"The level of violence should be understood primarily as a function of the extent to which state capacity is exerted to stop it. Violence, that is, is a policy choice."

I endorse many of your proposals -- collect more data, speed up the court system, prioritize spending in cities, etc. But the quotation and the framing reek of mid-60s hubris. E.g.:

"The level of illegal drug use should be understood primarily as a function of the extent to which state capacity is exerted to stop it. Drug use, that is, is a policy choice."

"The level of communist influence in Indochina should be understood primarily as a function of the extent to which state capacity is exerted to stop it. Letting Hanoi win, that is, is a policy choice."

This attitude that we can simply apply "state power" in ever-increasing quantities in order to win a War On X has proven to be a bad guide to policy in the past.

At the very least, policy should be guided by the understanding that "as a function" will mean "as a linear function" only for the easiest parts of the curve, and may mean "as a logarithmic function" or even "as an asymptotic function" for most of the curve. Reducing violence by a third (e.g.) may be a "policy choice" that requires non-infinite resources; eliminating violence is probably not one.

I'm asking for more incrementalism in the approach and the rhetoric -- at least a little bit more.

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I appreciate the meta-discourse of this article: A liberal writer gives a conservative writer a platform, and the conservative writer tries to persuade a (presumably) left-leaning audience of his policy agenda, using both data and appeals to liberal concerns (e.g., Black people are disproportionately the victims of crime).

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Personally, I am horrified that the rate of male crime is so much higher than that of females. The cause is obviously poverty. To remedy this, males should be given free money to reduce the male poverty rate, which will then bring the male crime rate down.

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Speeding up courts isn’t technocratically difficult: the fix is hiring more judges and prosecutors. In 2023, Georgia budgeted $106 million of state funds for prosecutors and $85 million for superior court judges, who hear both felonies and civil cases. The combined figure is roughly one-seventh of the $1.33 billion budgeted for prisons. (Localities supplement prosecutorial and judicial salaries and also run jails).

It is common for 160 felony cases to be on a single judge’s trial calendar. This creates tremendous pressure to induce guilty pleas, meaning people who plead guilty to mid grade felonies are treated pretty leniently and most folks who are convicted at trial, even

of a minor offense, get harsh sentences. It also means many cases take two years or more to come up for trial. Georgia could expand the number of judges and prosecutors by 30% for 4 to 5% of the Department of Corrections budget. That would be a far better deterrent to crime than mindlessly long sentences.

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I agree with the thesis of the piece, broadly speaking. But I am curious about which taxes Lehman would suggest we raise (or which other programs we cut) to pay for the proposals?

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I endorse these ideas. You get what you pay for. And if Americans want more crime, a pretty good way to do it is to spend less money on crime prevention.

Relatedly, as I understand it, the country enjoyed something of a second order benefit in the 30-odd years or so after 1990: police budgets, policing numbers (and indeed prison numbers) were continuing to expand for many years even as crime was coming down. So the ratio of "law enforcement resources to level of crime" grew ever-more favorable for public safety. In essence, we tended to enjoy increasingly well-staffed and well-resourced police departments even as their workload was declining. Which only made law enforcement more effective (this dynamic allows the luxury of better *prioritization* of law enforcement resources, too).

One other thought: of the various things we should spend more money on, I'll put in a word for soil remediation to be included among them. I realize this is a somewhat controversial topic. But I believe the bang for buck factor is pretty impressive, though results take a while to show up.



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Apr 24, 2023·edited Apr 24, 2023

I feel like an under appreciated low-hanging fruit on policing is that you could spend a lot of money explicitly NOT on sworn officers that would have the de facto result of putting more sworn officers on the street. Stuff like 1) mental health first responders, 2) administrative staff to keep officers from working desk jobs, and 3) automated enforcement, like speeding / red light cameras would all involve spending money in ways that lots of progressives would find palatable while still increasing law enforcement street presence. And although they are sworn officers, I tend to think that detectives would fall into this category in a lot of places.

Of course, good luck with all that. The whole reason that law enforcement budgets fell was the wave of budget-cutting fervor associated with the Great Recession and the subsequent Tea Party political wave of 2010. The current debt-limit fight suggests to me that those political imperatives on the right haven't changed much, and the politics on the left have gotten harder today than they were in 2008 because of the way in which not just bad policing, but police department culture, has taken on a much more explicit ideological / cultural valence to the right. That's not a good thing, and I wish that police officers / departments themselves could see that, but it's A Thing.

EDIT: fixed the numbering

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All perfectly sensible. Hence I expect skepticism, outrage, RESISTANCE, from both sides of the aisle. Even in this comments section you can start seeing this dynamic.

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Apr 24, 2023·edited Apr 24, 2023

So there's a lot of milquetoast, obviously correct stuff in here because the fundamental reality is that law enforcement has become increasingly ineffectual. While Charles gestures towards the need to do smarter law enforcement rather than just harsher, when you're also dropping positively framed references to "tough on crime" politics and the 94 crime bill it's pretty obvious that you're less concerned with effectual enforcement than you purport to be.

The fundamental problem is one of the tail wagging the dog. "Public Safety" is a positive externality of law enforcement, not the purpose. The purpose of law enforcement is investigating and successfully prosecuting crime. When you get the relationship backwards things break down. Simply throwing resources at "public safety" seriously undermines actual law enforcement. The metric that matters is clearance rates. Effectively improve clearance rates, and public safety follows. Decide to just do public safety pre-crime instead and the harm to justice perpetuates a sort of escalating, whack-a-mole, road to ever more oppressive and totalitarian solutions.

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One question that is sometimes raised is if spending directly on public safety is more or less effective than indirect poverty reduction or targeted help for would be criminals. Do you have any insight/data on these type of trade offs?

A major frustration that I personally have with the decentralized nature of things in the US is that we seem to do poorly at utilizing our mini-experiments to proliferate best practices across the country. Surely at least some of those 18,000 departments are doing something well and that others could learn from. Not everything is translatable and scalable but some things are. Is this something that is being done and we might just not hear able it as relative normies or are there ways you thing we could be systematizing this?

A minor editing quibble. When adding a stat like "Among the countries of the OECD for which I could find data, America has the fourth-highest homicide rate and the fifth-highest serious assault and rape rates." it would be helpful to know how many countries there are in OECD for those of us that don't know these things. (38 it seems)

Also the color choices on that first chart are a bit baffling.

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I could have wished the author discussed the role of changes in prosecutorial policy. If part of the problem is that many crimes are not prosecuted, or are prosecuted very leniently, then increases in police funding will have much less impact than they could have.

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Public Service Loan Forgiveness should be granted for 5, not 10, years of service. Many more doctors and lawyers would take lower-paid or otherwise harder (rural hospitals etc) jobs for 5 years to get their loans forgiven and it would make a real difference in recruitment for these key positions.

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I strongly disagree with using three different shades of blue on the line graph.

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This post seems well-thought out and has some good charts. But how come every day I have to see and hear 38 year old graduate students saying things like "there's literally no empirical evidence that the police prevent crime!" or "there's no link between punishment and determent!" or whatever. And then they get quoted in the paper.

There seems to be a real disagreement about the basics of this whole thing.

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This statement made me stop and ponder:

"Violence, that is, is a policy choice."

Now . . . is it? This touches on a first order question: how much are complicated, often deep seated social phenomena subject to management through policy? What's the most benefit we can reasonably expect from policy? When can we really know which policies may work best?

Okay, take crime. It's arguable that the most effective policy we've had in decades is lead abatement. Obviously, there's not a consensus on this, but let's stipulate that this is indeed true for sake of argument. Back when lead abatement was being discussed and implemented, who was arguing that not only is a major reason to do so crime prevention in the coming decades, but that this would be the best strategy for doing so? Without googling, I'll say . . . no one.

The world's complicated! Things are so interweaved that you can't disentangle causality and pick out the right thread to follow to the glorious sunlit uplands.

Clearly, the link between policy and desired outcomes is more straightforward in certain cases. Old people don't have enough money, so let's create Social Security and give them money. We want to get to the moon, so let's get together a bunch of engineers and give them money to develop rockets that can go to the moon.

But others are a lot harder and can't be solved even with the best of, say, social science research. The studies are usually too small and give us no sense what can or can't scale. Instead, we have to be satisfied with muddling through (or, bore through some hard boards) and be either/both modest in our direct policy goals and greatly ambitious in our largest ones. By which I mean, don't think that you can design policies that will solve some specific hard problem, like crime, but instead focus on pursuing the biggest policy goals by aspiring to building on a productive economy through smart, modest management and just doing things that are obviously good, like funding R&D and hoping that will keep your economy vibrant through the years.

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Great article! Another impact, which is hard to calculate due to the fragmentation of police but is very real, is that an increasing percentage of police funds have been directed to internal auditing, investigations, and accountability. This is not necessarily bad as, if those institutions fulfil their purpose, they make agencies better over time. That said, they can also grow fairly large in size in some jurisdictions and have been growing relative to general police funding. Thus, they consume a larger share of a shrinking budgetary pie. Again, not bad, but it further crowds out funding for crime prevention work.

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