June 4, 2011

Why would you be more out and about in a more dangerous world?

A strange fact about periods of soaring violence rates is that people roam over much larger areas and for a far longer portion of the day, the two greatest examples being the Jazz Age and the similar apocalyptic times of the mid-'70s through the early '90s. In such a dangerous world, that would seem like a death wish. When violence rates plummet, you find people locking themselves in their homes and generally hunkering down -- what are they so afraid of when the outside world has become so peaceful? The extreme cases here are the Leave It to Beaver 1950s and the current age of helicopter parents.

There are two extremes for how broadly or locally people perceive the threat of evil to be. At one end, all evil is localized within some small well-defined space (this handful of neighborhoods, this handful of states, this race but not that other race, etc.). This view predominates in falling-crime periods, when people have less vivid evidence that the threat is everywhere -- although those guys over there or maybe the nation on average has a crime problem, we're doing just fine in our neck of the woods. At the other end, the threat of evil is completely uniform or constant across space, a mainstream view in rising-crime times, when people observe climbing violence even in the home setting, even from the nice-looking kid down the street, at school, and anywhere else.

When your perception is more in the direction of "it could strike anywhere," then there is nowhere to hide -- so why bother? You might as well be out and about if the bad guys can attack you anywhere. After all, if you avoid urban nightclubs to stay in your own neighborhood, you've still got to contend with child molesters, troublemakers prowling the public parks, peepers and rapists hiding behind your neighbor's bushes, weird cults conducting who knows what kind of rituals and perhaps looking for sacrificial victims, and on and on. Even staying in your own home won't save you -- there are abusive step-parents, funny uncles, friends of the family just waiting for the right moment to abduct or molest you, not to mention robbers, murderers, rapists, and vandals who could break in and terrorize you in your own home at any moment.

In contrast, when your perception is more in the direction of "it only happens over there," then you will avoid those areas and restrict yourself to your own tiny pocket of security. People with this view tend to shrink their territory to the home and the nuclear family, hence the greater demand for entertainment the whole family can enjoy, now that they're all locked up together, in contrast to a variety of entertainment for different age and sex groups when family members each have a life of their own. Physically and sexually abusive step-parents, sketchy friends of the family -- nah, that's not going to happen to us. The nuclear family nestled together in the home is the one place in the world that's free of conflict that could escalate, and all that stuff about step-parents etc. is just overblown stories from children's fairy tales.

In his book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, Philip Jenkins reviews two separate cycles of obsession with child molesters. (They mostly overlap the two cycles in the homicide rate, although he did not draw that connection.) In times of truly increasing risk of violence, including for children, people saw the threat of child abuse as pervasive -- it could be happening on your own block, from the nice man you rented a room to, in the daycare center with gentle-looking owners, and from people very close to or even from within your nuclear family. This is the perception during the first crime wave of at least 1900 (maybe a bit earlier) through 1933, as well as from 1959 through 1992, although the height of the panics seem to lie just after halfway through.

However, in times of falling risk of violence, people's perception changes to see the threat coming from faraway boogeymen roaming from one state to the next, or trying to lure naive locals out to his den of evil way over there, not from us pure folk around here. This view ruled during the falling-crime eras of 1934 through 1958, when this figure was called the "sex psychopath," and from 1993 through the present, when he has been called the "sexual predator" and "cyberpredator."

As Jenkins notes, in these periods people lose their awareness of the threat that comes even from the local area, even within the home, and even from nuclear family members and their friends. Naturally this complacency sows the seeds for another wave of violence, since the sociopaths and other criminally inclined people from within the community begin to sense that their neighbors don't believe that bad things could happen here and have therefore unplugged their psychological defense systems.

They have outsourced their defense instead to a faith in the police to keep the bad guys out, perhaps going further to erect a gate around their community. People in such times forget that Ed Gein, the basis for Norman Bates, Leatherface, and Buffalo Bill, carried out his crimes in the Nordic paradise of rural Wisconsin in the late 1950s. It does not matter that some areas and some races have lower violence rates than others. When people focus too much on that relative measure of safety, they slip into equating it with an absolute level of safety. Just move away from those particularly crime-prone populations, and problem solved, simple as that.

As recently as 1990, that view would have been thought dangerously naive, judging from the popularity of the TV show Twin Peaks, which explores the theme of evil within a hard-working, all-white small town in the Pacific Northwest. Fargo sought to do this too, but was too self-aware and ironic to fully convince the audience that such gruesomeness could happen there.

Ultimately, then, the mindset of falling-crime times is a dehumanizing one, as more and more people believe themselves and their families (and maybe even their neighbors) to be free of original sin and sociopathy, which only affects the roaming and rootless sexual predator, the Islamofascist terrorist, and the voters of The Other Party. So much for the humility that says we're all flawed and need to guard against ruinous temptations. But that is a topic for another post.


  1. Do you think part of being out and about during rising crime times might also be the mentality that you need to 'live it up and enjoy life now' because there 'may be no tomorrow.' Particularly it might be an increased drive to seek mating opportunities; when the specter of Death looms we need to make sure there's another generation to pass the torch to.

  2. That's one reason why people would spend more time out, but what I'm looking at here is more the range over physical space (will you visit this area or not?), as well as over social space (will you go near this group of people or not?).

    There are only a fixed number of hours for you to spend in a typical month. It wasn't only that during rising-crime times people spent more of them out of the home, but spread over a much broader area of physical and social space.

    Whereas people now concentrate those hours more within a narrow physical space (usually the home) and social space (the "great sort" or echo chamber shift, where no one meets anyone from different walks of life anymore).

  3. When violence rates plummet, you find people locking themselves in their homes and generally hunkering down -- what are they so afraid of when the outside world has become so peaceful?

    Why, when crime rates are the lowest they've been in decades, is the per capita prison population so high? Mauamaur Kquadafie is paranoid and psychotic, how did he stay in power for so long? Res ipsa loquitur.

    A bit more seriously, is the data you're using good enough to tell if the drop in crime rates preceded the uptick in homebody-ness(I'll call it nesting, just to have a sorta not as awkward term) or did people start hunkering down, and then the crime rate dropped? The second is possible, IIRC, when unemployment in an area goes up, burglaries and related crimes decline because more people are at home during the day.

    There might be some ways to tease it out. Compare rates of crimes that nesting makes easier, harder, and doesn't effect. If people started nesting more, but criminality stayed pretty constant, we'd see muggings drop off, just not as many targets out. Convenience stores stay on the street, and become relatively more attractive to rob. Daytime crime should be comparatively less responsive to nesting cuz even introvert couch potatoes have to work. Crime at night, that probably depends on how much people go out. Crimes without much economic incentive might be interesting to look at, things like tagging and other vandalism depend on culture/zeitgeist. You're a smart guy, there are prolly a ton of crime categories that would be reasonable to compare.

  4. TWo non-scientific posits:

    As crime goes up, there are more news stories on the local stations and in the local papers about that crime and also about community rehibilitation, troubled-youth outreach programs, and other areas of interest that do more co-mingling of classes/races and geographies. Coupled with the natural human endorphine seeking nature, you have recipe for greater awareness of "excitement" elsewhere and social acceptance for adults - it's okay to be there - or even rebellion on the part of youths - it's not okay to be there, so I'm going.

    If there is a correlation between rising crime and increased numbers of military personnel (I can't remember seeing your numbers on this), then there is a greater demographic cross-section pulled together through their service. This observation and extrapolation comes from a recent change in my life. I have joined the Army National Guard (6 years prior Air National Guard in late 90's), and as an educated, well-paid, white guy, I stick out like a sore thumb. But, I am accepted and my new friends are pulling me to local areas and events I would have otherwise never sought out. My family is now being exposed directly and indirectly, increasing the overall effect. Given what I'm seeing in my own life, I'm assuming a greater number of military members across the country would multiply the effect. I'm not saying it's a huge factor, but something to add to the overall numbers.

  5. Weren't the 60s/70s the era of "white flight" to the suburbs and sun states? Those people evidently did not believe it was dangerous everywhere and pointless to try avoiding it. The accounts I've heard of growing up in the 50s is that kids ran about everywhere with negligible adult supervision.

  6. "or did people start hunkering down, and then the crime rate dropped?"

    Based on what I've seen so far, people hunkered down and lowered their trust levels, then crime peaked at most 5 years later.

    "when unemployment in an area goes up, burglaries and related crimes decline because more people are at home during the day."

    In general, you can't see economic changes by looking at changes in the crime rates. The burglary rate may have some small response to recessions in time of out-and-about people (there are dips in the mid-'70s and early '80s). But the overall swing up and down does not relate to any economic variables.

    "Convenience stores stay on the street, and become relatively more attractive to rob."

    Relatively, yes, so they might make up a larger percentage of robberies when people are inside. But the overall level of robberies is more dependent on how much of a "crime pays" vibe the criminals sense in the environment.

    So even today when most people are inside and there would be few witnesses, robbers don't bother as much with convenience stores because they sense that it's too hard for crime in general to pay.

    "things like tagging and other vandalism depend on culture/zeitgeist. "

    I'll have something soon on spray-painting and other vandalism, but that too went alone with violent crime, which as you note shows that a good amount of crime is not related to economics.

  7. "Coupled with the natural human endorphine seeking nature, you have recipe for greater awareness of "excitement" elsewhere"

    Do you remember how oppressively boring it was to stay at home back then? "Hey kids, you wanna come see a dead boy?" All right! Not to mention all those legendary spots that got more coverage when they wanted to warn you away -- houses where some crazy guy killed his wife, a field where supposedly some Satanic gang sacrificed their victims, etc.

    "If there is a correlation between rising crime and increased numbers of military personnel"

    I've been meaning to look into that, but haven't yet. I don't think it's so much about the raw numbers of soldiers that changes so radically, but their attitude and outlook, something I covered not too long ago about portrayals of war during rising or falling crime times (like Vietnam vs. WWII movies).

  8. "Weren't the 60s/70s the era of "white flight" to the suburbs and sun states? Those people evidently did not believe it was dangerous everywhere and pointless to try avoiding it."

    I said "spectrum." And it's clear I'm talking more about the territory you cover by walking, biking, brief car trips, public transit, etc. They may have set up their base in the suburbs, but within the range reachable by the above means, they went just about everywhere.

    "The accounts I've heard of growing up in the 50s is that kids ran about everywhere with negligible adult supervision."

    Make sure to ask them precisely what years, as most of these accounts equate the two or three years of 1958 and 1959 (maybe '57) with the 1950s. If pushed, they might actually remember that, oh yeah, that was 1962.

    By labeling the period 1967-1972 as The Sixties, Boomers have fooled themselves (and everyone after them) into thinking that, logically, the years 1966 and before were The Fifties.

    So no one associates Stand By Me, The Sandlot, or American Graffiti with rising-crime times, even though they all take place from 1959 through the early 1960s -- just not The Sixties.

  9. I was actually recalling this article by Joseph Epstein, who refers to his cohort "people born around the late 1930s and through the 1940s". The bit about not expecting your parents to attend your ballgames I've heard from a number of other accounts from that time. John Podhoretz gives a later generation's account of high crime New York here.

  10. Hmm, that second link has a link that no longer directs to the article itself, which I can't find online anymore.

  11. Epstein was raised in an upper-middle class Chicago family headed by first-generation Jewish immigrants, which doesn't tell us much about what America looked like back then.

    I'm not even sure how much his example tells us about his own group at the time -- Radio Days and Brighton Beach Memoirs don't show people with large social networks, ranging over a wide space, or having an adventuresome spirit.

    Nor does any other look back at those times, as far as I know (A Christmas Story does not, for instance). We don't see the unanimous opinion, spontaneously and constantly expressed, from those who grew up from the '60s through the '80s about how independent we were.

    The first year that this image found an audience was probably 1955, when Rebel Without a Cause came out. Dopey as it is, it does show a more growing-up-sooner and ranging-all-over cohort of young people. That would also fit the observation that trust and covering more space precedes the crime rate, which is evident during the decline phase of both.

    An easier way to see how the averages of two time periods compare is to look indirectly at the tails. Where there roving hordes of young people all over in the 1940s? No. But there were during the first crime wave of the 20th C, as well as the second one. Divide it by the size of the young population and the point remains.

    And it's hard to know what to make of Epstein's anecdotes. Mostly he's contrasting cold vs. warm parental attitudes. Although he did get to ride public transit into Chicago, it's not clear how often that was or how broadly he went. Most of his childhood sounds like it was spent listening to the radio and playing just on his block.

    My cohort used to ride our bikes easily a mile away from where we lived without telling our parents. It sounds like Epstein only got that kind of freedom in high school.

  12. Also, Epstein is a moron for suggesting that parental obsession about child-rearing is a new thing. What's the most popular baby book? And when was it first released, becoming an instant best-seller? Dr. Spock, when Epstein was 9.

    Since he's so clueless about such a basic fact bearing on his argument, it's hard to take much of the rest of his article seriously.

    That and his bizarre mixture of au courant PC silliness, like three uses of the parenthetical "...(or her)", with Britishisms like "jolly" and "bugger off," despite growing up entirely within Chicago.

  13. Agnostic, I wasn't making an unemployment -> crime argument, I was making a people being at home -> fewer burglaries point. The direction of causation is pretty clear. It's very not obvious how a decline in burglaries could make people stay home. It is pretty clear how people being at home could deter burglars. By looking at what happened first, more nesting or less crime, we can figure out whether nesting caused a decrease in cime or not.


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