drop in crime rates beginning during the 1990s, it's not terribly surprising to me that we might see something of a "dead cat bounce" now. And while 2005 and 2006 numbers were the first significant increases in violent crimes since 1990, I haven't seen that the absolute numbers are as bad as they were in the 1980s. The population has also increased since 1990, so I'm guessing that the per capita crime rates are still down overall since then.

So why all the fuss over these numbers now? One reason, surely, is that crime is up a little, and in some categories is up a lot. It's fair enough to report that, but the numbers should be coupled with some explanation of (a) long term trends, (b) per capita rates, and (c) if and why an increase in a couple of specific categories is such a bad omen.

I think readers should also ponder the agendas of the people spinning these numbers. Several commentators (perhaps including Prof. Berman here) suggest that the numbers are a result of the Bush administration's misplaced policies. The shift in focus to the war on terror has reduced the manpower available to combat domestic street crimes, they say. (I've lost the link, but I saw one commentator suggest that the sheer numbers of cops who are now in Iraq as part of Guard units has created a shortage on the beat.) One vocal proponent of this view about the war on terror reducing our ability to fight crime at home is criminologist James Alan Fox, pithily quoted in the Post story arguing that "It's robbing Peter, and maybe even murdering Peter, to pay Paul."

Fox, you may recall, was discussed at some length in Freakonomics. (See how it all comes full circle?) You can use Amazon's cool search feature to find references to Fox in the book. Fox looked at the crime stats in the '80s and warned of an impending "bloodbath," when in fact crime rates plummeted. He was spectacularly wrong about trends in crime data before, so why should we value his opinion now? The Post does note that Fox "has been critical of the Bush administration's crime-fighting strategies," and while this does help us a little to know where Fox is coming from, it would be even more useful to inform readers that he's practically Robertsonian in his penchant for proclaiming that the end is nigh.

Writers for The New Republic weigh in on its blog "The Plank" here and here about crime, race, and the GOP. In the first link, Michael Crowley asks if the GOP will return to using "law and order" politics as a proxy for race-baiting. In the other, Noam Schieber wonders if the door is open for a local race-baiting populist if the national party doesn't make crime a big issue. As the Times story focuses on, the increase in crime in some cities (particularly in Texas) was probably due to an influx of Katrina victims. As Crowley says, Republicans "post-Katrina can hardly do worse with African-Americans," but likewise, Democrats can play on that antagonism to suggest that any GOP talk about reducing crime is simply racism: why wouldn't blacks -- especially Katrina victims -- believe that? I don't think Crowley and Schieber are suggesting this ploy, but it's the next logical step. If the Republicans aren't going to resurrect Willie Horton, just say they will, even though Schieber admits (lamentably?), "On the other hand, there don't appear to be many examples [of race-baiting]." Pish-posh. As the "apocalyptic" criminologists know, you don't need numbers to back up your predictions.

Really, all this buzz over crime stats is an attempt to blame the President for rising crime rates. Federal funding (and military deployment of local cops) certainly plays a role, but it's hard to argue that DOJ priorities alone are somehow responsible for a sizable increase in robberies and arson but had virtually no impact on murders or rapes. Why wouldn't a national policy affect all crimes at a similar rate? (Maybe there's some reason that federal efforts do lead to changes in rates of some crimes but not others, but no one makes that argument.)

But moreover, why is this the President's responsibility in the first place? (Not to wade in to the blogosphere brouhaha over federalism....) The crimes are almost always local crimes, compiled by the FBI but committed and prosecuted in the various cities and states. Yes, there are things the President can do to decrease local crimes (just like there are some things the President can do to improve local schools), but the bulk of the blame should fall to the localities. Indeed, just as the overall average increase in crime belies the fact that crime in many categories is down or only slightly up, the crime rates were higher in the West and South, for example, than in the Northeast.

It's too facile to paint this as a nationwide problem, and doing so suggests that it's the fault of a national policymaker. I don't think Bill Clinton deserved all the praise for the reduction in crime rates during his tenure (although I'm sure welfare reform helped, it was hardly fully responsible), and I don't think George Bush deserves all the blame for a minor increase during his term. Of course, if the numbers go down next year, I won't expect these commentators to say Bush did something right. I'm sure they'll credit the new Democratic Congress. You know the script: Denny Hastert, soft on crime; Nancy Pelosi, Wonder Woman.

Blogger Help?
I finally got around to switching to the "new" Blogger. Well, at least I thought I did. For some reason, it let me switch the other blogs I have, but not this one. Apparently, I'm not the "owner" of BTQ. I sent a carrier pigeon to Fitz-Hume's mountain hideout, and he informs me that he ran into the same problem.

Now, I've been accused (most often by Sebastian) of being a commie pinko, but maybe BTQ really doesn't have an owner. I'm skeptical, though. Blogger seems to want one member of a group blog to be the "owner," but we can't figure out who that is here. Has anybody run into this elsewhere? Any suggestions? I'm not terribly concerned: I won't cry if we never switch. But it annoys me that Blogger won't let me. Anyway, thanks for your help.

An epidemic that must be stopped
I'm speaking of course of people who use the drive-thru when their driver's side window doesn't work. Twice in the past week I've gotten behind this charming motorist as they hold up the line trying to talk through their half open door to order, and then trying to get their food without undoing their seatbelt. If your window doesn't work, park the car, get off your lazy ass, and walk up to the counter.

On a somewhat related note, Mrs. Haff has a long held theory that people walk like they drive. I find the theory intriguing, and would like to see a study done.

Monday, January 01, 2007

I Survived the '06 Blogger Massacre
I made it. I'm still here. I spent a week or so relaxing and doing things more entertaining than blogging, like sleeping and traveling and visiting some family. Well, some of that was more entertaining than blogging. Thanks to Encyclopedia McPanica for keeping an eye on things here. The cat in that post isn't mine, so I won't be joining the cat blogging legion. But I met her last week and cleaned up the mess she made of the Christmas tree.

Anyway, I'll be back to blogging now that I don't have anything better to do besides work. But part of me feels like coming back to blogging is a minor triumph, considering how many bloggers seem to be calling it quits. Honestly, though, every time a blog I like shuts down, it makes me that much more committed to keeping BTQ going.

So I guess that's my only real New Year's resolution, to keep blogging at BTQ at least until I ring in 2008. Thanks for hanging in there with me. But then again, you have fewer options than you used to.

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    The views presented here are personal and in no way reflect the view of my employer. In addition, while legal issues are discussed here from time to time, what you read at BTQ is not legal advice. I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer. If you need legal advice, then go see another lawyer.

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