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Old time journalist/moviemaker Ben Hecht once memorably advised that trying to understand the world by following the daily news is like trying to tell the time by watching a clock's second hand go around.

The ebbs and flows and ups and downs of human events — each twist and every turn sizzling with the counterfeit importance of being "the latest" — often distract us from longer-term developments that matter more.

Consider our current discussions of crime.

On Sept. 2, the Star Tribune published an extensive report under the headline: "After three violent years, crime is dropping in Minneapolis." But the subhead quickly qualified the glad tidings: "There are some caveats, and the city is still not back to the historic lows preceding 2020."

Ten days later came another equivocal news flash: "Minnesota's violent crime went down in 2022, but not significantly, new BCA report finds." The subhead elaborated on the muddle: "Some view the decrease in violent crime as a positive trend following a spike during the pandemic; others say the rates are still much higher than in 2019."

Asked the other day to untangle this good news/bad news riddle, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey boldly confirmed the mixed messages, declaring that "both sides are right." Crime is down, he said — and it's still too prevalent.

With a vice-chairwoman of the DFL, a onetime advocate of dismantling the Minneapolis police force, making news this month by angrily reporting a violent carjacking outside her home — and with more than 30 law enforcement agencies pulling cops from schools in protest of new laws they believe handcuff officers stationed there, it's easy to see why a certain skittishness prevails in celebrations of potentially fleeting year-to-year improvements in crime numbers.

In some ways Democrats' problem on crime, in Minnesota and beyond, is akin to their frustration with the politics of "Bidenomics." Like crime rates, inflation has fallen, and unemployment has stayed low, yet polls suggest Americans remain disgruntled with the economy, much to the frustration of President Joe Biden and his admirers.

One of those admirers, New York Times' columnist Paul Krugman, recently noted the "eerily strong" resemblance "between how people talk about crime and how they talk about the economy." Ignorance and partisanship, he argues, produce on both topics "a similar disconnect between what people tell pollsters they believe is happening and what the available facts say."

More likely, the "available facts" that matter to real people simply have more to do with their grocery bills than with economic statistics. After decades of low inflation, the price surges of 2021-22 shocked Americans, left them wondering whether the people in charge know what they're doing, while the "new normal" of a lastingly higher level of prices is a continuing burden for people of normal means. A Star Tribune report last week on the continuing drop in Minnesotans' "real" (inflation-adjusted) incomes tells the story.

The nation's great political minds apparently had forgotten how ruinously unpopular inflation can be — largely because, unlike unemployment or a stock market slide, it affects literally everybody.

Crime is more selective about victims. According to the Minneapolis crime dashboard, almost two-thirds of shootings this year have occurred in three of the city's 13 wards, more than 80% in five wards. But crime, too, leaves lasting anxieties. As I noted in a column four years ago, crime has taken Americans on a wild ride over many decades. From the early 1990s until the last couple of years, crime rates plummeted across America for reasons not well understood. So the surge in violence of the past three-plus years, following the onset of the pandemic and the George Floyd upheaval, shook people deeply, even those too young or too forgetful to remember the great crime wave of the 1960s-80s.

That violence-plagued era, with its much-discussed "super-predators," inspired a cocksure consensus among politicians (politicians like Joe Biden and Bill and Hillary Clinton, among many others) favoring a dry-eyed crackdown on crime — three strike laws, mandatory minimums, civil commitment for sex offenders, etc., etc. It did much to fuel the "mass incarceration" that became a political preoccupation once crime rates had subsided for a few decades.

So sharp swings in attitudes about crime are nothing new; neither are dramatic and largely mysterious changes in crime rates. To get a better sense of where we are, it might pay to consider the longer-term trends.

Yes, compared with the bloody years of 2020-22, Minneapolis crime is significantly lower this year in many (not all) key categories, especially crimes involving gunplay, according to the city's data. But yes, the levels remain elevated from the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

Meanwhile, although it's true that 2018-19 saw "historic lows" in rates of violence, homicide rates in fact had been running low in the city since about 2008, according to FBI statistics.

As for crime's historic trajectory, Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension provides a database that allows some comparisons going back to the Great Depression. Recognizing that changes in data collection, crime definitions, rates of reporting various crimes and more make such comparisons inexact, it tells quite a story.

If we focus only on the most serious violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — the BCA data reveals a rate of about 47 offenses per 100,000 Minnesotans in 1936. The rate was actually a little lower by 1960, at 41.

Then everything changed. By 1970, Minnesota's rate for these four violent offenses per 100,000 almost quadrupled, to 156. Twenty years after that it had nearly doubled again, to 292 — about seven times the level of 40 years before.

As I noted in 2019, in "The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America," criminologist Barry Latzer reported that if the crime rates of 1975-84 became permanent, 80% of Americans would be victims of at least one violent crime in their lifetimes.

But after 1990 the crime wave began to recede — for, as noted, some complex combination of reasons. By 2019, before our recent "three violent years," Minnesota's rate of the most violent crimes had fallen by 25% from its peak in the early '90s. Even so, this still left the level of crime far higher than it had ever been a half-century earlier. (This trajectory generally tracks historical FBI data on crime across the U.S.)

The story the longer view tells is this: America (Minnesota included) has been traumatized by crime since the 1960s. Steady reductions in violence after 1990 eased concerns and made a new normal of historically high crime palatable — so long as the improvement continued. The crime surge of recent years has rekindled smoldering fears, and it will take more than one year's ambiguous reductions to extinguish them.