Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cities and Suburbs

Just writing down a few thoughts, nothing rigorous.  The question is, do shifts in the urban/suburban living pattern explain some of the drop in violent crime over the last few decades?

Here is what I am thinking.  At one point in time economic forces made city land desirable, and the richest people lived in the city.  Outside the city the population density dropped off sharply and people were basically poor or middle class.  Then with the advent of the railroad, electricity, the telephone, and the car, a lot of economic activity shifted to the suburbs and to smaller cities, and a lot of rich people moved to the suburbs (where land was cheap, taxes were low, the poor could be excluded, etc.).  So the pattern of living shifted from rich and working-class cities (with rural poverty) to rich and working-class suburbs (with urban poverty alongside, in some cases, a core of affluent people still living the in the city).

At this point cities didn't have much to do in economic terms.  (They were still centers of government, courts, education, etc., but there were no longer plentiful working-class jobs.)  This would, in my story, coincide with the urban crises of the 1970s through 90s.  Poor people were located in the cities and were stranded there without good jobs.

But then cities started to gain from their comparative advantage in providing goods and services for consumption.  Young people wanted to live in dense areas with lots of social opportunities, good food, good shopping, good transit, a vibrant art scene, etc.  Gentrification represents a shift of rich people from the suburbs to the cities and a shift of poor people from cities to inner-ring suburbs.  By itself, that just involves moving from one place to another and doesn't necessarily have much impact on poverty or economic opportunity.  But it could be that for a given concentration of poverty, cities are more prone to crime than suburbs.  (Not 100% sure why that would be, but maybe because in the suburbs you can maintain more physical separation between yourself and your community - not an unambiguously good thing, but maybe good for crime-prevention.)

So in other words, on top of the usual explanations (new policing tactics, lead abatement), maybe crime is falling because gentrification is reorganizing our patterns of living in a way that suppresses crime.

I'm not sure how to test this hypothesis.  If it is true, it probably bears on the debates over gentrification, but it also has different implications for different cities.  Major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York probably benefit, but smaller cities, or cities with more entrenched crime and poverty, may not be able to shift the equilibrium.  However, it may be that as New York becomes unaffordable, the growing affluent class will spill over into cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, because the amenities they provide are increasingly scarce (or rather, the supply of dense, attractive urban areas will grow very slowly).  Cities will "fill in" with affluent people and other cities will enjoy the same equilibrium shift that New York has undergone.

Alternatively, maybe the amenities people really care about (socializing, good food) will become more available in the suburbs as immigrants are priced out of cities and as the internet enables social interactions even in less dense areas.  (Already you see people like Tyler Cowen claiming that the best ethnic food in the DC area is in suburban strip malls.)

Anyway just getting my thoughts down, don't know if I will try to find data (not sure what data to look for), but fun to think about.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Terrible Choice

The New York Times reports:

The ferocity of the attacks by security forces on Islamist protesters in Cairo this week appears to have been a deliberate calculation of the military-appointed government to provoke violence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, a number of Arab and Western historians of Middle East politics said Friday.
The objective, they said in interviews, was to demonize the Islamists in the eyes of Egypt’s broader populace, validate the July 3 ouster of the Islamist president and subvert any possibility that dialogue would reintegrate the Muslim Brotherhood into Egypt’s mainstream politics.
This highlights the terrible choice that the Muslim Brotherhood faces as it struggles against Egypt's junta.  You can gather in large unarmed groups, which are then easy to slaughter.  (The soldiers can boldly murder the protesters without putting themselves in much physical danger.)  Or you can try protecting yourself, at the expense of allowing your movement to be portrayed as thuggish/dangerous/terrorist (a characterization that the Egyptian media and much of the western media will be all too happy to embrace).

I think a lot of people in the U.S. have a rosy view of this, because of our own experience with the civil rights movement, which largely succeeded through nonviolent methods.  But as terrible as the U.S. was for black people, there were powerful forces trying to protect them and the media was ready to tell enough of the truth that it would have been impossible, for instance, to suppress civil rights protests by firing on the crowds.  Tactics that worked for Gandhi and MLK won't necessarily work for the Muslim Brotherhood.

By way of example, here is a racist thug attacking a black journalist in Little Rock in 1957:

And here is a black girl walking into Little Rock Central High School:

Vicious right?  But here is what happened next:

Those are soldiers of the 101st Airborne, sent by President Eisenhower to protect the students.  The racists who wanted to harass the students were driven away at bayonet point.  (I don't want to suggest things were easy after the troops showed up - the Little Rock Nine were still subject to all kinds of harassment and abuse.  But the federal government was on their side and was ready to use violence to protect their rights, and without that the students would have had a much harder time.)

The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't have the U.S. army on its side.  It doesn't have the equivalent of a New York Times or Washington Post or Chicago Defender.  It doesn't have a massive operation by the FBI to infiltrate and destroy its persecutors.  And so those Muslim boys are dying by the hundreds and if they do anything to protect themselves they will be condemned around the world.  The Egyptian military knows this and is taking the opportunity to unleash large-scale violence with impunity.

It goes without saying that U.S. conservatives think we should back the Egyptian military:

The Brothers refused to budge or engage in political negotiations, insisting on nothing less than Morsi’s full restoration to the presidency. They wanted martyrs and, sadly, they got them — in the hundreds, though not without taking at least 43 Egyptian policemen with them.
But the military’s horrific violence yesterday does not alter the U.S.’s calculus. The Muslim Brotherhood and the military government are now at war, and the latter remains the best hope for securing American interests and, ultimately, a free Egypt. We should therefore continue our financial and matériel support for the Egyptian military and maintain as close a relationship as possible to push the government toward our objectives.
They wanted martyrs.  (I suppose the protesters at Tianenman "wanted martyrs" too.)  They are now at war with the military government.  See how this works?