When I talk to people who support a candidate like Donald Trump, they seem almost completely driven by this crippling fear that the world is on fire, that the United States is falling apart, and that Washington is either helping this happen, or not effectively doing anything about it. I have to say that if I believed all of that was true, I could imagine the appeal of a candidate like Donald Trump. The problem is this: almost none of the fears that these people have are rooted in reality. Let’s take a bit to look at some things that might frighten us.
Terrorists are running wild and ripping the world to pieces. The data on this can be viewed a couple of different ways (like many data can). The number of deaths by terrorists worldwide has increased over the past few years. The data support that claim, and let’s look at those first.
Terrorist deaths are on the rise. More people died from terrorist attacks in 2015 than in any year previously. As the graphic from the Institute for Economics & Peace tells us, in the past 15 years there have been 140,000 deaths from terrorist attacks; and nine times more in 2015 than in 2000. That sure does seem frightening. There are a couple of things that we need to keep in mind if we’re going to look at these data. First, the vast majority of these deaths are not occurring in the United States. For somebody like me, who values all human life, that doesn’t make a difference, but for the “Make America Great Again” crowd, I believe it does. The second thing to keep in mind is that it might make sense to consider terrorist deaths in the same category as we do other combat deaths (deaths in recognized state-based conflicts). If we do that, we find that the terrorist deaths are a miniscule fraction of the deaths, and that we are at a particularly peaceful time in our history.
Let’s look at the above figure for a minute. This is the number of deaths from declared wars. Keep in mind that the scale is in hundreds of thousands. That means that at the peak, in the later years of WWII, we lost approximately 550,000 people to war-related deaths, in a single year. The terrorist deaths we’ve endured over the last 15 years, approximately 10,000 per year, would be only 1.8% of the annual deaths in the late 1940s. Even compared to the mid 1980s, when there was an uptick in war-related deaths, the terrorist deaths would still only account for 4% of global war-related deaths. Although we see news of attacks on a frequent basis, we are at a remarkably peaceful time in human history. It’s also worth keeping in mind that approximately 18 million people die every year from cardiovascular disease. Compared with that, the number of deaths from terrorism seems even smaller.
Crime is out of control. Here’s another one where the fear and perceptions don’t match the data. The figure below, from Gallup, is particularly interesting.
It shows us two things: the violent crime rate (decreasing rather significantly since the early 1990s) and the percent of respondents who said that crime is higher in the year of the survey than it was the year before. Even in years when the crime rate is clearly decreasing, with the exception of 2001, a majority of Americans believe that crime rates are increasing. It is not clear what drove the perception closer to reality in the early 2000s. One possibility is that the shift in media coverage away from crime and onto terrorism was a key factor. The jump to 62% mistakenly believing that crime was higher in 2002 than it was in 2001 has been attributed to the media coverage of the D.C. sniper. That seems like disproportionate impact from a single crime spree, but it is impossible to find real causes in analyses like these.
The fact that crime has been falling in most of our recent years, but people repeatedly believe that crime rates are increasing, can, as stated above, be related to media coverage of crime. I think that’s a totally reasonable hypothesis. One that isn’t very favorable to the media, and perhaps less favorable to the consumers of media who apparently do not realize that “news” is news because it’s the exception, not the rule, but it’s a bit less upsetting than what I believe is actually the cause. I honestly hope this isn’t true, but I think the perception that crime is increasing is largely driven by increasing size of minority populations in the United States, and by the implicit (and explicit) negative associations that we have with minority groups. I wrote more about implicit bias here, and I think there are important points in that post that I won’t go into now, but I think there might be a relationship between these things. Census data show very clearly that the minority population in America is on track to become a majority in the near future.
It is important to notice that the graph above goes well beyond the present, and the most complete data set we have is from 2010, when 64% of the population was white. Although 64% is still a majority, by a good margin, it is considerably lower than the 85% white population of the 1960 version of the United States. Black Americans remain approximately 10-12% of the US population, but Americans of Mexican descent have grown from approximately 5-6% in 1960 to 16% in 2010, and projected to be 19% in 2020. If you ask a lot of people if this is a problem, the fear of being considered racist might inhibit a yes response, or might cause some kind of mental gymnastics to say that it’s a problem, but it’s not because they don’t like Mexicans, but just because the increased rate reflects illegal immigration. A convenient way of avoiding the cognitive dissonance that comes with being a racist but believing that racism is bad. But I believe that the implicit biases that we have toward members of minority groups play a key role here (again, these are not conscious feelings or attitudes, and people from those same groups have the same negative attributions about their own group). If we have implicit associations between minorities and crime, and the minority population is growing, isn’t it consistent to believe that crime rates are growing with them? Again, I do not have any way to manipulate the population, change the media, alter our implicit biases, and test for effects on perceptions of crime rates, so the needed experiment simply cannot happen, but the relationship between real increases in minority populations and perceived increases in crime makes sense to me, in a way that makes me sad.
Washington isn’t doing anything. This is something we hear all the time. Members of Congress are working part-time, making a whole lot of money, and doing nothing. This is a sense that’s perpetuated by all angles. Democrats like to paint the GOP-controlled Congress as obstructionist and the GOP has spent years giving its members a strong distaste for politicians and Washington in general. I do not know the best way to evaluate the productivity of a particular Congress, but the number of laws, resolutions, and failed legislation seems to be a pretty good place to start. Fortunately, we ask, and the internet provides. Govtrack.us has a great page that tracks each Congress and shows the number of enacted laws, passed resoultions, bills that got a vote, failed legislation, vetoed bills (without override) by year. Using these numbers, there is a hint of support for the sense that less is getting done now than it did before. If we look at the 108th, 109th, and 110th Congresses (2003-2009), we see that a total of 1447 enacted laws, whereas the the 111th, 112th, and 113th Congresses (2009-2013) enacted 965 laws, only about 66% of what the three Congresses before had done. The current Congress doesn’t seem on pace to get to the 400+ laws that the 110th and 109th Congresses each enacted. So the lack of lawmaking seems to be down recently. The comparison is even more striking if we look at the number of laws passed by even earlier Congresses. The 100th Congress (January 1987-October 1988) enacted 761 laws more than twice as many as the 113th Congress (January 2013-January 2015) or the 112th Congress (January 2011-January 2013). Granted, as a pretty solid liberal and lifelong democrat, it seems easy to blame this on republicans, who took over the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress, and the fact that the Congress before had passed 385 laws, and that dropped to 285 when the GOP took over the House. But that doesn’t excuse the difference between the 385 laws enacted by the 111th Congress (when the democrats controlled Congress and the White House) and the 804 laws enacted by the 95th Congress (January 1977 – October 1978) the last time the democrats controlled both the White House and Congress. So I imagine that there’s some truth to the idea that Washington isn’t passing as many laws as it used to, but 300 laws a year still seems like a lot of work, and those numbers don’t account for all the legislation that was written and never even got a vote (approximately 85% of legislation). So, although I think it’s reasonable to say that Congress is not passing as many laws as they used to, I think it’s unfair to say that they aren’t working hard.
When I look around, it seems like these are some of the things behind the mindset that we’re going in the wrong direction as a nation, or as a world. I think some of it might be changing, but maybe not nearly as much as some think, and overall I think there’s a lot of misperceptions about the world. That’s not to say that things aren’t changing. Things always change (and stay the same somehow). Change is discomforting to a lot of people. Technology moves forward and (mostly older) people feel left behind, like the world they knew and felt comfortable in has disappeared. It’s easy to blame this on the world, rather than the inability to keep up with the change, and I think that’s why it seems likely that every generation feels like things (at least some things) are so much worse than they used to be when life was simple and they were young. Reminds me of this (you’ll have to click on the link to watch, sorry).
Of course, the video is a simplification, but a funny one.