Magazine article The Washington Monthly

What's Cooking in the Ivory Tower: This Year's Social Science Research Will Surprise Both Conservatives and Liberals

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

What's Cooking in the Ivory Tower: This Year's Social Science Research Will Surprise Both Conservatives and Liberals

Article excerpt

As far as summer events go, this August's annual meeting of the American Political Science Association doesn't have quite the same marquee value as, say, the recent opening of the Disney Store in Times Square. Let's face it, the average academic just doesn't look as good in a toga as Hercules. But make no mistake, the professor is probably the braver of the two. As you read this sentence, not only political scientists, but social scientists from all branches of the field, are boldly slaughtering sacred cows of both the right and the left. Much of their work has far-reaching implications. We took an informal survey of some of the nations top researchers to determine the most important of this year's findings and came up with plenty of bad news for conservatives -- and liberals.

All Hail the Men in Blue

Social scientists are the first to admit the recent nationwide drop in crime has them stumped. "It defies all current theories and predictions. We're just not able to explain it," says RAND crime expert Peter Greenwood. Political leaders are happy to claim the credit, pointing to their recent efforts to put more cops on the street. That's just a feel-good cosmetic fix -- and a costly one at that -- retort the criminologists. They argue that external forces, like demographic changes, economic improvements, and shifting patterns of drug use play a much bigger role. But without any concrete evidence, who's a voter to believe?

Although he hasn't solved the entire question, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt has at least hit upon a way to study the police angle. It was a tough nut to crack because of the difficulty of interpreting the relationship between cops and crime. For instance, the presence of a large number of cops in a city with lots of crime could indicate that the cops are ineffective, or it could simply mean that the high crime rate has led the city to hire more cops. Levitt found a clever way around this conundrum by observing that mayors and governors almost always hire more police officers in an election year regardless of whether crime is up or down. So by comparing the level of crime before and after election-motivated police increases, he's been able to measure whether those increases have had an impact. His stunning conclusion: Every police officer hired reduces five violent crimes and seven property crimes a year.

But before the tough-on-crime" politicos start strutting, they should know that not all of their favorite miracle cures are supported by the research. Lock-em-up approaches to drug offenders, for example, are proving highly ineffective. A particularly illuminating study by a RAND research team headed by Jonathan Caulkins analyzed the cost-effectiveness of various crime-fighting strategies and found that, dollar-for-dollar, providing treatment to drug offenders reduces serious crime 10 times more than conventional enforcement techniques (such as arrests, confiscations and short-term jail stays) and 15 times more than long mandatory sentences.

The lesson in all this: Treat drug offenders and carry a night stick.

Cultural Matters

The Cadillac Queen may have dominated the welfare debate in the 1980s, but the 1990s have seen the rise of a new leading lady: the teenage mom. Everyone from Charles Murray to Bill Clinton is now convinced that the crux of the welfare problem is the increasing number of young girls having children out of wedlock. There are plenty of statistics to back their claim. For instance, although fewer than 10 percent of families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) are headed by teenage mothers, about half of AFDC families are led by women who first gave birth as teens. Clearly a sensible national policy would focus on preventing these near-children from having children of their own. But how to do it?

Before we can answer that, we've got to figure out why so many poor, unmarried teens are having kids in the first place. …

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