Mitch McConnell was ridiculed this week for seeming to take credit for some positive numbers about the American economy. “After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope,” the new Senate majority leader said as he addressed colleagues. “The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”
Politifact treated the obvious political spin with complete seriousness, rating McConnell’s statement “false.” The fact-checking website scolded, “it’s worth remembering that correlation does not equal causation,” which is the kind of sentiment that keeps Politifact from being as popular and as fun to work for as, say, Politico.
McConnell’s mischievous statement may not pass scrutiny by economists, but it’s perfectly logical within mainstream political journalism, which tries to assign credit or blame for a complex situation to a single actor. President Obama has been getting outsized blame or credit for the economy ever since he became president (some self-fulfilling stories merely pass on the analysis that voters like to blame or credit the president). McConnell is smart to plant the opposing idea that the economy is responding to Republican promises of fewer regulations and lower government spending, even if it’s extremely difficult to prove that anticipation (let alone correlation) leads to causation. Just as an anti-depressant medication takes a long time to change behavior, economic policy generally has a delayed reaction, but journalists must have a hook for the latest consumer spending and unemployment data, and that hook often means assigning a political winner.
While national leaders try to take the credit for good economic news, local police departments want huzzahs for the two-decade drop in crime rates across the U.S., even though the causes of that drop are very much in dispute. In New York, that means a defense of the “broken windows” strategy of policing, which blossomed during the administration of Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his first police commissioner, Bill Bratton (now back in the position under Mayor Bill de Blasio). It includes a crackdown on petty crimes and “quality of life” violations like excessive noise and graffiti. But the NYPD began the year with an informal work slowdown, almost completely ending summonses for traffic violations and tickets for low-level crimes like public drinking, for what may be pique over de Blasio’s tacit support for protests against aggressive policing. (A stronger bargaining position in contract negotiations with the city may be another motive.)
This slowdown may have backfired, thanks to stories with plenty of data about the sharp decrease in police activity but no evidence of a corresponding rise in crime. There may be unrelated reasons for the lack of a crime spree (weather? that growing economy?), and there may be a lag time before broken windows proliferate and crime takes off, but the numbers aren’t helping the NYPD’s case. Ride the data tiger too long, and it may turn around to bite you.
Worse, the Atlantic’s Sarah Goodyear is now reporting on a study suggesting that the famous drop in New York City crime has been exaggerated by data manipulation, such as reclassifying crimes as lesser offenses. (Fans of the TV series "The Wire" know this as “juking the stats.”) Goodyear cites “Police Manipulations of Crime Reporting: Insiders’ Revelations”:
The study quotes one respondent, who retired in 2005, as saying, “A [commanding officer] may ‘suggest’ that a burglary complaint was a criminal trespass.” Another wrote, “In some cases, larcenies became ‘lost property’ and values were skewed so they didn’t become grand larcenies. Also complainants were told they must go to the stationhouse or to the precinct of record to report a crime.”
The NYPD risks discrediting not only the broken-windows strategy, but the larger idea of fighting crime with data analysis (through the Compstat program, defended here by City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald). This is unfortunate, because “broken windows” doesn’t have to be the sole or even the main reason for the crime drop to be valuable. The problem is that we’ve accepted too narrow a definition of broken windows.
The idea behind the strategy, backed up by studies of human behavior, is that people are more likely to engage in lawlessness in neighborhoods that already seem to have deteriorated. This can mean aggressive panhandling and public drinking, but it also means trash left on the street, non-functioning streetlights, rickety playground equipment and the absence of snowplows. Because these problems aren’t the responsibility of a single department like the police, and don’t really require name-brand innovations like those of the Giuliani administration, they get overlooked. And because an environment respectful of its residents is not as easily measured as arrests and tickets, it doesn’t make headlines.
We spend a lot of time arguing over who should get credit for numbers that don’t even tell a complete story—such as unemployment figures that simply erase people who have given up looking for work. Similarly, crime rates and arrest numbers don’t tell us everything about who feels safe in a city. But bragging rights are valuable political tools, so expect a blizzard of numbers while we try to reach a consensus on what we expect from our police departments.