The Optimist

There Will Not Be Blood

Across the world, crime is down -- and in a big way. Are violent movies to thank for less real blood and gore?

For all the grim news about the economy and jobs over the last few years, one indicator of the quality of life in the United States has stubbornly continued to improve. The latest Federal Bureau of Investigation data suggests crime rates went on falling through the first half of 2011, recession be damned. In 1991, the overall national violent crime rate reported by the FBI was 758 cases per 100,000 inhabitants; by 2010, that had dropped to 404 per 100,000. The murder and "nonnegligent homicide" rate dropped by more than half over the same period. You wouldn't know it from watching television -- beyond the continuing conviction that "if it bleeds it leads" on local news, the number of violent acts on prime-time TV shows climbs ever-upward. But that rise in fake violence may have played some role in the real-life trend heading squarely the other way.

The United States isn't alone in a trend towards people just getting along better -- it's a global phenomenon. In 2001, homicide killed more than twice the number of people worldwide who died in wars (an estimated 557,000 people versus total war deaths of around 208,000). But just as in the United States, violent crime rates have been falling across a large part of the planet. The data is patchy, but in 2002, about 332,000 homicides from 94 countries around the globe were reported to the United Nations. By 2008, that had dropped to 289,000. And between those years, the homicide rate fell in 68 reporting countries and increased in only 26.

Look at the really long-term picture and violent crime rates are way down. Institute of Criminology professor Manuel Eisner reaches all the way back to the 13th century to report that typical homicide rates in Europe dropped from about 32 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages down to 1.4 per 100,000 in the 20th century. (Sadly, of course, for all of their decline, U.S. rates are still more than three times that -- a rate above what Eisner suggests is the Western average for the 1700s.)

The global picture of the last few years, along with the historical picture covering the West over the last 800 years, both suggest that there isn't just a constant proportion of bad people out there who will commit a crime unless you lock them up before they do it. And there's a lot more evidence that whatever is behind declining violence it isn't the number behind bars -- or, indeed, the length of sentencing or the number of cops on the street.

It is true that a Pew Center report suggests that as U.S. crime rates were declining, the national prison population increased from 585,000 to 1.6 million between 1987 and 2007. But the rest of the world hasn't followed the United States down the path towards mass incarceration, and yet has still seen declining violence. The U.N. crime trends survey suggests that homicides fell in Britain by 29 percent between 2003 and 2008 alone, for example. And yet the incarceration rate in Britain was one-fifth as high as the United States, according to the Pew report. Again, within the United States, one of the places with the most dramatic drops in violent crime is New York City -- the homicide rate is 80 percent down from 1990. But while the rest of the country was locking up ever more people, New York City's incarceration rate fell by 28 percent over the last two decades.

What about harsh punishment? Statistics from MIT psychologist Stephen Pinker's new book on global trends in violence show the United States used to execute more than 100 times the amount of people in the 1600s as it does today -- and yet violence rates then were far higher than today. Think Clint Eastwood's western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Despite all of the authorized hangings, there was still a lot of unofficial shooting. More broadly, the number of countries using the death penalty has declined worldwide -- along with violent crime rates.

In a survey asking "What Do Economists Know About Crime" for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Angela Dills, Jeffrey Miron, and Garrett Summers conclude "economists know little." They suggest that it isn't just incarceration or the death penalty -- any link between lower crime and the number of police, higher arrest rates, and the stock of guns (whether more or less of them) is weak. Studies from Latin America have echoed that longer sentences are not linked to lower crime rates -- although a higher probability of being caught may be related to less violence in the region.

At the same time, for those convinced that crime is a product of poverty and inequality, the recent trends for New York and the nation as a whole also pose a challenge: For all the growing estates of the plutocrats in Wall Street, neither growing inequality nor rising unemployment has reversed the downward path of crime. Similarly, Latin American evidence suggests that while rising inequality might be linked to increased violence in the region, average incomes are not -- richer countries are no safer than poorer ones, all else equal.

What about drugs, then? Interestingly, the NBER survey notes that drug enforcement might increase crime. The authors suggest that "If government forces a market underground, participants substitute violence for other dispute-resolution mechanisms," -- i.e., if they can't go to court to settle their dispute over who gets which street corner, rival drug gangs will shoot each other instead.

New York's experience suggests that it is possible to reduce the violence associated with drugs by taking those disputes off of the street. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that one important factor behind the decline in homicide in New York was shutting down open-air drug markets. It didn't slow sales, but it did eliminate 90 percent of drug-related killings over turf conflicts. Echoing the recent pattern in New York City, Eisner suggests that the long-term historical decline in Western homicide rates as a whole is associated with "a drop in male-to-male conflicts in public space."

Over the sweep of centuries, Eisner suggests that cultural change -- from "knightly warrior societies" to "pacified court societies" -- is an important factor. So are we just getting more civilized, then? Indeed, the decline in violence coincides with global evidence of converging attitudes towards greater toleration. For example, the proportion of people worldwide who say they wouldn't want to have a neighbor of a different religion dropped from 67 percent to 48 percent between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s. Turn on the television and you'd be sure to think that political dialogue is getting more rancid by day. And it might be, but people's attitudes are actually becoming more pacific and tolerant.

Cultural factors are important, then. But before you rush to deride the Federal Communications Commission and the Supreme Court for their lackadaisical attitude to violence on television, note that the trend towards more -- and more graphic -- violence on TV doesn't quite sync with the pattern of crime rates. A culture of violence and violence in popular culture are two very different things. In fact, one more element of cultural change that may behind declining violence is the substitution of fantasy violence for the real thing. French historian Robert Muchembeld argues in his book, History of Violence, that crime fiction and novels about war have given young men a way to indulge in violent fantasies without actually going out and stabbing someone. Or, over the last few years, they could stab someone playing Grand Theft Auto rather than stab someone while actually committing grand theft auto. This is the blood-and-gore version of the argument that that more pornography leads to lower sexual violence.

There might be something to it. While exposing kids to the latest cadaver on CSI -- or to Jack Bauer's lessons in successful torture on 24 -- is probably a bad idea, watching an action movie might in fact reduce violence among adults. A recent study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics suggests that violent crime rates actually dropped when a blood-splattered blockbuster was in the cinema in the United States. The authors Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna looked at data from 1995 to 2004 and concluded that violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend in the United States.

Perhaps humanity will never completely abandon its lust for blood. But it appears that lust can in fact be sated using fake blood wielded by Hollywood special-effects technicians. And outside the theater, people respond to behavioral cues -- if their friends don't stab people to win an argument, they are less likely to do it themselves. They also respond to institutional cues -- if they can use the courts to settle a dispute or address a wrong, they're less likely to resort to blood feuds. All of which suggests the hope that, in years to come, there will be a lot more deaths on TV and movie screens than in the real world.

Greg Williams/Eon Productions via Getty Images

The Optimist

Outsource Your Kid

Trying to save money on a university and still get a good education? Forget the local community college -- send your kid to school overseas.

It's that time of the year again: high-school seniors around the country are anxiously awaiting the news that will change their lives -- early admission to the university of their choice. But while junior checks his email and the school's website 15 times an hour, parents are checking their savings account statements. As the recession bites into American families' incomes and makes the job search for recent graduates that much trickier, an increasing number of people are beginning to question the cost of attending colleges and universities in the United States.

And consider that cost: Colorado College, for example, has an annual tuition of $39,900 -- and once room, board, and supplies are factored in, that rises to a whopping $52,000 for non-Colorado based students.  You have to pay top dollar for a top-ranked school, of course: Colorado College is No. 1 in the nation for being "marijuana friendly," according to test-prep agency Princeton Review.

While Colorado College's fees are at the upper end, it is hardly unique. The College Board suggests that more than two-fifths of full-time undergraduate college students attend a college that charges less than $9,000 per year for tuition and fees -- but, at the other end, more than a quarter are in schools charging $36,000 or more. Some of those students get a scholarship, many get federal aid -- but plenty don't, or don't get enough.  Across the United States, college seniors who used loans to help fund their education owed an average of $25,250 upon graduation in 2010. So, perhaps it is not surprising that a Pew Research Center study suggests that 57 percent of Americans think college is of only fair or poor value for the money. And three quarters argue that college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

There is a simple answer to such concerns: Shop around for a better deal. If junior is willing to travel a little bit further -- to colleges overseas -- the world offers some incredible bargains for quality tertiary education, with the option of free language and culture immersion thrown in. Tuition costs for foreign students at some of the best universities in Asia, Europe, and Africa can be as low as $4,000, well below half the median cost of college in the United States.

Of course, just because a Kia is cheaper than a Lexus doesn't mean it's necessarily better value. What matters is the cost to quality equation. But before assuming that U.S. college education must be of unbeatable excellence, it is worth mulling over a 2006 assessment of adult literacy which found that fewer than a third of four-year U.S. college graduates were fully capable of tasks like comparing viewpoints in two editorials; interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items.

Global university rankings, like those from Shanghai University, Britain's Times Higher Education Supplement, and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), are hardly free of controversy. And they are rarely centered on the student experience -- instead, taking into account things like the number of Nobel prizes awarded to faculty or how many citations the average professor gets in journals that are read by a global readership of 43 (on a good day).  Nonetheless, they provide one broad measure of university quality around the globe.  And the rankings do suggest the United States remains top dog in terms of world-beating universities. Seven out of the top ten on the Times ranking are American schools, for example. All three rankings have at least two British universities among the top ten, however, and the QS ranking helpfully reports that these universities charge around $22,000 in annual tuition to foreign students -- compared to domestic fees of around $38,000 for the top U.S. schools.

That said, 99 percent of U.S. college applicants don't have a great shot at Harvard and MIT, or have little hope of spending three years shivering in the windswept fens of Cambridge or the fog-bound damp of Oxford. But the good news for prospective students and parents is that the opportunities for bargains get better as you go down the rankings: Canada's McGill University is ahead of America's Duke University, for example, and charges about half the fees. And the Shanghai top 500 includes about 37 universities from low- and middle-income economies. Institutions like the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and Fudan University in China both rank above renowned U.S. establishments like George Washington University in Washington, D.C. or Notre Dame in Indiana. For the cost-conscious consumer of tertiary education, this high quality comes at truly bargain basement price.

South Africa's University of Cape Town beats out Georgetown University on the QS rankings. But Georgetown's fees are $40,000-plus, compared to an upper end of $8,000 for foreign students attending Cape Town. And only one of the two comes with quality local wine and views of Table Mountain. Or what about the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi -- ranked a little above Notre Dame in the QS rankings, but with annual fees somewhere between a fifth and a seventh of the price? Again, on the same rankings, the American University of Beirut beats out Brandeis -- for one-fifth the price.

Want to combine a quality education with language immersion? Peking University -- No. 49 on the Times criteria, above Penn State -- charges between $4,000 and $6,000 in tuition a year. For those wanting to brush up their Spanish, the Catholic University of Chile ranks considerably above Wake Forest, but the fees are 80 percent lower.

But junior won't just learn language there. The even-better news is that many developing country universities score better on the teaching environment than they do on overall rankings. For example, the Times scores suggests that Peking University's ranking on teaching is better than all but 15 of the 49 universities above it on the list. That may be why a growing number of foreign students are flocking to universities in middle income countries. In 2009, three developing economies -- Russia, China, and South Africa -- attracted nearly 250,000 overseas students between them, according to the OECD.

So, American high-school kids would both pad their resumes and do their parents a favor by considering schools abroad instead of lower-ranked U.S. options. They would also do the United States a favor, because the country's tertiary education system is looking increasingly isolated in a globalizing world. The OECD suggests that the number of students enrolled in college outside their country of citizenship worldwide climbed from 2.1 million to over 3.5 million between 2000 and 2009. But U.S. undergraduates accounted for only 0.4 percent of that global total. The Institute for International Education can only find evidence of 12,425 U.S. students enrolled in overseas undergraduate degree programs (almost half of them in Britain). Compared to an overall U.S. tertiary student body of around 20 million, that's about 0.06 percent.

Meanwhile, when it comes to importing scholars, the OECD suggests that, in terms of absolute numbers, the United States still leads the world in attracting foreign students. In 2009, U.S. universities took in 18 percent of the global total of study abroad candidates, but that had dropped from 23 percent in 2000, and left U.S. colleges and universities as a whole with less than two-thirds the OECD average of foreign student enrollment.

That's bad news for America: not least, a limited number of people who have spent time living abroad helps account for the country's dire lack of polyglots. Only about 14 percent of Americans claim they can speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation -- a surprisingly low number considering that 16 percent of the country reports being of Hispanic or Latino origin. A little over 4 percent can have a chat in French, and a little less than 3 percent German -- and if we move onto Mandarin or Urdu, we're talking fractions of a percent. As well as being a potential national security issue, a denuded flow of students in and out of the United States reduces the country's ability to trade, invest, and exchange technology internationally.

All of which suggests the government ought to be helping the more intrepid American high school graduates enroll in college abroad. Why not change the requirements for institutional participation in federal student aid programs to allow foreign schools to provide support to U.S. student tuition and living costs? Or expand study abroad programs like the Gilman Scholarship to cover full degree programs overseas? Or perhaps extend Fulbright scholarships to cover undergraduates? Or, perhaps even more effective: advertise the fact that, in most of the rest of the world, the legal drinking age is 18.