Tag Archives: Detroit

Detroit 1967 to 2017: unemployment comes down, murder rate doesn’t.

Almost 50 years ago today, July 23, 1967 white policemen raided an unlicensed, “blind pig” bar in a black neighborhood, the 12th street of Detroit, and the city responded with four days of rioting, 43 killings (33 black, 10 white), 2509 stores looted, and over 1000 fires. In 2017, at last the city is beginning to show signs of recovery. By 2015 the city’s unemployment had gone down from about 20% to 12%, and  in the first six months 2017, the firs six months of the Trump presidency, 2017 it’s gone down again to 7 1/2%. It’s not that 7 1/2% unemployment is good, but it’s better. Per-hour salaries are hardly up, but I take that as better than having a high average salary at very low employment. As a point of reference, the unemployment rate in Detroit in 1967, before the riots was 3.4%. Within weeks, 150,000 jobs were lost, and anyone who could leave the city, did.

Detroit Unemployment rates are way down, but the city still looks like a mess.

Detroit Unemployment rates are way down, but the city still looks like a mess.

Another issue for Detroit is its uncommonly high murder rate. In the mid-80s, Detroit had the highest murder rate in the US, about 55 murders per 100,000 population per year (0.055%/year). As of February 1, 2017, the murder rate was virtually unchanged: 50 per 100,000 or 0.05%/year, but two cities have higher rates yet. At present rates, you have a 3.5% of dying by homicide if you live in Detroit for 70 years — even higher if you’re male. The rate in the rest of the US is about 1/10th this, 0.005%/year, or 5 per 100,000, with a dramatic difference between rural and urban populations.

Murder rate in 50 cities with Detroit highlighted. From The Economist, February 2017.

Murder rate in 50 cities with Detroit highlighted, from The Economist.

One of the causes of the high murder rate in Detroit, and in the US generally, I suspect, is our stiff, minimum-penalties for crime. As sir Thomas Moose pointed out, when crime is punished severely, there is a tendency to murder. If you’re going to spend the next 20 years behind bars, you might as well try any means you can to escape. Another thought — the one favored by social liberals — is that it’s the presence of guns in the US encourages murder. It may, but it also seems to prevent crime by allowing the victim to defend himself or herself. And the effect on murder is not so clear, if you consider suicide as a form of murder. In countries like Canada with few guns, people kill themselves by hanging or by throwing themselves off high buildings. My hope is that Detroit’s murder rate will drop in 2017 to match its improved economic condition, but have no clear reason to think it will.

Robert Buxbaum, July 20, 2017. Here are some suggestions I’ve made over the years.

Puerto Rico’s minimum wage and statehood

Puerto Rico is in deep trouble and it’s getting worse. Unemployment is at 12%, double the next worst state or territory (Alaska), tourism is down, and poverty is at 41%. Tourists have begun to go elsewhere in the Caribbean: Bermuda, Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba. The island is effectively bankrupt and would have filed for bankruptcy last year except that they legally can’t. But neither can they pay their bills. The territory will go into default in less than 2 weeks, on July 1, 2016 unless congress creates a new funding mechanism for them before then. Statehood would allow Puerto Rico to go bankrupt, but there is no way for statehood to be achieved by July 1.

Puerto Rico's minimum wage is vastly too high; here it is compared with other US states.

Puerto Rico’s minimum wage is vastly too high for its median wage. From Preston Cooper, Economics21.

While bankruptcy might help Puerto Rico short-term, as would a new line of credit, it is worthwhile to ask why Puerto Rico is in this bad shape. Why are they worse off than Guam, for example; Guam is far more isolated. Puerto Rico isn’t run particularly well, but it’s no worse than Guam or  Illinois. My first thought of what Puerto Rico should do differently is that they need to lower their minimum wage.

As the chart on the right shows, the wage of the average working Puerto Rican is very nearly the minimum wage. This is because, Puerto Rico’s economy is essentially tourism, and it competes for tourists with lower-wage Caribbean countries, Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba. Neither Alaska nor Guam compete for tourist dollars with low cost alternatives. And Guam, in particular has a strong military presence; those are their main tourists. Competing for tourist dollars is a disaster for Puerto Rico that they could solve if they could lower their minimum wage. And a lower minimum would not cause people undue suffering because Puerto Rico is a place one can live cheaply. A single person may need to earn $8.50/ hour to live minimally well in Michigan, but his Puerto Rican cousin can get by on far less in Puerto Rico. With a lower minimum wage, tourism would be more attractive, and the government would not spend so much because they could pay their minimal-skill workers less. The net result is more Puerto Ricans would be able to find jobs, and the government would have a better chance to balance its books.

What prevents the territory from lowering its minimum wage is that it’s part of the US, and we set the minimum at $7.25/hour. Many people might prefer to work for less, but they can’t unless the federal government grants them an exemption. Without it, there is no obvious way for Puerto Rico to ever pay its bills.

Four years ago, in my first blog post, I suggested that Detroit should lower its $15/hour ‘living wage‘, a wage unduly burdened the city budget, and added to Detroit’s rampant unemployment and corruption. A year later, the city removed this barrier as part of bankruptcy, and saw significant improvementsI’m not alone in suggesting a lower minimum wage. The alternative is state-hood followed by immediate bankruptcy.

Robert Buxbaum, June 19, 2016.

Detroit emerges from bankruptcy. Not quite.

missing homes Detroit

While Detroit’s central core comes back, surrounding, homes burn at 220+/month, leave Detroit streets looking like the teeth of an aging hillbilly.

Detroit went bankrupt last year, the largest US city to do so since New York in 1970. As with New York’s bankruptcy, Detroit’s was used to cancel old debts and rewrite ill-thought contracts. Detroit also got to jail some crooked politicians including mayor Kilpatrick, described as “a walking crime wave.” But the city and county have no easy path out of bankruptcy as both city and county are likely insolvent. That is, they spend more than they take in despite massive out-state funding, and high taxes, 10% above the state level. To make matters worse, they are losing population at the rate of 1% or so per year. It’s hard to fund a city built for 2 million on the tax revenue of 1/3 as many, especially when they are mostly unemployed. Unless a lot changes soon, another bankruptcy is almost inevitable — likely this time at the county level.

We got in this state, largely as a result of a 50 year war between the black, solidly Democrat, somewhat anarchist, political establishment of Detroit, and the white, stayed, mostly Republican out state. The white population fled following the riots of the 60s and the richer black population soon followed. The remainder stayed, trapped in slowly decaying neighborhoods as the city went broke. White flight allowed the black community to develop its own, Motown culture, but except for the music industry, it has not benefitted from this culture.

Detroit's murder rate, 45/100,000, is the highest in the US. It's coming down but not that fast.

Detroit’s murder rate is the highest in the US. It’s come down 10% in the last 2 years, but has far to go.

Detroiters have poor health, poor savings rates, high murder rates, and a fire rate of about .22% per month, 2.6% per year. The city lacks basic city services like reliable fire fighting and street plowing. Police at one point erected signs that said, “enter at your own risk.” There is a lack of small businesses and the services they would provide too: laundromats, grocery stores, and taxis (though no lack of bars and marijuana maintenance clinics). Employment in the auto-industry is down. And it’s not being replaced by home-grown small business – perhaps hampered by the low savings rate. A surprisingly large fraction of the Detroit homes are in foreclosure, see map, and with it a high abandonment rate and a high fire rate. As pheasant and dear return, non-core Detroit is beginning to look like farm country.

Detroit foreclosures near me. Blue is occupied homes, red is unoccupied, yellow unknown, and green is destroyed homes or vacant, foreclosed land.

Detroit foreclosures near me. Homes in dark blue are occupied foreclosed, red is unoccupied, and green plots are destroyed homes or vacant, foreclosed land.

It’s not clear what political leaders should do. The city council would like to return to their pre-bankruptcy ways where they could borrow as much as they felt they needed and spend on whatever they saw fit — often on fast friends, fast cars, gambling, and vacation homes outside of the city. But the out-state population has been reluctant to give them the credit card. Is this racist or is it prudent — probably both, but this can not continue. The city and county pension funds were ransacked for ill-advised investments and consulting fees to cronies and their power-lawyers. Either the money is replaced from out-state or there will be some unhappy retirees in the not-too-distant future. My guess is that the state will have to pick up the tab for this mismanagement, but that they won’t want to hand over management control afterwards.

Rand Paul, a potential GOP presidential candidate, has proposed rebuilding business and property values by a method that the city will almost certainly reject. His solution: cut services to low-population density areas and cut taxes on business and earned income. While this would likely bring in new people and new businesses, the people would likely be white, and the businesses white-owned/ white-serving. Black-Detroiters have too little savings, organization and income to directly benefit from this plan. Detroit’s Democrat politicians will claim, not without merit, that this is welfare for rich whites: a way for them to become yet-richer while doing nothing for the poor blacks of the burning neighborhoods. They are likely to demand control as the elected officials of the town: regulating business and raising the minimum wage to create “equality.” I suspect this is a bad idea.

Detroit hunger games

Detroit suffers from two populations and a divide.

To some extent we’re already seeing the return of white-owned, white-serving businesses. Classic buildings in the core of the city have been purchased by white developers – notably Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans leading to gentrification and an influx of single, white hipsters. The newcomers are viewed as half-saviors, half-carpetbaggers. They dwell in a whiter city core with hipster bars and expensive restaurants. Does a poor city with massive debt, crime, and unemployment benefit from a core filled with high-priced, gourmet coffee and fern bars?

The author, Robert Buxbaum, enjoys a day at an artificial beach in central Detroit.

The author, Robert Buxbaum, enjoys a beer at an artificial beach-cafe in central Detroit with some, few black folks, none poor. Is this good for Detroit?

The new hipsters put a squeeze on city services too — one that’s hard to deal with fairly. Detroit can not afford to plow all the streets after a snow. Should the new high-tax white folks get plowed streets, or should they suffer equally with everyone else? Detroit education is abysmal, but the high tax-bracket folks want better. Should they get it, or suffer equally? They want extra street lights and police protection. Should they get it, or suffer equally? Is this the way up?  A solution I’d proposed some while ago was to divide the core city from the now-rural outskirts so that each could be managed more sanely. It’s not a grand a solution like Rand’s plan, but less likely to be rejected. One way or another, we seem destined to have a Detroit with a rich core and abandoned neighborhoods. I suspect it might as well be managed that way.

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 10, 2015. I don’t have solutions, but write about the city’s problems, and the partial solutions I’ve heard as a way to clarify my thinking — and perhaps yours too.

High minimum wages hurt the poor; try a negative tax

It is generally thought (correctly I suspect) that welfare is a poor way to help the poor as it robs them of the dignity of work. Something like welfare is needed to keep the poor from starving, and the something that’s generally chosen in a living wage — a minimum wage set high enough that even a minimally skilled worker should be able to support a family of 4. This may be better than welfare, but I’d like to propose something better still — and a way to pay for it — a negative tax.

I suspect that a high minimum wage hurts the poor and middle class in a few ways. For one, by flattening the wage structure, it hurts the ego of higher skilled workers and reduces their incentive to improve. A senior worker should make more than an unskilled beginner, but a high minimum wage dampens this. What’s more, a high minimum wage cuts the lower rungs off of the employment ladder, making it harder for young folks, and unskilled folks to be productively employed. There may be some worthwhile minimum, but not everyone lives independently (or should) and not every job deserves to support a family of four, if only because not every unskilled worker is supporting a family of four. Many minimum wage earners are living at home or are heads of double-income couples, and only a few have the skills to justify the wage on a value added basis. A high minimum wage is thus needlessly costly for many workers. People accept the cost because it’s borne by the company (and companies are seen as evil). But passing the burden has limits, and a high minimum wage creates high unemployment in low skill areas, as employees are reluctant to pay a lot for low skill work. In Detroit before bankruptcy, the living wage was set so high that companies could not compete. Many went bankrupt and the others hired so selectively that the unskilled were basically unemployable. Even the city couldn’t pay the wage and its bills.

Even with the highest minimum wage, there is always a need for welfare, as some workers will be unemployable — because of disability, because of lack of skill, or from an ingrained desire to not work. The punishments a community can mete out are limited, and sooner or later some communities stop working and stop learning as they see no advantage.

The difficulties of taking care of the genuinely needy and disabled while the lazy and unskilled has gotten even some communist to reconsider wealth as a motivator. The Chinese have come to realize that workers work better at all levels if there is a financial reward to experience and skill at all levels. But that still leaves the question of who should pay to help those in need and how.  Currently the welfare system only helps the disabled and the “looking” unemployed, but I suspect they should do more replacing some of the burden that our minimum wage laws places on the employers of unskilled labor. But I suspect the payment formula should be such that the worker ends up richer for every additional hour of work. That is, each dollar earned by a welfare recipient should result in less than one dollar reduction in welfare payment. Welfare would thus be set up as a negative tax that would continue to all levels of salary and need so that there is no sudden jump when the worker suddenly starts having to pay taxes. The current and proposed tax / welfare structure is shown below:

Currently someone's welfare check decreases by $1 for each dollar earned. I propose a system of negative tax (less than 100%) so each dollar earned puts a good fraction in his/her pocket.

Currently (black) someone’s welfare check decreases by $1 for each dollar earned, then he enters a stage of no tax — one keeps all he earns, and then a graduated tax. I propose a system of negative tax (red) so each dollar earned adds real income.

The system I propose (red line) would treat identically someone who is  incapacitated as someone who decided not to work, or to work at a job that paid $0/hr (e.g. working for a church). In the current system treats them differently, but there seems to be so much law and case-work and phony doctor reports involved in getting around it all that it hardly seems worth it. I’d use money as the sole motivator (all theoretical, and it may not work, but hang with me for now).

In the proposed system, a person who does not work would get some minimal income based on family need (there is still some need for case workers). If they are employed the employer would not have to pay minimum wage (or there would be a low minimum wage — $3/hr) but the employer would have to report the income and deduct, for every dollar earned some fraction in tax — 40¢ say. The net result would be that the amount of government subsidy received by the worker (disabled or not) would decrease by, for 40¢ for every dollar earned. At some salary the worker would discover that he/she was paying net tax and no longer receiving anything from the state. With this system, there is always an incentive to work more hours or develop more skills. If the minimum wage were removed too, there would be no penalty to hiring a completely unskilled worker.

At this point you may ask where the extra money will come from. In the long run, I hope the benefit comes from the reduced welfare rolls, but in the short-term, let me suggest tariffs. Tariffs can raise income and promote on-shore production. Up until 1900 or so, they were the main source of revenue for the USA. As an experiment, to see if this system works, it could be applied to enterprise zones, e.g. in Detroit.

R. E. Buxbaum, June 27, 2014. I worked out the math for this while daydreaming in an economics lecture. It strikes me as bizarre, by the way, that can contract with someone for barter, e.g. to help you move for a pizza, but you can’t contract for less than the minimum wage $7.45/hr. If you hire the worker for less you can go to jail. In Canada they have something even more bizarre, equal wages for equal skills — a cook and a manager must earn the same, independent of how well the cook cooks. No wonder violent crime is higher in Canada.

 

Stoner’s prison and the crack mayor

With the release of a video of Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, smoking crack while in office, and the admission that at least two US presidents smoked pot, as did the Beatles, Stones, and most of Hollywood, it seems worthwhile to consider the costs and benefits of our war on drugs, especially pot. Drugs are typically bad for productivity and usually bad for health. Thus, it seems worthwhile to regulate it, but most countries do not punish drug sale or use nearly as harshly as we do in the US.

The Freak Brothers by Gilbert Shelton. Clearly these boys were not improved by drugs, but perhaps we could do better than incarcerating them, and their fans, for years, or life.

The Freak Brothers by Gilbert Shelton. Clearly these boys were not improved by drugs, but perhaps we could do better than incarcerating them, and their fans, for years, or life.

While US penalties vary state by state, most states have high minimum penalties that a judge can not go below. In Michigan, where I live, medical marijuana is legalized, but all supply is still illegal. Marijuana cultivation, even for personal medical use, is a felony carrying a minimum punishment of 4 years in state prison and a $20,000 fine. For cultivation of more than 20 plants the minimum sentence is 7 years in prison and $500,000; and cultivating 200 or more plants results in 15 years plus a $10,000,000 fine. These are first-time, minimum sentences where the judge can not consider mitigating circumstances, like a prescription, for a drug that was accepted for use in the US in the 70s, is legal in Holland, legalized in Colorado, and is near-legal in Belgium. While many pot smokers were not served by the herb, many went on to be productive, e.g. our current president and the Beatles.

In Michigan, the mandatory minimums get worse if you are a repeat offender, especially a 3 time offender. Possession of hard drugs; and sales or cultivation of marijuana makes you a felon; a gun found on a felon adds 2 years and another felony. With three felonies you go to prison for life, effectively, so there is little difference between the sentence of a repeat violent mugger and a kid selling $10 rocks of crack in Detroit. America has more people in prison than Russia, China, or almost every industrialized nation, per capita, and the main cause is long minimum sentences.

In 2011, Michigan spent an average of $2,343 per month per prisoner, or $28,116/year: somewhat over 1.3 billion dollars per year in total. To this add the destruction of the criminal’s family, and the loss of whatever value he/she might have added to society. Reducing sentences by 10 or 20% would go a long way towards paying off Detroit’s bankruptcy, and would put a lot of useful people back into the work-force where they might do some good for themselves and the state. 60.8% of drug arrestees were employed before they were arrested for drugs, with an average income of $1050/month. That’s a lot of roofers, electricians, carpenters, and musicians — useful people. As best we can tell, the long sentences don’t help, but lead to higher rates of recidivism and increased violent behavior. If you spend years in jail, you are likely to become more violent, rather than less. Some 75% of drug convicts have no prior record of violent crime, so why does a first-time offense have to be a felony. If we need minimums, couldn’t it be 6 months and a $1000 fine, or only apply if there is violence.

Couldn’t we allow judges more leeway in sentencing, especially for drugs? Recall that Michiganders thought they’d legalized marijuana for medical use, and that even hard-drugs were legal not that long ago. There was a time when Coca-Cola contained cocaine and when Pope Leo was a regular drinker of cocaine laced wine. If the two presidents smoked pot, and the Mayor of Toronto could do a decent job after cocaine, why should we incarcerate them for life? Let’s balance strict justice with mercy; so the fabric of society is not strained to breaking.

Robert Buxbaum, Jan 16, 2014. Here are some other thoughts on Detroit and crime.

Improving Bankrupt Detroit

Detroit is Bankrupt in more ways than one. Besides having too few assets to cover their $18 Billion in debts, and besides running operational deficits for years, Detroit is bankrupt in the sense that most everyone who can afford to leaves. The population has shrunk from 2,000,000 in 1950 to about 680,000 today, an exodus that shows no sign of slowing.

The murder rate in Detroit is 25 times the state average; 400/year in 2012 (58/100,00) as compared to 250 in the rest of the state (2.3/100,000). The school system in 2009 scored the lowest math scores that had ever been recorded for any major city in the 21 year history of the tests. And mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, currently in prison, was called “a walking crime wave” by the mayor of Washington DC. The situation is not pretty. Here are a few simple thoughts though.

(1) Reorganize the city to make it smaller. The population density of Detroit is small, generally about 7000/ square mile, and some of the outlying districts might be carved off and made into townships. Most of Michigan started as townships. When they return to that status, each could contract their children’s education as they saw fit, perhaps agreeing to let the outlying cities use their school buildings and teachers, or perhaps closing failed schools as the local area sees fit.

This could work work well for outlying areas like the southern peninsula of Detroit, Mexicantown and south, a narrow strip of land lying along Route 75 that’s further from the center of Detroit than it is from the centers of 5 surrounding cities: River Rouge, Ecorse, Dearborn, Melvindale, and Lincoln Park. This area was Stillwell township before being added to Detroit in 1922. If removed from Detroit control the property values would likely rise. The people could easily contract education or police with any of the 5 surrounding cities that were previously parts of Stillwell township. Alternately, this newly created township might easily elect to join one of the surrounding communities entirely. All the surrounding communities offer lower crime and better services than Detroit. Most manage to do it with lower tax rates too.

Another community worth removing from Detroit is the western suburb previously known as Greenfield, This community was absorbed into Detroit in 1925. Like the Mexicantown area, this part of Detroit still has a majority of the houses occupied, and the majority of the businesses are viable enough that the area could reasonably stand on its own. Operating as a township, they could bring back whatever services they consider more suitable to their population. They would be in control of their own destiny.

 

Detroit Teachers are not paid too much

Detroit is bankrupt financially, but not because the public education teachers have negotiated rich contracts. If anything Detroit teachers are paid too little given the hardship of their work. The education problem in Detroit, I think, is with the quality of education, and of life. Parents leave Detroit, if they can afford it; students who can’t leave the city avoid the Detroit system by transferring to private schools, by commuting to schools in the suburbs, or by staying home. Fewer than half of Detroit students are in the Detroit public schools.

The average salary for a public school teacher in Detroit is (2013) $51,000 per year. That’s 3% less than the national average and $3,020/year less than the Michigan average. While some Detroit teachers are paid over $100,000 per year, a factoid that angers some on the right, that’s a minority of teachers, only those with advanced degrees and many years of seniority. For every one of these, the Detroit system has several assistant teachers, substitute teachers, and early childhood teachers earning $20,000 to $25,000/ year. That’s an awfully low salary given their education and the danger and difficulty of their work. It’s less than janitors are paid on an annual basis (janitors work more hours generally). This is a city with 25 times the murder rate in the rest of the state. If anything, good teachers deserve a higher salary.

Detroit public schools provide among the worst math education in the US. In 2009, showing the lowest math proficiency scores ever recorded in the 21-year history of the national math proficiency test. Attendance and graduation are low too: Friday attendance averages 71.2%, and is never as high as 80% on any day. The high-school graduation rate in Detroit is only 29.4%. Interested parents have responded by shifting their children out of the Detroit system at the rate of 8000/year. Currently, less than half of school age children go to Detroit public schools (51,070 last year); 50,076 go to charter schools, some 9,500 go to schools in the suburbs, and 8,783, those in the 5% in worst-performing schools, are now educated by the state reform district.

Outside a state run reform district school, The state has taken over the 5% worst performing schools.

The state of Michigan has taken over the 5% worst performing schools in Detroit through their “Reform District” system. They provide supplies and emphasize job-skills.

Poor attendance and the departure of interested students makes it hard for any teacher to handle a class. Teachers must try to teach responsibility to kids who don’t show up, in a high crime setting, with only a crooked city council to look up to. This is a city council that oversaw decades of “pay for play,” where you had to bribe the elected officials to bid on projects. Even among officials who don’t directly steal, there is a pattern of giving themselves and their families fancy cars or gambling trips to Canada using taxpayers dollars. The mayor awarded Cadillac Escaldes to his family and friends, and had a 22-man team of police to protect him. On this environment, a teacher has to be a real hero to achieve even modest results.

Student departure means there a surfeit of teachers and schools, but it is hard to see what to do. You’d like to reassign teachers who are on the payroll, but doing little, and fire the worst teachers. Sorry to say, it’s hard to fire anyone, and it’s hard to figure out which are the bad teachers; just because your class can’t read doesn’t mean you are a bad teacher. Recently a teacher of the year was fired because the evaluation formula gave her a low rating.

Making changes involves upending union seniority rules. Further, there is an Americans with Disability Act that protects older teachers, along with the lazy, the thief, and the drug addict — assuming they claim disability by frailty, poor upbringing or mental disease. To speed change along, I would like to see the elected education board replaced by an appointed board with the power to act quickly and the responsibility to deliver quality education within the current budget. Unlike the present system, there must be oversight to keep them from using the money on themselves.

She state could take over more schools into the reform school district, or they could remove entire school districts from Detroit incorporation and make them Michigan townships. A Michigan township has more flexibility in how they run schools, police, and other services. They can run as many schools as they want, and can contract with their neighbors or independent suppliers for the rest. A city has to provide schools for everyone who’s not opted out. Detroit’s population density already matches that of rural areas; rural management might benefit some communities.

I would like to see the curriculum modified to be more financially relevant. Detroit schools could reinstate classes in shop and trade-skills. In effect that’s what’s done at Detroit’s magnet schools, e.g. the Cass Academy and the Edison Academy. It’s also the heart of several charter schools in the state-run reform district. Shop class teaches math, an important basis of science, and responsibility. If your project looks worse than your neighbor’s, you can only blame yourself, not the system. And if you take home your work, there is that reward for doing a good job. As a very last thought, I’d like to see teachers paid more than janitors; this means that the current wage structure has to change. If nothing else, a change would show that there is a monetary value in education.

Robert Buxbaum, August 16, 2013; I live outside Detroit, in one of the school districts that students go to when they flee the city.

Crime: US vs UK and Canada

The US has a lot of guns and a lot of murders compared to England, Canada, and most of Europe. This is something Piers Morgan likes to point out to Americans who then struggle to defend the wisdom of gun ownership and the 2nd Amendment: “How do you justify 4.8 murders/year per 100,000 population when there are only 1.6/year per 100,000 in Canada, 1.2/year per 100,000 in the UK, and 1.0/year per 100,000 in Australia — countries with few murders and tough anti-gun laws?,” he asks. What Piers doesn’t mention, is that these anti-gun countries have far higher contact crime (assault) rates than the US, see below.

Contact Crime Per Country

Contact crime rates for 17 industrialized countries. From the Dutch Ministry of Justice. Click here for details about the survey and a breakdown of crimes.

The differences narrow somewhat when considering most violent crimes, but we still have far fewer than Canada and the UK. Canada has 963/year per 100,000 “most violent crimes,” while the US has 420/year per 100,000. “Most violent crimes” here are counted as: “murder and non-negligent manslaughter,” “forcible rape,” “robbery,” and “aggravated assault” (FBI values). England and Wales classify crimes somewhat differently, but have about two times the US rate, 775/year per 100,000, if “most violent crimes” are defined as: “violence against the person, with injury,” “most serious sexual crime,” and “robbery.”

It is possible that the presence of guns protects Americans from general crime while making murder more common, but it’s also possible that gun ownership is a murder deterrent too. Our murder rate is 1/5 that of Mexico, 1/4 that of Brazil, and 1/3 that of Russia; all countries with strong anti-gun laws but a violent populous. Perhaps the US (Texan) penchant for guns is what keeps Mexican gangs on their, gun-control side of the border. Then again, it’s possible that guns neither increase nor decrease murder rates, so that changing our laws would not have any major effect. Switzerland (a country with famously high gun ownership) has far fewer murders than the US and about 1/2 the rate of the UK: 0.7 murders/ year per 100,000. Japan, a country with low gun ownership has hardly any crime of any sort — not even littering. As in the zen buddhist joke, change comes from within.

Homicide rate per country

Homicide rate per country

One major theory for US violence was that drugs and poverty were the causes. Remove these by stricter anti-drug laws and government welfare, and the violent crime would go away. Sorry to say, it has not happened; worse yet, murder rates are highest in cities like Detroit where welfare is a way of life, and where a fairly high fraction of the population is in prison for drugs.

I suspect that our welfare payments have hurt Detroit as much as they’ve helped, and that Detroit’s higher living wage, has made it hard for people to find honest work. Stiff drug penalties have not helped Detroit either, and may contribute to making crimes more violent. As Thomas More pointed out in the 1500s, if you are going to prison for many years for a small crime, you’re more likely to use force to avoid risk capture. Perhaps penalties would work better if they were smaller.

Charity can help a city, i think, and so can good architecture. I’m on the board of two charities that try to do positive things, and I plant trees in Detroit (sometimes).

R. E. Buxbaum, July 10, 2013. To make money, I sell hydrogen generators: stuff I invented, mostly.

Detroit: maximum punishment

Some moths ago, I argued that getting rid of its extra-high minimum wage was perhaps the single best thing that Detroit could do to improve its bankrupt finances and to provide jobs for its youth. I argued that this living wage of $11 or $14/hr, depending on whether healthcare was provided, was too much for the city to pay for it’s minimal skill workers. I also argued that a lower minimum wage would help the city finances, and would allow the unskilled of Detroit to find jobs: it would provide the first rung of a ladder. Well, sort-of good news: Detroit’s living wage has been declared unenforceable by the Michigan Supreme court.

Unenforceable does not mean that wages will lower immediately: anyone working for the city will keep their high salary job, so the finances of the city will remain strained. Also, private companies can not lower anyone’s contracted wages. The only difference is that workers on non-city jobs who agree to be paid $7.50 to $14/hr, can no longer sue to recover additional dollars to meet Detroit’s “living wage.” Bit by bit I expect that more low-skilled workers will be hired, and that their wages will stabilize downward to a free-market value.

The next big things that are needed are reduced crime and increased population who are employed in businesses other than selling drugs or themselves. One way to reduce crime, I think is to have less-stiff minimum penalties for non-violent crimes like drug possession and driving with a suspended license. Currently the penalty for possession runs to 15-20 years. No one who spends that much time in prison will fit back into society. Let’s do them and ourselves a favor by reducing minimum sentences so that the normal sentence is only 1-5 years (ideally with < 1 oz marijuana possession punished by a fine).

Another horror is the penalty for driving with a suspended license. It’s $3000 for a start (a reasonable amount, I think), but then the state adds a $4000 per year penalty for the next 3 years: a total of $15,000. That’s too much for a minimum-wage earner to pay, but the minimum wage earner needs a car to get to work. So he/she can’t work, or he/she drives without a license or insurance. Is this what we want? Lets give a second chance and lower the penalty to produce more working, law-abiding citizens. There is nothing wrong with Detroit that could not be fixed by 200,000 more, law-abiding, employed Detroiters.

R.E. Buxbaum owns REB Research, a maker of hydrogen purifiers and hydrogen generators. We used to be located in Detroit, but are now in Oakland county, 1/2 mile north of the Detroit border.