Tag Archives: pandemic

Law And Order

According to Fox News and other Republican sources, America is experiencing a crime wave. Actually, we aren’t. What we are experiencing is a rise in homicides–almost entirely as a result of gun violence.

As a recent Guardian article explained: homicides were up across the US in 2020 and appeared to be primarily driven by rising gun violence. Other crimes, however, fell.

A preliminary government estimate shows a 25% single-year increase in killings in 2020. In some larger cities, the number of homicides has remained higher than usual through the early months of 2021.

While official national crime data will not be released for months, some trends are clear. The 2020 homicide increase happened across cities and towns of all sizes, from those with fewer than 10,000 residents to those with more than a million, according to preliminary FBI data.

The rise in homicides likely translated into an additional 4,000 to 5,000 people killed across the country compared with the year before, according to early estimates.

The increase in murder comes as robberies declined more than 10%, and rapes declined 14%. Overall, violent crime increased 3%. The obvious question is: why? Why is murder up while overall crime is down? And how worried should we be?

Some context is helpful: even with the rising homicide rates, Americans are safer than we have been historically.

And yet, even after an estimated 25% single-year increase in homicides, Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s, and the homicide rate across big cities is still close to half what it was a quarter century ago.

New York City saw more than 2,200 killings in a single year in 1990, compared with 468 last year, according to city data. In the bigger picture, that’s a nearly 80% decrease.

Los Angeles saw more than 1,000 homicides a year in the early 1990s, compared with fewer than 350 last year.

Furthermore, the article quotes one scholar of crime for the observation that the increases in homicide are taking place in neighborhoods where homicides have traditionally been concentrated. The incidence is not spreading out.

The pandemic has clearly contributed.

There is some evidence that national factors, including the many stresses and disruptions of the pandemic, may have played a role in the 2020 homicide increase. The uptick was “widespread,” Rosenfeld said. In an analysis of big city crime trends for the nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice, “We found very few cities that did not experience pretty significant rises in homicide during 2020,” he said.

Whatever researchers ultimately determine, it is impossible to ignore the effect of America’s gun culture and the sheer number of weapons owned by our citizens.

A preprint study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that a spike in gun purchases during the early months of the pandemic was associated with a nearly 8% increase in gun violence from March through May, or 776 additional fatal and nonfatal shooting injuries nationwide. The researchers found that states that had lower levels of violent crime pre-Covid saw a stronger connection between additional gun purchases and more gun violence.

There has been a predictable effort to attribute the rise in homicides to criticisms of police, or to unrest blamed on Black Lives Matter, but the data simply doesn’t support those accusations.

Some police officials and their allies have asserted that last summer’s big, volatile protests against police violence diverted police resources and attention away from their normal patrols, and have suggested that demoralized, angry police officers might be less proactive or effective in dealing with violent crime.

But Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who writes extensively about homicide trends, examined 60 cities and found no correlation between the number of Black Lives Matter protests, and the size of a city’s homicide increase.

Rosenfeld cautioned that any policing-focused explanation for the homicide increase needed to explain why the change would have only affected serious and deadly violence.

“Most crime is down, including most felony, serious crime,” he said. “If the de-policing argument is correct, why did it only affect an uptick in violence and not other street crime?”

At this point, the stresses of the pandemic, especially on low-income neighborhoods, appear to be a significant cause of hostility and despair and “acting out.” But the easy availability of guns clearly was–and continues to be–an enormous factor.

I’ll believe Americans seriously want to reduce violence and homicides when we get serious about gun control. But I’m not holding my breath…

 

 

From Your Mouth…

My grandmother used to have a favorite response to rosy predictions: “From your mouth to God’s ears.” In other words, “I sure hope so, but whether God is listening remains to be seen.”

That was my reaction to a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times.In a very real way, Brooks column–titled “The American Renaissance Has Begun “–  put flesh on President Biden’s frequent assertion that “America is back.”

He began the analysis by harkening back to the post-World War Two period, when West Germany and Japan emerged from widespread devastation to experience “miraculous” economic growth, while Britain, with its institutions more intact, entered a period of slow economic growth.

Brooks cited a 1982 book by Mancur Olson, which offered an explanation:

“The Rise and Decline of Nations,” Olson concluded that Germany and Japan enjoyed explosive growth precisely because their old arrangements had been disrupted. The devastation itself, and the forces of American occupation and reconstruction, dislodged the interest groups that had held back innovation. The old patterns that stifled experimentation were swept away. The disruption opened space for something new.

Brooks hypothesizes that the pandemic may have ushered in similar disruption, and he bolsters that argument with a number of data points: the 4.4 million new businesses that were started in 2020 represent a modern record.  The 38 percent of workers who took some additional training during 2020 was a substantial increase from the 14 percent who did so in 2019. U.S. start-ups raised $69 billion dollars, which was a 41 percent increase over the previous record, set in 2018. Productivity is up. Perennially low savings rates increased.

After decades in which consumption took preference over savings, Americans socked away trillions of dollars in 2020, reducing their debt burdens to lows not seen since 1980 and putting themselves in a position to spend lavishly as things open up.

Brooks says these and other data points are signs of three major shifts–growing worker power, a “rebalancing” of population between urban and suburban America, and a similar rebalancing of work and domestic life. I think the latter two predictions are “iffy”–it remains to be seen how many businesses will institutionalize remote work and how, and those decisions will affect workers’ need–and willingness–to relocate and commute.

If population dispersal does occur, our political polarization might ease; Brooks quotes a professor of urban studies who predicts such movement and as a result, forecasts a decline in the economic and cultural gaps between coastal cities and inland communities.

It remains to be seen whether these predicted population movements and changes in the culture of work will materialize, but the shift of power from employers to workers is clearly underway, and just as clearly overdue.

Power has begun shifting from employers to workers. In March, U.S. manufacturing, for example, expanded at the fastest pace in nearly four decades. Companies are desperate for new workers. Between April 2020 and March 2021, the number of unemployed people per opening plummeted to 1.2 from 5.

Workers are in the driver’s seat, for now, and they know it. The “quit rate” — the number of workers who quit their jobs because they are confident they can get a better one — is at the highest in two decades. Employers are raising wages and benefits to try to lure workers back.

This is a “rebalancing” that matters. Unions were formed originally to counter the disproportionate power of employers. Over time, in some industries, unions then became dominant–more powerful than employers. Over the past decades, however, as technology and gig work and successful corporate lobbying eviscerated union power, employers once again gained the upper hand–and a number happily exploited both their regained advantage and their workforces.

The operation of supply and demand, referenced by Brooks, is returning a measure of power to workers. (The recent Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare will also help with that “rebalancing.” Employers’ positions were substantially strengthened by America’s insistence on tying health insurance to employment –workers with pre-existing conditions were effectively precluded from quitting and losing their coverage.)

The next few years will tell the economic story. But we also need to recognize that America  won’t truly be “back,” let alone “better,” unless we repair our infrastructure–physical and social–and protect our democracy.

If there’s a God, I hope she’s listening…..

 

 

Cities

A reader recently sent me an article from Governing addressing an issue near and dear to me: are people moving out of cities in significant numbers? Has the pandemic increased those numbers?

I’d seen a couple of New York Times articles about an exodus from New York City to “healthier” outlying areas, and of course, there is an ongoing debate about the sustainability of the national population shift from small town America to the nation’s cities. The article addressed two highly pertinent questions: are lots of people really leaving cities, and why do people move anywhere?

As most readers of this blog have figured out by now, I’m a “city girl.” (Well, “girl” might be stretching things…) I’m a huge fan of urban life, and a believer in the social and intellectual benefits of density and diversity, so I was interested in an article that looked at what the evidence suggested, rather than what various theories have propounded. And the article actually started by distinguishing theory from reality

There’s an old joke about economists that I’ve always liked. A junior professor goes to his senior colleague with a brilliant new idea. The older man dismisses it. “That may be fine in practice,” he sniffs, “but it will never work in theory.”

Economists are like that, at least many of them. They don’t like to have reality intrude on their abstractions. One of the best examples has to do with mobility. Years ago, I read an article by a prominent economist downplaying the problem of a small-town factory that spews out pollution. What’s the big deal, he asked. There must be another town nearby without a soot-belching factory. The residents of the first town could just move over there. Pretty soon the polluter would get the idea.

It works in theory. But it isn’t the way most people behave. They don’t like the idea of uprooting themselves. This may be because they don’t want to leave their friends and relatives, because they cling to hometown memories and traditions, or maybe because they just don’t feel like cleaning out the garage. In any case, they don’t move. Or if they do, they don’t go far away.

The article acknowledged the predictions that have been worrying me–the economic forecasts of an “outpouring of affluent Americans from virus-plagued cities to safer rural climes.” One libertarian predicted a flood of “fresh college graduates and new parents” lighting out for Mayberry, accompanied by employees no longer tethered to corporate buildings downtown. (This rosy scenario overlooks the fact that COVID is currently ravaging the nation’s “Mayberries.”)

So what does the evidence show?

There has been an outflow from many urban neighborhoods, but it hasn’t been very large. Last June, a careful study by the Pew Research Center found that 3 percent of Americans reported moving permanently or temporarily for reasons related to the coronavirus. In November, the number was up to 5 percent. That’s not a trivial number of people, but it’s far short of a national exodus…

It’s also interesting to see where those folks are going. The largest destination of people leaving San Francisco last year was across the bay, to Oakland and surrounding Alameda County. The three next most common destinations were all in the Bay Area as well. Other targets were Denver; Portland, Oregon; and Austin, Texas–not Mayberry.

Most people who did move cited economic reasons–job loss, especially–not the pandemic.

Most cities that lost population in 2020 didn’t lose it because of people leaving. They shed population because newcomers weren’t coming. In New York City, according to a McKinsey study, the ratio of arriving workers to departing ones was down 27 percent. This, too, is only common sense. Why would you move into New York when jobs were disappearing there? Similar numbers apply to Los Angeles, Boston and Seattle.

This has the makings of a significant event. Nearly all the big cities that gained or held onto population numbers in the past decade did so because of immigrants arriving from outside the United States. If they stop coming for an extended length of time, big-city populations could drop significantly even if the mass exodus continues to be a myth.

The racist assault on immigration has had an effect on cities. As the article notes, America’s most vibrant cities have become enclaves of affluent professionals and modestly paid service workers–the bulk of whom have been immigrants. If the immigrants stop coming,  we’re likely to see a shortage of urban workers and a decline in demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. That could make central cities more attractive, and not just to immigrants– it could fuel added arrivals by young professionals. Or…??

I’m sure economists will have a theory…

We Can’t Unscramble This Egg

The COVID vaccine–actually, now two of them–is on the way. Granted, the way is filled with potholes, thanks to the incompetence of an administration lacking any ability to govern effectively, but reliable sources estimate that vaccines will be broadly available by late spring. Thanks to a new administration that actually knows what it is doing, we can anticipate a return to something approximating normalcy by late in 2021.

Historians, sociologists, political scientists and assorted pundits will spend the next few decades trying to explain how we got here. By “we” I don’t just mean the United States, and by “here” I don’t just mean the pandemic and its mismanagement, or the incomprehensible fact that in November some 70+ million voters agreed to buy whatever excrement Trump and the GOP cult insist on selling.

Eventually, we will see the reasons for–and consequences of– disastrous governing decisions made by the U.S. and Great Britain, and the growth of right-wing terror and autocracy elsewhere. One of the few things that seems fairly clear now is that substantial numbers of people around the world are reacting against the realities of modernity and globalization and fearing the loss of familiar cultures and comfortable certainties.

A lot of those people are saying, essentially, “stop the world, I want to get off.” That, of course, is like trying to unscramble eggs.

There was a particularly perceptive essay by someone named William Falk in The Week, in which he suggested that we have a choice:  we can accept the reality of our interrelationships, and appreciate and embrace the insights and values of the Enlightenment, or we can retreat into superstition and suspicion.

The vaccines are a triumph of the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and evidence—all now under assault in a new Dark Ages in which demagogues and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and distrust. Despite various attempts to claim credit, the vaccines would not exist without international cooperation. Moderna’s vaccine employs technology created by Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Kariko, and the company is run by a team of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Pfizer vaccine was created by second-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, and has been pushed past the finish line by company CEO Albert Bourla, an immigrant from Greece. The pandemic of 2020 will not be the last crisis endangering humanity. What we’ve relearned in this traumatic year is that all we hold dear is fragile, and that science, community, and empathy light the road forward.

It isn’t just the vaccines, of course. The global economy is inextricably interdependent. The threat of climate change doesn’t respect national borders–it requires a co-ordinated international response. Terrorism is a far different threat than conventional warfare, and requires international co-operation to root it out. There are multiple other examples, including most obviously COVID-19.

When the current pandemic is finally contained, the “normal” to which we return is unlikely to look like the “normal” we left. How it differs will depend upon the ability of humans to emerge from our tribal affiliations and work together. That, in turn, will depend mightily upon our ability to get a handle on the disinformation and hysteria promoted by our existing media landscape, especially the social media algorithms that incentivize its spread.

We really are at one of those tipping points that occur during human history.

We can accept the reality that we share an endangered planet inhabited by inevitably interrelated and interdependent populations, and that we need to create institutions that will allow us to save it and inhabit it peacefully, or we can give in to the forces trying to take humanity into a new Dark Ages and possible extinction. 

What we can’t do is evade the challenge and unscramble the global egg.

The Polder Model

One of my sons lives in Amsterdam, having moved there almost two years ago to accept a position with a tech firm. (No matter how often he explains what he does, I am incapable of understanding it–but as his mother, I’m impressed.) Thanks to FaceTime, we “see” each other several times a week, making the distance between us less daunting, and serving as evidence of the ways in which technology is accelerating globalism.

The pandemic, of course, is added testimony of the global and deeply interrelated nature of today’s world.

My son has generally been delighted with governance in the Netherlands, and has found their political processes to be more democratic and far more collaborative than ours. Public policies are considerably more focused on the common good. The social safety net is generous and private economic activity seems to flourish, so he was surprised by what he has seen as the Dutch government’s hesitant (and in his opinion, at least) relatively inadequate response to the Coronavirus. It led him to do some research.

When we were talking the other day, he shared the theory that emerged from that research. It involves the origins of a generally positive aspect of Dutch political culture that does, however, get in the way of immediate, decisive actions of the sort required by a pandemic.

It is “the Polder Model.”

One of the more unique aspects of the Netherlands is that the country consists in large part of polders, or land reclaimed from the sea. These areas require constant pumping and careful and continuous maintenance of the dykes. (Dutch water engineers are the best on the planet–and with climate change, increasingly in demand.) Ever since the Middle Ages, when this process of land reclamation began, people living in the same polder, including those from different societies or backgrounds, have been forced to cooperate because without unanimous agreement on shared responsibility for maintenance of the dykes and pumping stations, the polders would flood.

According to historians, even when different cities in the same polder were at war, they still  cooperated to prevent the polder from flooding. This long history has deeply influenced the country’s political culture; it has taught the Dutch to set aside differences for a greater purpose, and to work across differences for the common good.

The Netherlands has benefited enormously from this aspect of the country’s political culture. But working across differences to achieve consensus is necessarily a slower process than a decree from an official-in-charge, or an autocrat. My son’s theory is that it has slowed the Dutch response to the pandemic.

Obviously, this theory is conjecture, although there is data to support it and it certainly seems reasonable. Moreover, it serves as yet another example of the multitude of ways in which political cultures evolve and influence governance and elections.

How much of the current dysfunction of the United States is an outgrowth of our own, very different, history? What percentage of current racial attitudes and animosities is attributable to our slaveholding past? How much rabid individualism can be traced to the sheer size of the country, where for generations, people who didn’t “fit in” could go West, acquire land and ignore the constraints and conventions of more settled regions? What about the often-mystifying differences between Canadian and U.S. cultures that share so much? Do they stem–at least in part– from the need of Canadians to band together to help their neighbors in a much colder environment?

Given the reality of global interdependence, the most pressing question is: what can we learn–or, ideally, import– from the polder model?