Clearance Rates - Bad News?

December 11, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Crime is news only when it’s bad. Most crime stories are reports of individual crimes, the worse the better. But even when the media report on general trends and statistics, they look for trouble. Good news is no news.

This week, it was the clearance rate for homicide – the percentage of murders where the police made an arrest. “More Getting Away With Murder,” was a typical headline.
Despite the rise of DNA fingerprinting and other "CSI"-style crimefighting wizardry, more and more people are getting away with murder.

FBI figures show that the homicide clearance rate, as detectives call it, dropped from 91% in 1963 - the first year records were kept in the manner they are now - to 61% in 2007. (From the Chicago Sun-Times)
The big decrease in clearance rates accompanied a big increase in murder that began, coincidentally, in 1963.

It wasn’t that a tide of incompetence was washing over homicide bureaus nationwide. The problem was that more of the murders were the kind where it’s hard to know who to arrest. The easy ones are the arguments and fights between family members and acquaintances. But much of the increase in homicide came from killings committed during robberies or between rival drug dealers, and those murders are much harder to solve.

Clearance rates fell from 91% in 1963 to 67% in 1991, the peak year for homicide. Since then, murder rates have declined dramatically. Clearance rates, too, still continued to slide, though less steeply, from 67% to 61%.

That’s the bad news. If you want the good news, look at the actual numbers of cases.

From 1991 to 2006, the number of uncleared murders declined. In 1991, about 8000 people “got away with murder.” By 2006, that number had decreased to about 6,300. The number of cleared murders also decreased. The real news is that Americans are killing one another far less frequently than they did fifteen or twenty years ago. The clearance rate has decreased because the murders that are easy to solve have decreased more rapidly than the kind that are hard to solve.

So while “More Getting Away With Murder” has the virtue of appealing to our sense of moral outrage, it has the disadvantage of being untrue.

Dumbing Down

December 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Quiz shows on early TV combined big brains and big money. “The $64 Question” of 1940s radio became “The $64,000* Question” of 1950s television. And the questions were difficult – questions you couldn’t possibly know the answer to. Questions that people could get only if they were incredibly smart. Or if the show was rigged, which it was.

“Jeopardy” goes more for questions that many viewers can get. Even the higher-priced questions are the kind that when the contestant gives the answer, you might snap your fingers and think: right, I knew that, and I would have remembered it, too, given a little more time.

Now there’s “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” With “$64,000 Question,” you were far below the level of the players. With “Jeopardy,” you’re in the same neighborhood, though probably on a different street.** But Fifth Grader can give you that Jerry Springer sense of superiority (the show is on Fox, not surprisingly).

See more funny videos at Funny or Die

(When I first read that Sarah Palin had thought Africa was a country, I dismissed it as a canard launched out by the snarky, dissatisfied guys in the McCain campaign. Now, I’m not so sure.)

One final thought. Fifth Grader also rests on the idea that children are superior to adults, a theme that suffuses most American movies and TV shows that have children in them (think “Home Alone”). On Fifth Grader, adults cheat off the kids, peeking at their answers or copying them outright.

I got the clip from Funny or Die, thanks to a tip from Wesleying.

* About a half million in 2008 dollars

** Full disclosure: I was a contestant on Jeopardy many, many years ago.

Would It Be Funny in Japan?

December 4, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Uggen posted this New Yorker cartoon on Monday.
The funny thing is, in Japan, nobody would get the joke. To begin with, a Japanese cartoonist probably wouldn’t even consider the idea of choice. So Chris’s “I’m in” comment on the cartoon, which I smiled at, wouldn’t be amusing in Japan. Of course you’re in.

Besides that, in Japan, the idea of work after work isn’t a comic possibility. It’s reality. The distinction between work and after work is much fuzzier, mainly one of setting. You leave the office and go out to a bar, but you’re with the same group of people that you work with. There’s more liquor and less formality, but it’s still the same work group.

The Japanese equivalent of the office party is the nomikai (飲み会), though it’s rarely held in the office. Kai is a general term for get-together, and nomikai is usually translated as “drinking party” But “drink meeting” might better convey the idea that the drinkers are also co-workers. More to the point, co-workers often go for drinks together as a group though not at the level of an official nomikai. It’s more like the situation in the cartoon.

Thanksgiving – False Consciousness vs. Solidarity

December 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I guess professors at Harvard Law don’t have to read Durkheim.

Jon Hanson, Alfred Smart Professor in Law at Harvard, has a post on “Thanksgiving as System Justification.” I didn’t come across this post till after Thanksgiving, and Hanson posted it for Thanksgiving 2007 (The Situationist reposted it). Still, it’s worth mentioning.

Hanson sees Thanksgiving as an exercise in false consciousness. He doesn’t use that term, but he’s arguing that the message of Thanksgiving is, “Don’t complain, be thankful.” And when people are justifying and giving thanks for a system that’s basically screwing them, that’s false consciousness. By giving thanks for what we have, we are supporting the status quo.

Hanson quotes stuff he’s found on the Internet (I have boldfaced the key phrases) :
  • your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life.. . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid? [implying that if you’re not thankful for your exploitative job, you should be]

  • The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows.

  • The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.
That last one is a bit political – telling the wealthy and powerful they need not feel any guilt – and obviously written for Republicans. But Thanksgiving is inherently conservative. Its message that we should be thankful for what we have is another way of saying, “Whatever is is right.”

It’s right, as these formulations tell us, because it is the work of God. Or as President Bush said in last year’s Thanksgiving declaration, “We give thanks to the Author of Life . . . who watches over our nation every day.” If God is watching over us every day, things must be O.K.

But Hanson misses the larger, Durkheimian insight: Rituals exist for the benefit of the society (or whatever group that stages them). The goal of any ritual is social solidarity, solidarity among all members of the society. Your basic religious ritual, for example, exalts God. But God, as Durkheim showed, functions as a representation of the society. So all rituals are inherently conservative; they idealize and uphold the society as a whole and promote the attachment of individuals to that whole.

The sacred world of ritual may be conservative in this sense, but elsewhere, in the profane world, change happens – change we can be thankful for. I just wonder whether godly conservatives, those who “recognize that everything we have is a gift from God” included the election of Obama as one of those gifts . . . and gave thanks for it last Thursday.