Social scientist James Q. Wilson tries to answer—in a way that would warm every wonk's heart—why the tanking job market hasn't produced a spiking crime rate? After all, that is exactly what University of Chicago Nobel laureate Gary Becker would have expected to happen given his theory that crime is a rational way of maximizing utility. That is, people commit crime when the expected utility of devoting time and energy to other activities such as work and leisure diminishes. However, property-related crime rates didn't go up during the Great Depression. But at that time at least American families were intact and kept young people out of trouble, Wilson notes in a City Journal piece. And during the recent recession, crime rates have still fallen significantly despite greater family breakdown.
Wilson offers several possibilities including greater incarceration rates, less exposure to violence-inducing lead paint, and more innovative policing methods such as hot-spot policing. (This involves putting more police officers in known crime hot spots rather than having them patrol around randomly waiting for 911 calls). But the most fascinating explanation is that cocaine use in America has been diminishing steadily for a while for reasons that seem to have little to do with the drug war.
Wilson notes that between 1992 and 2009, the number of people admitting to cocaine or crack use fell by nearly two-thirds. In 1999, 9.8 percent of 12th-grade students said that they had tried cocaine; by 2010, that figure had fallen to 5.5 percent. Also, since casual users who regard coke as a party drug are probably less likely to commit serious crimes than heavier users who may resort to theft and violence to feed their craving, it is useful to nail down whether heavy use has been going up. Wilson reports:
A study by Jonathan Caulkins at Carnegie Mellon University found that the total demand for cocaine dropped between 1988 and 2010, with a sharp decline among both light and heavy users. This fall in demand may help explain why cocaine has become cheaper, despite intense law enforcement efforts aimed at disrupting its distribution. Illegal markets, like legal ones, cut prices when demand falls.
Most fascinating, however, is Wilson's claim that cocaine use among blacks has changed even more dramatically than it has among the population as a whole:
As Latzer points out—and his argument is confirmed by a study by Bruce D. Johnson, Andrew Golub, and Eloise Dunlap—among 13,000 people arrested in Manhattan between 1987 and 1997, a disproportionate number of whom were black, those born between 1948 and 1969 were heavily involved with crack cocaine, but those born after 1969 used little crack and instead smoked marijuana. The reason was simple: the younger African-Americans had known many people who used crack and other hard drugs and wound up in prisons, hospitals, and morgues. The risks of using marijuana were far less serious. This shift in drug use, if the New York City experience is borne out in other locations, can help explain the fall in black inner-city crime rates after the early 1990s.
So what is the moral of the story? Given that blacks started switching from crack to marijuana before a full-blown, Bush-era drug war started terrorizing Americans and killing puppies in search for drug stashes at the wrong addresses, it would suggest that the country won't go to Gomorrah in a hand basket without the benevolent intervention of its drug warriors. Individuals are fallible but they are also rational. They learn from their mistakes. And they are perfectly capable of making distinctions between hard drugs that can really screw them over and soft drugs that can open up infinite vistas in Eric Clapton's guitar riffs.