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February 9, 2024

"The 'Red' vs. 'Blue' Crime Debate and the Limits of Empirical Social Science"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Issue Brief from the Manhattan Institute authored by George Borjas and Robert VerBruggen. Here is how it gets started:

For the past two years, several think tanks on opposite sides of the political divide have waged war over whether “red” or “blue” America has a worse crime problem.  Commentators on the left have pointed out that red states have higher homicide rates than blue states, while those on the right have noted that the relationship is more nuanced and can easily flip at a more local level: red-state crime problems are often concentrated in blue cities, and red counties have lower murder rates than blue counties.

In this brief, we do two things.

First, we highlight this debate as an example of how seemingly minor research decisions — such as whether to analyze data at the state or at the local level — can drastically change results.  If we look at the county level, Democratic areas seem particularly murder-ridden; but when we look at the state level, Republican states are clearly more violent.  Casual consumers of empirical social science research often fail to appreciate all the ways in which researchers can manipulate the data to say whatever they want.

Second, we want to move the debate forward by showing how the correlation between crime and partisanship changes after adjusting for differences in social characteristics that could affect both crime rates and partisanship, such as the age, income, and racial composition of the region.  Previous analyses have sometimes noted the importance of these potential confounders, but few have addressed the problem clearly and compellingly.

The upshot is that models with control variables — in other words, models that compare states or counties with roughly similar demographic and economic characteristics — tell a much less spectacular story than those without. In fact, by adjusting for differences in basic demographic and economic characteristics, we can easily make the red–blue difference in homicide rates disappear.  Perhaps further research with more advanced and complex designs could make additional progress on the question.  However, given the sensitivity of the conclusions to how the researcher chooses to analyze the data, we suspect that such effort would be better spent studying and debating concrete policies, as opposed to figuring out which political party has the most violent constituents.

The authors of this issue brief also have this short City Journal piece headlined "More Crime Analysis, Less Crime Politics: Both sides of the debate manipulate data for their own purposes."  It starts this way:

Since crime spiked in 2020, politicians and pundits have scrambled to figure out what they think is the root problem: whether Republicans or Democrats are more to blame.

Conservatives blame soft-on-crime policies in big cities, noting that many Democratic-run cities have long suffered from high crime rates and that many such places experienced particularly large spikes over the past four years. Liberals counter that, at the state level, it’s Trump-voting states that have higher murder rates, which they largely blame on irresponsible gun laws.

In a new Manhattan Institute brief, we try to calm things down a bit — and urge those worried about crime to think about which policies work, not about whether the politicians implementing them happen to be Democrats or Republicans.

February 9, 2024 at 01:13 PM | Permalink


Liberals are idiots on this point. Violent criminals should be locked up.

Totally totally OT, but this is pretty cool: https://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2024/02/in-re-tucker-v-putin.php

Tucker Carlson is not always right, but he provokes thought.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 9, 2024 4:16:04 PM

C'mon, federalist. Take off the gloves. Liberals are idiots on _all_ points, aren't they?

Doesn't that go without saying in every single one of your posts? Name a single thing they get right. Not historically--we all know that liberals lost the plot starting with the Reform Act of 1832 in the British Parliament (when they stopped being "classical"), but today, and consistently for the past 100 years or so.

Posted by: Pabst Blue Ribbon | Feb 10, 2024 5:09:30 AM

Well for one thing PBR, have you been paying attention to Senator Kennedy's defenestration of various Biden nominees? And have you watched all the ink spilled on Section 3?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 12, 2024 12:33:54 PM


I surely have not been paying much attention to any confirmation hearings. I expect little from Biden or his nominees for any office.

And I surely have not read "all" the ink spilled on Section 3 (of the 14th Amendment, I presume you mean). I think the the argument that the President isn't an officer of the United States is thoroughly ridiculous. I'm less sure of the argument that the state should be able to ban people from the ballot. Such disabilities will be far more often applied to decent folks like Eugene V. Debs than ass clowns like Trump, because ass clowns seek power as a first resort rather than a last one, and prefer to deal with their own kind. Anyway... For quite a while in our history, ballots were hand-written by the voter--how would you have stopped someone's name from appearing on them then? (Perhaps they still are in some places in New England.) I think Trump attempted a self-coup and predict that any jury without a clandestine MAGA hat on it to hang it would convict him. I also don't think his second impeachment in the House with acquittal in the Senate constituted a criminal proceeding or placed him in criminal jeopardy.

I also think it's just fine that we still have the Reconstruction Amendments on the books. God knows we didn't get enough use out of them while the Civil War was still a memory to the living. When Rutherford B. Hayes redeployed troops from the insurrectionist South to break strikes in St. Louis and later in Albany, Buffalo, and Syracuse, that was ass-kickin' that enjoyed bipartisan consensus--an early redirection of the Republican Party away from the distressing legacy of Thaddeus Stevens and James M. Hinds (the latter an early exemplar of Sharron Angle's "Second Amendment Remedies"). Thurmond, Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan finished what President Hayes had started. It took so long only because for decades both parties were so unwaveringly racist and pro-capital. (His many virtues aside, U. S. Grant was either a dupe or completely out of his depth in dealing with tycoons.)

I'd be pleased to see Donald Trump imprisoned for his attempted self-coup. But I have to be realistic, assuming the Supreme Court doesn't help him back into office via one of the many insane contingencies Team Conservative is preparing for this fall--we should prepare for Brooks Brothers Riots, like that in Miami in 2000, to be canned and ready to go. At best I expect Trump to die in exile, perhaps in Saudi Arabia like Idi Amin, who'd be a much bigger hero to the bullshit peddlers of the northern hemisphere if only his skin had been lighter.

Posted by: Pabst Blue Ribbon | Feb 12, 2024 7:58:05 PM

federalist --

I think the answer to your question about Senator Kennedy's exposing some of the recent nominees was "no." But you have to plow to find out.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 13, 2024 2:16:00 PM

the attempted self-coup---you mean lobbying elected officials? My bad.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 13, 2024 3:33:45 PM


That would be the first 12 words of my comment, after federalist's nom de guerre. If reading and interpreting that sentence constitutes a "plowing" effort for you, then I suggest you might want to hire a clerk to do your shoveling, er, reading for you.

I'm sure the Federalist Society has some interns who will serve adequately, and moreover help you to stay on the straight and narrow. Politruks need to remain occupied.

Posted by: Pabst Blue Ribbon | Feb 14, 2024 6:21:46 AM

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