There are so many news reports now on rampant crime in major cities that, at this point, you can’t be blamed if your eyes glaze over when you see them. There are only so many clips of thugs shoplifting, doing “street takeovers,” or shooting at cops that you can watch. At some point, even though it’s horrible, you get numb to it. But one recent report from CNN on property crime in San Francisco stands out. We highlighted part of this clip a couple of weeks ago on the show, but here it is in full context:
This Walgreens is supposedly hit by shoplifters more than any other Walgreens in the United States. People are walking in and out with merchandise at will. Shoplifters robbed the store three times while CNN was inside. As I said, you have seen portions of that clip when it went viral several weeks ago. But we never played the end of that segment. Here it is:
First, CNN trots out a city supervisor to inform you that the causes of all this shoplifting are “systemic.” It’s sort of like racism in that way. He’s implying there’s no way to solve it. But of course you should pay a lot of consultants and government agencies a ton of money to try to solve it anyway. That’s what every bureaucrat means when they talk about “systemic” problems.
Then, the CNN reporter comes back. She says she’s providing some “important context.” What is that context? She says property crime in San Francisco is “lower” than before the pandemic. In other words, as bad as the footage you just saw might look, overall, the city is doing fine. The ice cream sandwiches might be locked away with chains, and people are so brazen about stealing that they’re doing it in front of news cameras. Still, the city is on the right trajectory. Everything is fine. Nothing to see here. That’s the message.
In the world of statistics, they have a few terms for this. One of them is “non-response bias.” Another is “measurement bias.” If you’re looking at a chart of reported property crimes, and it goes up and up until suddenly it goes down, then a couple of things are possible. The first possibility — the one CNN implies is happening — is that people are committing fewer property crimes. Somehow the criminals have decided on their own to stop doing crime, even though they know they can easily get away with it. They’ve decided to become law abiding citizens anyway. Their hearts have all grown three sizes, like the Grinch in Whoville. The other possibility is that people have simply stopped reporting property crimes because they know the police and the D.A. won’t do anything about them.
Could that be happening in San Francisco? Despite the city’s property crime “statistics,” is it possible that property crime is increasing? Dick’s Sporting Goods just provided another data point to help us answer that question. Dick’s has locations all over the country. They just announced that property theft is costing them so much money that they’re now laying off employees. The company says that profits dropped 23% last quarter — a staggering amount — and they blame much of it on rampant shoplifting.
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When you hear that property crime is going down, and then you see stories like this, you have to wonder whether the statistics give you an accurate picture. Especially when Dick’s is far from the only chain that has had to shut down locations and lay off employees because they keep losing so much merchandise to theft. It’s like when influenza cases went to zero during COVID. Is that because, as the experts said, influenza simply stopped spreading during the pandemic? That’s the comforting explanation, so it mainly went unchallenged. Most statistics from the government are like this. They’re technically correct but wildly misleading.
But one government statistic is very tough to fudge, no matter how hard politicians try. It’s the murder rate. The government can lie and say that shoplifting is down. But it’s challenging for them to lie about murders because murders leave dead bodies. People talk about them. Coroners have to be dispatched to the scene, and so on. Between 2019 and 2020, the homicide rate in the United States increased by more than it did at any point in modern history. It went up by 30%. The following year, it increased again. Some of the country’s most prominent tourist destinations have become too dangerous for many people to visit. Last year, for example, New Orleans became the murder capital of the United States, recording 52 homicides per 100,000 residents.
Browse news reports on the violent crime wave in this country, and invariably, you’ll hear the same excuses. They’ll tell you COVID is responsible for the murder rate. They’ll do what that San Francisco city supervisor did and blame “systemic” issues with policing. What they won’t do is tell you that, actually, a real and immediate solution to crime is available.
In El Salvador, under the leadership of Nayib Bukele, they’ve figured out the solution. In 2018 — the year before Bukele took office — El Salvador posted a murder rate of 51 per 100,000 people. By 2022, the murder rate in El Salvador had fallen to 7.8 per 100,000 people. This chart shows the magnitude of the decline. The murder rate was decreasing before Bukele took over, but he took it to an unprecedented low level:
This is a homicide rate that’s lower than what you’ll find in several major American cities. These are not cooked numbers. You know that because Nayib Bukele is overwhelmingly popular in El Salvador. People know that murders are down. They know that they are safer in their communities. They don’t need the government to tell them about it.
El Salvador accomplished this massive reduction in homicides, if you can believe it, by doing something radical. They decided to start punishing criminals. Specifically, Bukele implemented something called the “Territorial Control Plan.” Phase one of that plan involved flooding high-crime areas with heavily armed police forces. Many criminals with gang affiliations — often indicated by their tattoos — went to prison. Officials paraded them before the cameras in a humiliation ritual. This has been an integral part of El Salvador’s strategy for years. Just a few months ago, Bukele uploaded this video, which shows gang members in one of the super-prisons he’s constructed to house them:
Hoy en la madrugada, en un solo operativo, trasladamos a los primeros 2,000 pandilleros al Centro de Confinamiento del Terrorismo (CECOT).
Esta será su nueva casa, donde vivirán por décadas, mezclados, sin poder hacerle más daño a la población.
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) February 24, 2023
El Salvador’s government has not relented in the past few years. In fact, this summer, El Salvador’s Congress approved new rules allowing the trial of up to 900 gang members simultaneously to expedite the otherwise slow-moving judicial process.
In some publications, including the National Review and various Left-wing outlets, you’ll find alternative explanations for how Bukele lowered the murder rate so quickly. One popular theory is that all these harsh measures aren’t reducing crime. Instead, the theory goes, Bukele struck a secret deal with the gangs that convinced them to stop committing crimes. There’s some truth to that. Bukele did, indeed, try to negotiate a truce with MS-13 and other gangs. But as CNN reported last year, citing an expert in Central American affairs, “There is some consensus among security watchers that Bukele’s truce with the gangs fell apart ‘in late March (2022) which prompted the MS-16 to do the killing spree to pressure the government to give concessions,’ said Breda”
So, Bukele’s latest crackdown followed the breakdown in negotiations. And still, violent crime remains low. The crackdown has saved lives. Other Central American leaders are now looking to model El Salvador’s approach. There’s no question about any of this.
The only remaining question is whether saving these lives, and restoring order to society, and making communities livable again, is worth making a few sacrifices. Most notably, is it worth sacrificing some of what we in the modern western world consider to be the “humane” standards for imprisonment?
In response to that question, the media has answered unanimously in the negative. The Sun, for example, just published a lengthy piece lamenting the conditions in El Salvador’s prisons. Inmates are crammed together like “sardines,” the Sun says. “In each 100 square-meter cell, around 75 crammed inmates sleep on metal cabins and are forced to share just two toilets and two sinks.” Several other outlets have run similar stories in recent days. Here’s the BBC for example:
So this prison does not live up to the standards of the Red Cross, or the UN, or any western human rights watchdog group. It’s very, very uncomfortable to be in prison in El Salvador right now. So uncomfortable, in fact, that it might even make you think twice about joining a gang to begin with. Which is obviously the point.
Now, with that said, we hear from someone in that clip who claims that at least one of the inmates has no connection to gangs. He is an innocent man caught up in the crackdown. We have no way of assessing whether that story is true, obviously. But, if we’re being honest, we probably can assume that some nonviolent people have been caught unwittingly in the net. Some of them may be innocent. Anytime the government assumes emergency powers and arrests more than 70,000 people without ensuring their due process rights, that’s bound to happen. And yes, it’s almost certainly true that many of these inmates live in conditions that would make Amnesty International extremely squeamish. There’s no reason to paper over that.
But that’s not where the discussion ends, or where it should end. The question that follows is a simple one, although it’s rarely discussed. The question is this: Would you rather have a safe society where a few innocent people are imprisoned? Or would you rather have a very dangerous society where only a few guilty people are imprisoned? Centuries ago, Ben Franklin answered a version of that question. “It’s better for a hundred guilty persons to escape than one innocent person to suffer,” he said. We hear people repeat this mantra, unthinkingly, all the time.
But Ben Franklin didn’t address what happens when all those guilty people get out of prison and make it impossible for innocent people to live their lives. What happens when allowing “guilty persons to escape” means that innocent people can’t start profitable businesses, use the subways, go to the store, walk down the street, or guarantee the safety of their children in schools? What happens when letting the guilty go free means letting them randomly assault elderly or carjack women at the stoplight or execute gas station cashiers for the few dollars in the cash registers? That’s unfolding now in major cities in this country. It’s happening so often that CNN is capturing it on camera unintentionally. This is not the high-trust society that existed in the 19th century.
When Barack Obama was in office, he made a habit of calling difficult decisions, “false choices.” He said we should, for example, reject the, “false choice between our security and our ideals.” But the truth is that there are hard choices to be made when weighing our security against our ideals. As Richard Hanania pointed out recently on his Substack, sometimes a slavish devotion to “ideals” gets many people killed. It ruins livelihoods. No one wants to talk about that. But it’s true. And as more criminals act with total impunity, it’s getting hard to ignore. Besides, nobody can claim that they really have zero tolerance for innocent people going to prison, because the only way to bring that number down to zero is to have no prisons at all. If you have any kind of prison system, there is going to be that kind of unintended consequence regardless. We all accept that. We have to, or we cannot have a civilization.
But we are currently in the process of losing our civilization, and it’s in part because modern western people have a totally upside down view of these kinds of trade offs. There will be trade offs either way. You cannot get around it. Either you emphasize justice, social order, and punishing criminals — and deal with the collateral damage that comes with this harsher and more brutal approach — or you emphasize tolerance, acceptance, “rehabilitation,” forgiveness — and deal with the collateral damage that comes with that. You will get the collateral damage either way. In the former case, it means you will have a safer and more orderly society where people can live their lives and your children can walk outside without fear, but criminals will be made very uncomfortable, and will be treated in ways that are sometimes quite ugly. In the latter case, criminals will be more comfortable and prison will not be such an ugly place, but your communities will be unlivable cesspools. As I’ve said before, there will be ugliness in society no matter what. You can choose to contain it in prisons, or you can let it loose on the streets. You will have it — the ugliness — whether you like it or not. The question is where do you want it? In prison or outside your front door?
El Salvador’s solution is not ideal. You would prefer it if your country didn’t need to have super-prisons with tens of thousands of violent gangsters. Nobody would call that an ideal situation, certainly not Nayib Bukele. At a certain point, though, it becomes necessary, because the alternative is even worse. If our leaders don’t have the stomach to punish criminals now, then down the line, they’ll be replaced by people who do. That’s the lesson of El Salvador. We can either learn from it, or we can keep repeating the same mistakes. The choice is ours.