We Have a Social Disease

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

Edna St. Vincent Millary

Like many people, I’ve been reflecting on the horrible murders that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School not quite two weeks ago. There’s a natural human need to search for order in the chaotic, to winnow morals from events, to devise solutions to problems and the reactions to these murders reflect that need. For many, having formed their opinions long since, the murders are nails, waiting for a hammer they’ve long had at the ready.

I think the reality is discouraging. Considered narrowly, a “pseudocommando” spree killer who expects or even intends to die in an attack on a soft target, clearly the situation in Newtown, probably cannot be stopped.

Considered more broadly, the intentional homicide rate in the United States is appallingly high—according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime the highest among major developed economies at 4.2 per 100,000 population per year. I don’t believe that the solutions that are being proposed are well-suited to the problem but they do provide some insights into the views of those proposing them.

One point-of-view is that the problem is just too many guns. I don’t believe that view stands up to scrutiny for a number of reasons. If it were true, I would think that as the number of guns increases, so would the number of gun homicides. That isn’t the case:

The number of guns in the U.S. surged from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. That includes 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There are now about as many firearms in the U.S. as people. These stats have been widely reported. What has not been so widely reported is that the number of firearm-related homicides fell from 17,073 in 1993 to 9,903 in 2011 (up slightly from 9,812 in 2010). Per capita, the gun-related murder rate has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past two decades.

Additionally, I would think that, since gun ownership by whites in America is nearly twice that by blacks, that homicides by whites would be higher than by blacks. That isn’t the case, either. Indeed, despite African Americans constituting a far smaller proportion of the population than whites, there are approximately as many black homicide offenders as there are white each year.

The nature of victims, too, differs by race. Whites are more likely to kill their wives, kids, or coworkers. Homicides by blacks are more likely to be drug-related.

The homicide rate with white offenders is about the same in the United States as it is in Switzerland or Germany. If the homicide rate with black offenders were only to fall to the same level as the homicide rate with white offenders, our homicide rate would be about the same as New Zealand, Australia, or Canada.

If white Americans are arming themselves in fear of attack by black American, they are mistaken. Murder is almost exclusively intraracial and property crimes increasingly so. White murder victims are likely to have been killed by other whites; black victims have almost certainly been killed by other blacks.

I am emphatically not saying that I think that our high rates of homicide or gun homicide are intrinsically racial. I am saying that we have a social problem and that social problem is racial.

Whether the reason for high homicide rates is due to poverty or income inequality is controversial:

While cross-sectional regressions exhibited a positive relationship between the Gini coefficient and crime rates, first differencing regressions found negative or insignificant coefficients for this variable. These divergent results suggest either that 10-year time-series changes are different from long-term equilibrium cross-sectional relationships (which seems unlikely), or that coefficient estimates are biased in both regression specifications. Whether the biases offset each other, resulting in a null hypothesis, is not known. Nevertheless, these results suggest that greater attention should be given to identifying the many factors affecting crime before one concludes that income inequality is the culprit.

Translated from the sociologese: income inequality is not the first place to look for high homicide rates. See also here.

My own view is that Pat Moynihan was right many years ago and the disintegration of the black family has had serious implications for society as a whole. The large number of households headed by single women and the difficulty young black men encounter in finding jobs may lead them to seek social support and affirmation from gangs that support themselves through criminal activity (a very high proportion of homicides by young black men are drug-related).

So, I agree with Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Let’s tighten up on guns sales in the secondary market. But, while we’re thinking about how to reduce the number of people be murdered in the United States, let’s be more frank about the actual sources of our problems. We have serious social problems and it’s about time we addressed them.

74 comments… add one

  • steve

    PD- You think kids cannot get drugs now? They are very easily obtained. Given that they are illegal, it puts your kid at risk of an arrest and never being able to obtain a decent job in the future. It puts your kid in contact with people you probably wish he/she would avoid. By your logic, we should make alcohol illegal. It consistently ranks as more dangerous than pot.

    Just for full disclosure, I have some reservations about meth. Unlike most drugs, I think it may really lead to more crimes when people are under the influence.


  • So, at coffee yesterday, I thanked Father O’Connor for the lovely service at St. Mary’s on Christmas Eve.

    He told me that he had based his sermon on the Theology of the Body. He had stressed that in the coming year, we should care for our own health, pay attention to our bodies’ signals, and respect the bodies of others (drone attacks, anyone?). That in so doing, we come closer to realizing our connection to God’s creation and the message of Christ — i.e. the word in the flesh.

    Could be our social disease is a disconnection from “the life of the body,” and consequent moral fragmentation. We are not treating ourselves or seeing others as fellow creatures of the divine spirit.

    And you needn’t go down a Catholic road to arrive at something of the same conclusion. We are all of us natural children bound together within this universal chaos. Maybe it would behoove us to become for ourselves and those close to us, and give those less close to us the benefit of the doubt.

    Recreational drugs are fine. It’s when they aren’t recreational anymore that they become a problem.

  • …to become more responsible for ourselves…

    The drug thing is a side note. Damn things, like alcohol, are ultimately boring when they take over someone’s life.

  • PD Shaw

    steve, why would you think making something easier to obtain would not increase its use? Legalization will increase the number of people using currently illegal drugs, it will decrease price, and increase the usage of those already using. The goal of legalization cannot be to reduce drug problems, they will increase. The goal has to be to reduce crime (by eliminating the laws), and the law enforcement costs associated with it. (BTW/ the successful drug program alternatives Jan mentioned earlier are the result of judges giving criminals the choice of jailtime or succesful rehab, so legalization will eliminate those approaches) As I said, I’m fine with decriminalization of marijuana.

  • jan

    I’m curious, how many people here have any personal experience with addiction — either themselves, close family members/friends, or as a counselor/social worker etc.? How many people have gone to AA meetings and al-anon meetings, listening to the up front and personal stories of addiction, the real back drops involved? There are some things, IMO, that can be theorized at a distance, and other circumstances or realities that defy such conjecture, when it comes from a mind that first hasn’t wrestled with such issues or scenarios first-hand.

    I am in the arena of Andy in believing that a greater ease of attainment will lead to greater usage. Consequently, greater usage will lead to more people developing drug habits, especially if these habits are formed early in life where immaturity tends to mute and/or override cautious behavior.

    As for marijuana, it is beneficial to many medical/emotional maladies, and IMO should not be restricted in those areas. However, once again, if it is left openly unrestricted to adolescent populations, it can set into motion destructive habits that are difficult to break. I admit to having fewer answers to the questions of drug regulations, than I have reasons why simplistic legislation (legalizing all drugs) to a complex problem should be avoided.

    I also think the same caution can be directed towards legislation aimed at gun ownership. Too little regulation can lead to isolated abuses. But, too much, over-zealous restrictions can also jeopardize some of the inalienable rights inoculating this country from going beyond the innumerated powers of government.

    Balance is the key. But, that’s not always an easy fulcrum point to find….

    BTW, Janis, I enjoyed reading your post on the Theology of the Body sermon you posted.

  • It was interesting, Jan. Father O’Connor has such a thick Irish brogue that he sounds Spanish or something. And his vocal tone was just lovely in that church.

    What little I’ve read of the Theology of the Body has to do with sexuality (and the immorality of contraception and homosexuality), so his sermon was not at all run of the mill.

    I’d like to speak more to him. If he has time, I guess he’d make himself available.

  • I don’t think he’s the type to rail much against homosexuality. Some of the best voices in his choir are gay.

  • Speaking of addictions, I haven’t had a cigarette in a week.

    Oh, yes, I’m using a techno-crutch, but it has been something like 37 years.

  • jan

    Good for you Janis. Cigarettes are more addictive than heroin to get free of. Although it takes will power, it’s the committment to personally change a habit (any habit) that has to be particularly strong. I wish you well….

  • Thanks.

  • Who can afford to smoke at these prices?

  • It is price. You can stuff your bluestockings up your nose.

  • I don’t mean offense, Jan. But it is one of those things that really doesn’t cause others much harm, done right.

  • For cripes’ sake, I live on an acre.

  • I mean really, I went as a red ant to a Halloween party in New York City in what, ’81? Where y’all think I come from?

  • Great bargains on fabric and stuffing on lower Broadway in those times.

    I actually sewed and sold handmade stuffed satin Christmas ornaments to pay my way home on a streetcorner in NYC. A guy had a license for Christmas trees and wreaths. He liked my presence.

  • TastyBits


  • Doves and bells and stars and sliver moons.

  • Sold a lot of doves. I had actually stitched a touch of greenery to their beaks. We weren’t far from one of the hospitals.

  • Happy New Year, TB and family. I’m proud to be close to y’all, at least geographically.

  • I got my first sewing machine from my brother Bill for Christmas when I was six. A Singer chain-stitch.

    I’ve never gone long without one since. It’s almost as bad as losing my wedding ring.

  • My husband’s boys were malicious impediments to the simple life.

  • Steve V- lott’s work has been debunked. Countries of similar economic development with more guns, have more homicides. Bob Ehrlich had a very nice analysis at Reason a few years ago. Very heavy on the math.

    I never referenced Lott, so WTFAYTA? It is an empirical fact, Sweden has high gun ownership and a low murder rate. Same with Norway. I believe the same holds for Switzerland. Again these are empirical facts. It is not correct to extrapolate that more guns cause less crime as per Lott, but it does provide a problem for the more guns more crime (murder) claim as per Michael.

    To my knowledge, the studies showing increased aggression after playing violent video games are based upon answering questions. The subjects have not done anything aggressive, but they have picked the more aggressive answer to a question.

    OMFG…look out. Deadly questionnaire respondents! They’ll kill you by answering ‘C’!!!!

    GMAFB. Calling it now, junk science.

  • BTW, read Ehrlich’s article. This part,

    Since random data would show a drop or a rise equally often at t=0, we have a 50 percent chance of finding a drop — not a very good argument for the drop being real.

    No. This is true if data in question are like coin flips, but I doubt that the number of gun related crimes are like coin flips.

    The fact that all categories of violent crime (murder, rape, assault, robbery) show drops is also not particularly surprising, since the causes of violent crime (whatever they are) probably affect the rates in all the separate categories

    That sentence puts the lie to the previous one (which I quoted above).

    As for the list of omitted variables, that is interesting and a possible source of bias, but the idea that you keep including variables you think might have an impact could actually adversely impact your results as well. It is fairly well known in regression analysis that including even insignificant variables that have a t-statistic greater than 1 will improve the R-square (but not the Adjusted R-square) and in modelling you eventually have to go with what you got. For example, nobody may have state level data on alcohol sold, media violence, and average summer temperature (wtf?).

    This doesn’t mean Lott is correct, but the reasoning in that part is faulty. And also, noting that Lott is wrong because his reasoning is wrong is fallacious reasoning, it is the fallacy-fallacy. You can still get the right answer even if you have the wrong reasoning. Granted incorrect reasoning should make one suspicious of the results, but not dismiss them out of hand.

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