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A Funny Definition of “Unusual”

January 10, 2011

As horrible as what happened this weekend is, the fact of the matter is that political assassinations are extremely rare and it’s simply not the case that the country faces some kind of systematic assassination problem. What’s we do have in the United States is an unusually high level of violent crime across the board, but pulling police resources off their day-to-day work and onto personal security for politicians is going to make that worse.

Matt Yglesias

I am interested to find out what Matt Yglesias means by the word “unusual,” or “high” for that matter. In 1992, roughly 1.93 million violent crimes occurred among 252 million Americans. In 2009, roughly 1.32 violent crimes occurred among 307 million Americans—the lowest total since 1984, when the population was 30% less than it was today.

Matt Yglesias falls prey to the exact availability bias he fears will cause Americans to overreact to the assassination attempt this weekend. But despite anecdotal, “No Country For Old Men”-esque nostalgia for an America where you didn’t have to lock the doors, America is a far safer place across the board than it has been for decades, the culmination of a trend that has continued since the beginning of the Clinton Administration.  So color me unimpressed with any arguments that adding personal security to a few skittish representatives will do anything to stem this tide.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2011 10:27 am

    I agree with the thrust of your argument, but I am a little puzzled as to why you would not compare America to the rest of the world (or at least the rest of the developed world) in deciding if the level of violence is unusually high. Perhaps the answer comes out the same way, but that seems to be the more relevant measure.

    • January 12, 2011 10:09 pm

      Out of a sense of intellectual honesty, I will admit that I may not have considered that angle. The reason being that “unusually high” in the following context” affecting the levels of police available will make the crime problem in this country worse, and contrasting it with a lack of a “systematic assassination problem” implies to me the idea that America does have a systematic violence problem, only being stemmed by police activity preventing crime bursting through at the seams. In reality, the overall trend suggests that neither are the case. America’s violence problem is being systematically solved, and there is no clear evidence that police levels across the country have had a significant effect on that trend in either direction. To refer to the problem as getting worse, when the overall trend has been overwhelmingly positive, betrays to me the knowledge of basic facts about crime in the country.

      It’s possible I jumped the gun on my interpretation of this paragraph—you aren’t the only one who has pointed this out—but considering the facts presented here, the language used is at least strange.

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