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Abortion or Broken Windows - How can the US be safer?

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Let's start the Gladwell exploration with a quotation from The Tipping Point.

But when it comes to cause and effect, there is often a trap in such open-and-shut-thinking.

We smirk now when we think of ancient cultures that embraced faulty causes - the warriors who believed, for instance, that it was their raping of a virgin that brought them victory on the battlefield. But we too embrace faulty causes, usually at the urging of an expert proclaiming a truth in which he has a vested interest.

That quotation actually comes from Freakonomics and not The Tipping Point - something that would have been obvious to anyone familiar with Gladwell's book.

Where the Freaks dismiss faulty causes, Gladwell glorifies them.

Gladwell faces off against New York's crime drop in a chapter titled "The Power of Context."

The author has a tendency to confuse context with weak metaphors and ambiguous analogies, and this chapter holds to that formula well. The chapter begins by describing a bleak 1980s New York filled with criminals, dingy subways and vandalized streets. Such an environment allowed one Bernhard Goetz to shoot four potential muggers while riding the subway and then be "easily acquitted on charges of assault and attempted murder." New York treated Goetz as a crime fighting hero rather than a gun-happy maniac.

"Outside Goetz's apartment building, on the evening of the verdict, there was a raucous, impromptu street party," Gladwell writes. "The Goetz case has become a symbol of a particular, dark moment in New York City history, the moment when the city's crime problem reached epidemic proportions."

According to Gladwell, New York transformed from a crime hell to a crime heaven through "the Power of Context." Where the Freaks had aborted fetuses, the Tipper has a catch-phrase.

Crime - you are to understand - is an epidemic just like syphilis, the New Kids on the Block or over-hyped bestsellers. And so crime obeys all of Gladwell's major catch-phrases such as "the law of the few" and "connectors."

For a moment, Gladwell entertains the popular ideas that a dwindling crack epidemic, older population and improved economy led to the decline in crime. Then, however, he notes, "All of these trends are long-term changes that one would expect to have gradual effects. In New York the decline was anything but gradual."

Ah, but you're not out of the woods yet.

Gladwell ultimately fingers the "Broken Windows" theory as the trigger behind the crime drop. This theory operates on the assumption that broken windows, marred buildings, panhandling and other relatively minor but ugly city conditions can serve as gateways to more severe conditions if left unchecked. A criminal sees graffiti on a building and thinks that no one cares about that part of town, so clubbing someone for money must be okay.

Now for the Gunnishment

Back in the day, New York hired a new subway director named David Gunn who backed the Broken Windows way. "When you looked at the process of rebuilding the organization and morale, you had to win the battle against graffiti," Gunn said in an interview. "Without winning that battle, all the management reforms and physical changes just weren't going to happen."

By preventing graffiti and cleaning subway cars after vandals struck, Gunn believed the city could also lessen subway muggings and undermine fare cheats.

Transit Authority police chief William Bratton adopted a similar line of thinking. Rather than nailing felons first, Bratton urged coppers to pound fare cheats and public urinators. Such scoundrels were used to running amok underground. Under Bratton, however, they faced an arrest and jail time for minor crimes - a policy which often resulted in the cops finding guns on the criminals and nailing those with outstanding warrants.

"Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context are one and the same," Gladwell writes. "They are both based on the premise that an epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment. This is, if you like think about it, quite a radical idea."

And a completely crap one, according to the Freaks.

"A careful analysis of the facts shows that the innovative policing strategies probably had little effect on this huge decline (in crime)," the Freakonomics authors write about Bratton and his Broken Windows.

Broken Hype

New York's crime rate began falling dramatically four years before Rudy Giuliani became New York's mayor and tapped Bratton. "Crime was well on its way down before either man arrived. And it would continue to fall long after Bratton was bumped from office," the Freaks tell us.

In addition, the New York police force swelled by 45 per cent during the 1990s - an increase of three times the US average. The Freaks maintain that hiring more cops can indeed affect crime rates and say that New York's reduction in crime would just be average when compared to other cities, if you factor in its much larger police force. And, one should remember that Giuliani's predecessor David Dinkins hired many of those new cops.

"Most damaging to the claim that New York's police innovations radically lowered crime is one simple and often overlooked fact: crime went down everywhere during the 1990s, not only in New York," the Freaks write. "Even in Los Angeles, a city notorious for bad policing, crime fell at about the same rate as it did in New York once the growth in New York's police force is accounted for.

"It would be churlish to argue that smart policing isn't a good thing. Bill Bratton certainly deserves credit for invigorating New York's police force. But there is frighteningly little evidence that his strategy was the crime panacea that he and the media deemed it."

Relying on frighteningly little evidence has never stopped Gladwell from insinuating much of anything, but could his love for making something hyperbolic out of nothing have real costs?

Abortion - That's the ticket

More than five years after publication, The Tipping Point remains a top selling book - in part because it's now piggybacking off Gladwell's more recent bestseller Blink.

Such high sales don't guarantee that people will be affected by Gladwell's writing. We've only met one person so far able to finish The Tipping Point. But one needs only get halfway through the book to reach the part on New York crime.

The community of people who read both Freakonomics and The Tipping Point may realize the disconnect between the two theories on New York's drop in crime. And they may well side with the not perfect but more reasoned argument of the Freaks.

Then, again, they might not. Even though Gladwell's world has been turned "inside out" by Freakonomics, he's yet to issue a revision to The Tipping Point on the New York crime issue. Should the "most interesting mind in America" call out your reporter, action would follow.

If a Freak worshipper like Gladwell can't accept the "new" truth, then what hope do those poor saps who pick up the The Tipping Point rather than Freakonomics at the bookstore have? They'll see presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani as a visionary hero rather than a lucky, abortion-riding politico.

Gladwell has made a career out of handing simple, vacuous truths to people and dressing them up with flowery language and an impressionistic take on the scientific method. Hive minders seem to love this garbage for obvious reasons.

As we see it, there's only one fella that can set the record straight at this point and let people know the book they really should buy. Will Rudy Giuliani please step up and start running for office on the "Kill fetuses for safety" ticket? ®

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