March 3, 2012

James Q. Wilson, RIP

Political scientist James Q. Wilson has died at age 80. 

He was the rare social scientist who gave the impression that the social sciences are a blast. And why shouldn't they be? Lots of guys study statistics to be better sports fans. Dr. Wilson studied statistics to fight crime. He was like Batman with a reverse Polish notation HP calculator on his utility belt. 

He's getting praised for coming up with the "broken windows" metaphor of crime-fighting in a 1982 magazine article, but probably his even more important idea was "incapacitation" in his 1975 book Thinking About Crime. This was the simple observation that criminals can't prey upon civilians if they are in prison. Therefore, lock more criminals up for longer sentences. That this was considered a revolutionary insight in 1975 says a lot about the academic atmosphere that helped get us into an era of high crime.

44 comments:

morleysafer said...

During the late 90s it was common to see versions of the headline "More People Incarcerated Despite Falling Crime Rate"--as if the appropriate reaction to that were, Hey, things have cooled down lately, why not let the boys have some fun for a bit

Anonymous said...

Yes exactly Steve.

Back in the day, the notion that locking up criminals prevented crime was scoffed and guffawed at by 'oh so superior' intellectuals' who ran social 'sciences' (as Francis Crick once said any subject that has 'science' in its title generally isn't).
These pompous, blustering bearded lefty bigots were so puffed up with their superiority - and crucially politicians thought they were being 'clever' by taking their charlantanries seriously - hence the crime explosion of the '70s.

There is another, paralell example of the same thing that is ongoing and hasn't been rumbled yet - and probably never will be because it' so deeply entrenched.Sorry, but there won't be a boisterous little boys poking his finger at and laughing out loud at the big fat bare ass and shriven impotent gentitals of the emperor.
The massive childishly stupid (in non-existant retrospect) fraud and folly being foisted on the American people is 'globalism' and 'free trade'.
And the tailors conning the emperor with 'invisible cloth only the clever can see' are 'The Economist' and the WSJ.
God, I could kiss Hans Christian Anderson.

Brazilian said...

Common sense how it works?

agnostic said...

The removal rate is only one part of the net growth rate, the other one being the introduction rate. It's new criminals minus removed criminals that says whether there's more or less of them than before.

If crime pays, removing scumbag A only means that scumbag B will take his place. That's clearest in the case of drug dealers -- "finally Joe Bob got picked up and *I* can start dealing around here". This generalizes to any career criminal or repeat offender.

Heat-of-the-moment crimes don't follow the logic of "crime pays, so someone will do it." But there's still some larger climate of, say, assaulting or murdering someone who flirts with your girlfriend.

Removing hotheaded boyfriend A doesn't mean that the new boyfriend B won't also have a similar willingness to protect his turf violently.

This seems to be a broad way of thinking -- that increases should only be explained by a change in the introduction rate (i.e., "crime began to pay more and more during the '60s" for whatever reasons), and that decreases should only be explained by a change in the removal rate (i.e., "crime declined because more criminals got locked up").

Ecology-type differential equation models shouldn't be taken too literally, but they do force people to think more clearly about the net effect of the "birth" and "death" terms, not just one in isolation.

agnostic said...

The cycle up and down of crime was international, requiring common factors to explain it. Soaring incarceration rates are not one.

Consider just the case of Canada, which is similar to America in lots more ways than are other Western countries. They were part of that same violence cycle up and down.

“For the period 1980-2000, the imprisonment rate tripled in the United States and increased by 4% in Canada.”

In Canada, "The number of police officers grew only 3,000 in 20 years after 1980, failing by far to keep pace with population growth. During the 1990s [when crime steadily fell], the employment of police per 100,000 population fell from 204 to 183, almost exactly 10%. No precise numbers are available on the expansion in police in the United States, but there is universal agreement that there was an expansion. The estimate used in chapter 4 was Stephen Levitt’s 14% for the 1990s.”

From The Great American Crime Decline by Frank Zimring (p. 121).

The only big similarity was a change in the share of the population filled by males aged 15-29. That's a general finding.

agnostic said...

To be more generous to people who call for more incarceration, more cops, faster repair of broken windows, etc., it may not be those things themselves that deter crime -- the comparisons with other places show that.

But they do serve a symbolic role, broadcasting the message to criminals that the community isn't going to take it anymore, which criminals actually pick up on and become more wary.

Neighbors are looking out for neighbors, they will get revenge if they catch someone (no need to get the ineffectual police involved), and if summoned for jury duty, they'll excuse any average citizen who stands up to thugs, even if in not so legal ways.

Bernie Goetz got a pass. And here's a headline about how tough the courts were on Gary Plauche:

"Father Who Killed Alleged Abuser on TV Avoids Jail"

He only got 5 years probation and community service for shooting a guy point-black in the head on TV. But that guy had kidnapped and molested his 11 year-old son, so nothing was wrong at all with that.

America expressed this "we're not gonna take it" sentiment with more cops and more incarceration, but other ways could have done just as well. The important thing is that criminals feel like the community members are watching them and feel no sympathy if something bad were to somehow happen to the criminals.

morleysafer said...

Gary Plauche is another on the prog highlight reel, brought to you by the Center for Counter-Vigilantism Vigilance, 1100 Vermont Ave NW Ste. 501c3

Henry Canaday said...

I liked James Wilson. He seemed sane and he wrote well, even elegantly. Every time I read a magazine article by Wilson, I agreed with 95 percent of it. But when I summarized his views they seemed to be basically the same as those held by my 95-year-old Hungarian grandmother, who got off the boat in Manhattan in 1905, received five years of American schooling so she could read but not write English and spent her working years earning $40 a week as a cleaning lady for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

So I wondered, why was Wilson beatified by so many for having the same views on crime and social behavior as Anna Hap Doherty Veselovsky? Apparently because he survived tenure in the social sciences at Harvard without losing touch with the realities taught by the sidewalks of New York to millions of immigrants in the first half of the 20th Century.

This is less a comment on Wilson than on something else, I think.

Hunsdon said...

Obviously, the solution to falling crime rates is more immigration! More jobs Americans won't do.

e.g., http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/wanted/topTenFugitives.htm#

Anonymous said...

The one problem with prisons is that it is effectively a university for criminals, though I agree if that is the approach longer is definitely better. I wonder how well Singapore style corporal punishment works in comparison to Western style imprisonment? Or Islamic style limb removal?

RS said...

> That this was considered a revolutionary insight

I can't really give a man credit for discovering 3 + 3 = 6. Obviously everyone else (with a brain) decided to just lie.

He deserves a fair amount of credit for deciding to not lie, though.

RS said...

> “For the period 1980-2000, the imprisonment rate tripled in the United States and increased by 4% in Canada.”

But, going by the first violent crime rates I found on google, violent crime in the US declined about 10% from 1980 to 2000, while it increased about 33-45% in Canada (these data only go back to 1984).

http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/res/cor/rep/_images/ccrso2009/ccrso-img-a1-eng.jpg

http://allthatnatters.com/2009/05/20/daily-graphic-us-violent-crime-rate-1960-2008/

Granted, it rose in the US over much of that period. But it was down at the end. If you happen to choose those two endpoints (1980 and 200), the 'incarceration hypothesis' is supported by these data. Whether the data are right is another question.

swimming swan said...

"America expressed this "we're not gonna take it" sentiment with more cops and more incarceration, but other ways could have done just as well. The important thing is that criminals feel like the community members are watching them and feel no sympathy if something bad were to somehow happen to the criminals."

Gee, Agnostic, this just sounds like a group of organized thugs exploiting less organized thugs or even those marginalized for other reasons and getting away with it. Sort of sounds like a bunch of rogue prison guard types roaming the streets lookin' for someone outside the establishment to punk. In fact, I think that was an element of the totalitarian dystopia portrayed in the movie V.

Anonymous said...

This was the simple observation that criminals can't prey upon civilians if they are in prison
along with 'broken windows' two common sense, wisdom of the ages observations that liberals scoffed at and ignored.
Now that we've talked that one can tackle ' race doesn't matter' " race doesn't exist' "everyone loves freedom' ' america is a proposition nation'

Anonymous said...

The Canada/Europe comparison only matter if we assume the base populations are the same.

If not, perhaps we have to run faster just to keep up.

-Osvaldo M.

Kylie said...

"The important thing is that criminals feel like the community members are watching them and feel no sympathy if something bad were to somehow happen to the criminals."

No. Criminals not only don't "feel like" that; they don't even frame the question that way. They lack empathy to such a degree that how law-abiding community members "feel" one way or the other doesn't enter into their calculations. Criminals just want to know if they can "get away with it", whatever "it" is. The immediate and eventual costs of their actions to others--and even to some extent to themselves--never seem to enter their consideration. The risk-assessment they make is very primitive and focussed on the immediate.

This is why you'll find people stealing from their friends and sex partners in low-income, high crime communitites. Why would they do such a thing? Simple, because it's easier. Friends and sex partners trust you enough to have you in their homes, they leave you alone with their stuff and their money. And a "no snitch" code makes stealing from friends not only easy but fairly low-risk. Often, friends won't turn a thief in, they'll just chalk the theft up to the costs of friendship or companionship. And of course, since it's so common, they can't be sure which of their friends or partners is the guilty party.

It's not that criminals mistake kindness for weakness. In their milieu, kindness is weakness.

Gene Berman said...

Agnostic:

Goetz didn't exactly "get a pass."
He served time (less than a year) for a weapons offense. He was also successfully sued by at least one of the guys (awarded something like $25 million), though I don't think the guy ever got any money.

Ron Guhname said...

Wilson is the only major criminologist who had the guts to be open to biology explaining the racial difference in crime.

Nanonymous said...

Other than the observation that criminals can't prey upon civilians while in prison, what are other revolutionary insights that made him world's most famous political scientist? His Wikipedia is long on career and positions while offering absolutely nothing on his ideas. One would think that the 17 books listed there warrant a little more than a single mention of a completely trivial broken windows theory.

Anonymous said...

There may be common trends in crime (anti-psychotic medication, emergency care, aging, decline of norms) but Canada never had a crime-wave like the U.S. The homicide rate peaked at 3 per 100.000 in Canada in 1975, compared with 10 per 100.000 in the U.S in the early 1980s.

Moreover, it is a myth driven by liberal social scientist innumeracy (and ideological bias against prison) that Canada didn’t change incentives for criminals.

In 1975, Canada had an incarceration rate of 80/100.000, and a homicide rate (to proxy serious crime) of 3/100.000.

In 2002, Canada had an incarceration rate of 100/100.000, and a homicide rate of 1.8/100.000.

http://www.jstor.org.proxy.uchi
cago.edu/stable/3840504

This is an increase of about 100% in the ratio between crime and punishment.

As Charles Murray points out, it is quite absurd to think that locking up an extra million often hardened criminals (the U.S went from 275.000 to 1.5 million in prison from the midd 1970s) had no effect on crime.

Pinker’s book was disappointing in accepting and repeating a lot of liberal data-mining about crime. E.g. making a big deal about crime rate being higher in the south, without breaking it down by race.

The incarceration rate of whites in the most quincentennial scot-Irish state, West Virginia, is around (slightly lower than) the national average.

White in West Virginia (392)
Black in West Virginia (2188)
Accounting for lower education and for the south having somewhat harsher punishments in general, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the crime rate of *whites* in the South and the national average.

vhttp://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/rd_stateratesofincbyraceandethnicity.pdf

Race is driving the results Pinker attributes to “civilization”.

Mr. Anon said...

"Therefore, lock more criminals up for longer sentences. That this was considered a revolutionary insight in 1975 says a lot about the academic atmosphere that helped get us into an era of high crime."

Tom Wolfe wrote something along those lines (I forget the name of the essay) about the great unlearning that began in the 60s. When hippies living in communes convinced themselves that it was only due to bourgeois hangups that people didn't share toothbrushes.

Anonymous said...

In James Q Wilson’s honor, let’s estimate the allusive non-Hispanic white murder rate. Calculations and sources at the end

2009 homicide rate per 100.000:

Non-Hispanic White: 2.2
Hispanic: 5.3
Black: 21.7

Pinker claims that America “whites” have a homicide rate of 4.8, never informing the reader that this definition of “white” includes Hispanics.

Pinker also makes a big deal about the South having a higher violent crime rate, which he attributes to culture rather than race “the North-South difference is not a by-product of the white-black difference".

Pinker compares Louisiana with third world countries such as Jordan and New Guinea, reporting that Louisiana has a murder rate 180% above the national average. But among non-Hispanic whites, the incarceration rate is merely 25% above the national average.

Contrary to the impression given by Pinker, most of the north-south difference is indeed explained by race, not culture (and that is still not taking into account the lower education level of southern whites).

http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/pjim05.pdf

calculation:

In 2009, there were 15241 murders in the United State, or 5.0 per 100.000.
For the cases where the race of the offender is known, 46% were White *or Hispanic* (the government lump the two together to obfuscate). For the already incarcerated, we know that 37% of “whites” are Hispanic. Assuming the racial composition of 2009 murders is the same as those already in prison, 29.3% of murders were committed by non-Hispanic whites, or 2.2 per 100.0000.

http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_01.html

http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/offenses/expanded_information/data/shrtable_03.html

http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0006.pdf

This is close to Razib’s back of the envelope calculation of 2.1.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2008/04/americans-are-good-at-murder/

The number puts the U.S only slightly ahead of Canada and Western Europe, again contrary to the impression given by Steve Pinker.

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

Political scientist James Q. Wilson has died at age 80.

So he smoked, right?

I am Lugash.

Anonymous said...

"More people incarcerated despite falling crime rates"...

Uh, maybe THAT'S THE REASON the crime rates are falling.

M said...

He also wrote a book on crime with Richard Herrnstein, called "Crime and Human Nature".

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,960148,00.html

Anonymous said...

The problem all started in that truly disastrous decade, the 1960's. There were all these new (and weird) ideas about crime. "Academics" and sociologists etc, decided that crime was now a "sickness" and a "social problem", and not, as had always been believed before, a moral failing. Criminals were now going to be "treated" rather then punished. This bogus liberal mentality seeped through every area of law-enforcement and the courts. It even affected how prisons were physically built. It took many years to undo this physcho-babble damage.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

I recently started reading Colleen McCollough's series on the late Roman Republic. One thing that got my attention was her description of the lack of a police force or jail system in general. There were lictors that maybe both protected and arrested senators and other officials. And there was a kind of jail in, or under, the Capital where captured enemies and similiar types were held before execution or banishment. But the unwashed masses were basically self-policed, unless maybe the army was called in to quell a riot.


Some of the above may actually be derived from the HBO's Rome(which, by the way, appears in retrospect to have been heavily influenced by McCollough's work).


This is a pretty massive topic, but there's also a sort of philosophical question about the influence of the modern police and legal system on our daily lives. Not only the effect that it has on on individual's freedom of action, but also the inhumanity that seems to have worked its way into the system, both the beauracrats and the police themselves.


Anyway, this has me thinking a lot recently about this question of the history of law enforcement and the jail system, both over time and accross cultures. Does anyone have any good references for this? Yeah, I could google, but I'm lazy and this thread seemed a good place to pose the question.

jody said...

agnostic back again with his totally incorrect posts about canada.

how does he explain 2011 being the most violent year in the history of puerto rico? not to mention the ongoing state of mexico.

age of men in the population is a factor. it's not the only factor.

Anonymous said...

"The one problem with prisons is that it is effectively a university for criminals"

The thing with that is so are street corners and pool halls.


"I wonder how well Singapore style corporal punishment works in comparison to Western style imprisonment? Or Islamic style limb removal?"

Actually there probably is a punishment best suited to every crime because there's a split between the law-abiding, young criminals who eventually grow out of it and full-life criminals.

Corporal punishment or mild but *public* punishments might be better suited to the first two categories.

However full-life criminals are that way for a reason and i think containment is the best solution for them partly because it comes with the critical added longterm benefit that they have fewer kids.

Interestingly, although the broken windows thing in the states was mostly camouflage for ethnic cleansing black people from Mnahattan where it's undertaken seriously like in England for many years before WWII it does seem to have that kind of longterm effect.

The criminal justice system was very extreme with lots of people locked up for a long time for relatively minor crimes and the end result was a tiny crime rate and a police force that didn't need guns - completely reveresed now of course.

Another interesting aspect to using prison as a eugenic selection mechanism which i only just realised was in Olde Englande up to around 1950 the system semi-tolerated working class violence in certain limited contexts i.e. pub closing and football. This was quite clever from their point of view because what it meant was the system wasn't selecting against violence per se - as aggression can be a very useful trait in some situations - it was selecting against people who couldn't control when they were violent.

From a traditional ruling class point of view it makes much more sense to select out the uncontrollaby violent from the controllaby violent as although you want a peaceful and ordered society you also want your plebs to be good soldiers ants in wartime.

morleysafer said...

Wilson was a lucid but judicious op-ed writer, not a movement conservative really though I'm going to miss his byline in the WSJ or Commentary on a summary of the latest developments in some sociology cock-up about bowling alone. The local paper frequently published him when I was in high school; for a long time he was identified w/ UCLA, before he moved on to Malibu U. He brought insight to a variety of subjects, as in this news-blurb for a book by W. Kip Viscusi who is a similar policy-oriented academic but a bit more esoteric. So no, he did not write only about crime rates and I'm sorry the Wikipedia entry doesn't do it justice, I'll get right on that...

morleysafer said...

Mr. Anon 3/3/12 11:40 AM, that was "The Great Relearning." It's a brilliant essay and anthologized in the Hooking Up book. Goog copy. Great stuff, I think of it every time I see the 11:00 news.

Dept. of Google Alerts said...

ot they are already invoking TBOTV over in Connecticut (1%er perp). New frontiers in crimebusting!

Olave d'Estienne said...

More people incarcerated despite falling crime rates.

Man continues to work out and avoid junk food in spite of his increasing health.

Woman continues to treat men with respect and good humor even though she has recently received several marriage proposals.

Cat continues to stay inside at night despite having not been bitten by a dog in the past three months.

Left-wing journalists continue to lie and dissemble despite controlling world.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

Another interesting aspect to using prison as a eugenic selection mechanism which i only just realised was in Olde Englande up to around 1950 the system semi-tolerated working class violence in certain limited contexts i.e. pub closing and football. This was quite clever from their point of view because what it meant was the system wasn't selecting against violence per se - as aggression can be a very useful trait in some situations - it was selecting against people who couldn't control when they were violent."

An interesting and astute observation. I wonder if the governing powers in England at the time thought of it in those terms? I can imagine that they did, at least in part. When it comes to the understanding of human nature, our society really has become stupider in many ways.

Anonymous said...

From a traditional ruling class point of view it makes much more sense to select out the uncontrollaby violent from the controllaby violent as although you want a peaceful and ordered society you also want your plebs to be good soldiers ants in wartime.

And of course anti-establishment political and religious violence was never tolerated.

Anonymous said...

"in Olde Englande up to around 1950 the system semi-tolerated working class violence in certain limited contexts i.e. pub closing and football"

Not really in football, though there are reports of fights as far back as the nineteenth century. But settling a dispute one on one, with coats off in the pub car park and no weapons, was an accepted part of working class (and even young middle class) life up to the 1960s. See the American sociologist Geoffrey Gorer's 1950s book "Exploring English Character".

http://www.archive.org/stream/exploringenglish002763mbp/exploringenglish002763mbp_djvu.txt

Now, of course, you leave the pub and are ambushed by the aggrieved party with five of his mates, who proceed to kick your head when you're down.

Laban

David Davenport said...

How America can benefit from its involvement in Afghanistan:

Deport and exile convicted felons from here to Afghanland. Once there, turn them loose to seek their own salvation.

Save money on prisoner warehousing and healthcare thereby.

Old fogey said...

The many essays James Q. Wilson published in Commentary magazine are currently available on their website.

ben tillman said...

Other than the observation that criminals can't prey upon civilians while in prison, what are other revolutionary insights that made him world's most famous political scientist? His Wikipedia is long on career and positions while offering absolutely nothing on his ideas. One would think that the 17 books listed there warrant a little more than a single mention of a completely trivial broken windows theory.

Read Bureaucracy.

Dan said...

I remember some punch ups at school. Cathartic. Nobody got kicked when down though. That's changed.

David said...

>The removal rate is only one part of the net growth rate, the other one being the introduction rate. It's new criminals minus removed criminals that says whether there's more or less of them than before.<

It's a matter of scale. If literally everyone were locked up, there would be zero crime on the street. Incarcerating massive percentages of a population (e.g., > birth replacement) folds in everything.

David said...

>Deport and exile convicted felons from here to Afghanland. Once there, turn them loose to seek their own salvation<

The last time something similar was done, the result was Australia and some rather high-priced brands of beer. Are you perfectly sure about your plan?

Well, if you are, then don't submit it to DC. Military contractors must live!

David said...

"Cause and effect occur despite each other."

It's like that great story Steve had about the guy who disagreed that there are such things as bad sections of town. He brandished his expertise before Steve's face by saying that he had been personally mugged nine times.

>Woman continues to treat men with respect and good humor even though she has recently received several marriage proposals.

Cat continues to stay inside at night despite having not been bitten by a dog in the past three months.<

Classic.

joetexx said...

"Man continues to work out and avoid junk food in spite of his increasing health."

Olave, you are a stone trip.

I love your examples.