Monday, February 22, 2010


There are three kinds of lies, according to Mark Twain, quoting Disraeli -- lies, damned lies, and statistics ...

Math has never been my forte, but sometimes even an arithmetical dullard can see something right in front of him. I got into a discussion with a fellow who allowed as how there are no more criminals now then when we were little tykes back in the fifties. It's the media -- notably the vile and liberal media -- that, lacking anything else to write about, trumpets every little thing. Our wives and daughters and property aren't at any more risk then they used to be, he said.

After I pointed out that most of the vile and liberal media are owned by conservatives, raising no small amount of consternation in his red state soul, I was able to allow that his theory didn't hold water.

Assuming that the percentage of hardcore criminals is about the same -- which research indicates is so -- then the logic fails. If, in 1950, there were 150,000,000 people in the U.S. plus or minus a few, and say, 1% of them were bad guys, then that works out to a million and a half cutpurses, footpads, and ne'er-do-wells. (The percentage isn't important here, only the ratio.)

If in 2009, the population was twice that and the percentage is the same, or even a bit less, vis a vis bad guys, then the total number is doubled, ipso facto.

Of course, there are other factors -- where you live matters. In Chicago there were 598 homicides in '08. In Beaverton, there were 2. Got more of a target pool in a bigger city, and income and education and like that matter. And rates go up and down. The 1970's were the worst for violent crime in the U.S. pretty much everywhere.

But still. There aren't fewer bad guys than there used to be. There are more.


jks9199 said...

I think perhaps the point your friend was after isn't that the raw numbers are the same -- but that the level of criminality (to come up with a name for the percentage of the population involved in criminal acts) is the same.

But that'd be hard to show... because some things are crimes now that weren't in the past -- and others aren't illegal that once were.

My understanding of the research is that the ratios do hold pretty constant over time. (It's been awhile since I looked those numbers up.)

I do think that there is a lot more visibility in some criminal acts. There aren't more stranger abductions (and some of the FBI's research suggests that there aren't even more serial killers than in the past), or several other high profile offenses -- they just get more press today.

Anonymous said...

You said there are more bad guys now than before.

I believe that they come in waves.
What you have written about is from 1950 (or about sixty years ago).

If you go back about 120 to 125 years ago; there is more of a pattern.

Look at the crime rates of the 1880’s (in the old west. They were as bad as anything we have today.

Three areas during this time stand out in particular.

1. The ‘Gunfight at The OK Corral’ was one incident among many.

2. In Canada, the R.C.M.P. (then known as North West Mounted Police) had to deal with the Riel Rebellion.

3. “The warrior Victorio, one of the greatest Apache military strategists of all time, dies this day, in 1880, in the Tres Castillos Mountains south of El Paso, Texas.”

In my opinion, those times were as violent as any we are seeing today.

Without Prejudice

Steve Perry said...

I wasn't arguing that the bad old days weren't bad, back when the west was being won -- or lost, depending on your viewpoint; only that if the percentage of folks who are criminals is anywhere close to the same, then the more people you have, the more criminals there are.

There are spikes, if you look at the FBI numbers, but there seems to be a bottom below which we don't sink.

You might use prison stats to show the percentage of folks in jail -- but that's skewed because some of the incarcerated are innocent, and a whole lot of them are in for non-violent offenses like drugs, which didn't used to be a crime; still, percentagewise, more folks are in prison in the US than were fifty or a hundred years ago, viz our total population.

There are more forms of media and more coverage, to be sure, but my point is that while we are more "civilized" than back in Earp's Tombstone, the raw number of bad guys hasn't gone down.

Anonymous said...

The "Wild West" is largely a myth. I learned in a Legal History class that tone of the first things that happened as settlements and towns came into being was to set up a system of law and order. There was definitely a lot less structure then today but far from lawless.

Steve Perry said...

t's true that the "Wild West" was never as wild as the cowboy movies. And that the main street face off and fast draw shootout never happened like Matt DIllon used to do it on Gunsmoke. This was a variant of classic dueling with pistols and invented by penny dreadful writers, and later coƶpted by moviemakers.

Which is not to say that there weren't murderers, robbers, and thieves, and that gunplay didn't happen.

Joseph. G. Rosa's excellent book, *The Gunfighter: Man or Myth?" gets into the shooters, their hardware, and who kilt whom when. There were a few serious pistoleers, though they didn't wear the strapped-down fast draw rings invented in Hollywood, and when the guns came out, they were often in the hands of somebody drunk and pissed off.

There's a story, may be apocryphal, that Doc Holliday once drew on a man across a card table and emptied his pistol, missed the guy five times, but hit a bystander or two. Back in the black powder days, after a shot or three indoors, you were going to be hard pressed to see anything, and Holliday wasn't the best shot in the world.

Wild Bill Hickok was a dead-eye by all accounts, he could keep them all on a playing card at combat range.

One story I liked:

Hickok, as the local sheriff, told the cowboys at a saloon to stop leaving their empty beer glasses outside when they went out to pee, they were running out of them. Sam Strawhim (aka Stranhan) a local bad ass, spoiling for a fight, basically said, I'll throw my glasses wherever I want.

Do and they will carry you out, Bill said.

Sam said, Oh, really?

Whereupon Wild BIll pulled out his revolver and shot Sam dead. Yes. Really.

Local jury figured that Sam had it coming and didn't indict Hickok ...

jks9199 said...

I agree, the hardcore "criminal" group is a pretty constant subset. I don't remember the exact numbers, but they've held pretty constant for a long time. First, let's limit the definition of "criminal" by eliminating a lot of the silly offenses and legislated crimes and keep it to things like stealing and assault, y'know... "real" crime. Generally, let's say that 20% of people commit a crime and get caught. Of that 20%... most won't re-offend. They committed crime until they got caught, and getting caught was enough to scare 'em straight. About half of that group - or 10% of people - will re-offend once. Getting caught a second time shows them that crime doesn't pay... But again, about half, or 5% of the original population will re-offend. And this is the hardcore "criminal" population; they're not likely to stop committing crimes. (That's also the theory behind 3 Strike laws.)

Regarding numbers... There are two primary sources for criminal stats in the US. The first is the FBI's annual Crime In the United States report. This documents crimes reported to the police. But it's subject to some error, since not all crimes are reported. (And there are other sources of error here, too, that I'm not going into.) The second is the National Crime Victimization Survey done annually by statisticians at the Department of Justice. This is a survey where they call and ask folks basically "were you a victim of a crime this year?" It's got its own errors, like sampling errors in any survey, and some crimes aren't captured. For example, homicide victims are notorious about not answering survey questions...

Like you said, crime rates vary, but there does seem to be a rock-bottom that they just don't drop below. That's the hardcore criminal population; the folks that are so intrinsically crooks that they'll jaywalk as a matter of principle. And, that's a given percentage of the population. As the population grows, the raw number changes.

Dan Moran said...

I agree, fast draw duels hardly ever ever happened, but maybe not never. Supposedly Wild Bill Hickock actually fought at least one fast draw duel.

James said...

Here's a great (and probably true) Old West story. Apparently, 2 brothers pissed off "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson (one of Wyatt Earp's possemen), and he called them out. Both of them. At the same time. Johnson told them he'd meet them at Boot Hill and so they walked to that location. There was a stretch of ground there that Johnson knew was exactly 100 feet. But the brothers didn't. They called "draw!" and Johnson started walking toward the brothers. They, naturally, drew their weapons and fired. A lot. Missing each and every time. Johnson stopped, drew his weapon, and fired. Once. Killing one of the brothers. The remaining brother nervously reloaded as Johnson again began to walk toward him. He began firing but was nervous and repeatedly missed. Johnson stopped and fired again, killing him. Johnson fired only two rounds while the brothers had fired 18 times.
Must have taken cojones of steel to walk toward two guys shooting at you, though.

Mike Byers said...

I don't believe it's only the total number of criminals: the density seems to have an effect, too. It's rather like achieving critical mass with nuclear bomb material. Of course, a higher overall number of criminals means that achieving this critical mass becomes more likely in areas such as large cities, and I'm not sure if it is only the fact that law enforcement becomes overwhelmed by the problems or that people simply become used to the situation and do whatever they can to compensate.

Coming from a rural area that was for all practical purposes crime-free in the 1950s and 60s, and now living in that same area today, I can tell you there are far more criminals in an overall population that hasn't significantly changed. Most of this is due to meth and other drugs, but meth is far and away the largest problem. And doing what meth users do to get the money to buy their drug accounts for a fair amount of the rest of the crime.

Ah, yes...interesting times indeed.

Blanche said...

Hi, finally got the time to read your blog. As well thought out as the other writings of yours I've seen, thank you for the work you put into this.

We used to have snakes. Snake owners often find themselves with more than they originally planned on raising, so they start raising mice and rats - the feed is considerably cheaper than buying feed critters from a pet shop.

Having raised mice and rats, I can share that there's this breakover point - where they're breeding faster than your snakes can eat. The only answer there is to get more snakes, or start selling them off to a pet shop. But until the system of getting rid of them works out, you find yourself with overcrowded tanks of rodents.

Overcrowded tanks, like overcrowded cities, breed violent behaviors. Rodents eat their babies, rodents fight, kill and sometimes eat each other. Part of this is the overcrowding, but part of it in my experience may be being trapped in a cage you can see the outside of, but can't escape.

Humans are not rats, or mice. However, is the metaphor of a TV screen as the window people can see out of, but can't use as a real escape from conditions, an accurate one?

Steve Perry said...

Well, metaphors are kind of like slide rules -- they can be elegant and illustrative, but their results are an approximation, and only so accurate.

I have heard the one of TV being a window into other realities, and it has a certain charm, but I'm not sure how useful it is -- unlike rat cages, most human homes come with doors that are locked from the inside. One usually can turn off the tube and walk outside.

Television has been praised and blamed for all manner of things. As a device, it's not intrinsically good, nor bad. Not our damnation, nor our salvation. It is like, to use a metaphor, a knife, which can be used to slice your food or to stab somebody. Depends on the user.