Crime guru James Q. Wilson surveys the evidence for why violent crime rates have dropped so dramatically over the past two decades. The state of the economy, he says, seems to have little to do with it:

One obvious answer is that many more people are in prison than in the past. Experts differ on the size of the effect, but I think that William Spelman and Steven Levitt have it about right in believing that greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter or more of the crime decline.

....There may also be a medical reason for the decline in crime. For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent. In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency required oil companies to stop putting lead in gasoline....A 2007 study by the economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes contended that the reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the 1990s in the U.S. and might bring about greater declines in the future.

....Another shift that has probably helped to bring down crime is the decrease in heavy cocaine use in many states....Drug use among blacks has changed even more dramatically than it has among the population as a whole....Among 13,000 people arrested in Manhattan between 1987 and 1997, a disproportionate number of whom were black, those born between 1948 and 1969 were heavily involved with crack cocaine, but those born after 1969 used very little crack and instead smoked marijuana.

So if I can put words into Wilson's mouth, the decline in crime is perhaps one-quarter due to increased incarceration, one-quarter due to reduced cocaine use, and one half due to reductions in blood lead levels in children. Better policing might be part of it too, though the evidence is spotty. Oddly, though, Wilson's own summary is different: "At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling [...] because of a big improvement in the culture." Aside from the reductions in cocaine and crack use, however, none of this sounds all that cultural to me. It sounds like we cleaned up the environment and built a lot of new prisons. It's hard to see an awful lot of room for cultural explanations here.

My sister headed off to England for a vacation yesterday, and before she left she insisted that I post some extra special catblogging today so that she'd have something good to look at while staving off jet lag on her first evening in town. We always do our best on that front, but it really all depends on the cats, doesn't it?

So how's this? On the left, Inkblot is camped out on our new sofa, which Karen hasn't yet been over to see. So this is her first look at it. Inkblot's bright-eyed expression is due to timing: I took this picture last night just as Marian was shuttling food around for dinnertime, and that perked him up. On the right, Domino is basking (as usual) in the sun this morning. However, this picture's extra specialness was probably dimmed a bit because she kept batting the camera strap around instead of holding still in some kind of extra specially cute pose. Still, I hope this does the job.

Have a good Memorial Day weekend, everyone. There will probably be a light bit of posting this weekend, but normal blogging will resume on Tuesday.

Do you like charts and graphs? If you read this blog, there's a good chance you do. So you might want to check out a new search engine, Zanran, which is specifically designed for finding data and statistics. It's still in beta, and I've only played around with it a little bit, but it seems promising. If you give it a try, let us know in comments what you think.

In an aside to a post about how dismally ignorant Republican lawmakers are about the debt ceiling and what it means, Jon Chait says:

As a journalistic side note, I should point out that Politico has really upped its game and is now producing far more good political coverage than any other outlet, as the large number of my items keying off Politico stories would testify.

You know, that seems to be true. I'm not a religious reader of Politico, and it's not as if they've never run good stuff in the past, but the ratio of solid pieces to idiotic gossipmongering does seem to have gone up lately. Anyone else notice the same thing?

Today's Captain Louis Renault Award goes to the Pakistani military:

Embarrassed by the Osama bin Laden raid and by a series of insurgent attacks on high-security sites, top Pakistani military officials are increasingly concerned that their ranks are penetrated by Islamists who are aiding militants in a campaign against the state....Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who like the government has publicly expressed anger over the secret U.S. raid, was so shaken by the discovery of bin Laden that he told U.S. officials in a recent meeting that his first priority was “bringing our house in order,” according to a senior Pakistani intelligence official.

....It is unclear how authentically committed Kayani and other top military leaders are to cleansing their ranks.

You can count me among those who think it's unclear just how authentically committed the Pakistani military is to rooting out Islamists in its ranks. Or that any of its top officials were genuinely "shaken" by the discovery that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. Or that they seriously expect us to believe they plan to do anything at all about this. As long as these guys are helpful — or perceived to be helpful — in Pakistan's neverending struggle against the Great Satan India, they'll have an endless supply of high-level sponsors. When they're no longer helpful, they'll get purged. American desires really have nothing to do with it.

Karl Smith notes a Gallup poll showing that half of all respondents think more than 20% of Americans are gay or lesbian:

What makes this interesting to me is not that people are bad at demographics.

It's that I would assume that people’s immediate experience is influencing their estimate of all of America. Yet, 52% of America can’t be experiencing anything like 1 out of every 5 people I know is gay.

So my guess is that most people don’t really get what these numbers mean in terms of their daily life. Of course, to some extent we already knew that but it always interesting to see it come out in actual data.

Yes, people in general are pretty bad with numbers, but I think the real explanation for this is a lot simpler: gay and lesbian issues have been getting a lot of attention in the news lately, and that naturally makes people think they're more numerous than they really are. And personal experience probably has little to do with it. They themselves might know very few gays, but they just figure that's because all the gay people live in San Francisco or Seattle or New York.

The real number, by the way, is around 3-4%.

During the financial crisis the Fed made hundreds of billions of dollars available to European central banks in order to facilitate payments that needed to be made in U.S. dollars. But Bloomberg’s Bob Ivry reports that there was much more going on: the Fed was actually making direct — and very secret — loans to European banks at interest rates as low as 0.01%.

The $80 billion initiative, called single-tranche open- market operations, or ST OMO, made 28-day loans from March through December 2008, a period in which confidence in global credit markets collapsed after the Sept. 15 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

....“I wasn’t aware of this program until now,” said U.S. Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who chaired the House Financial Services Committee in 2008 and co- authored the legislation overhauling financial regulation. The law does require the Fed to release details of any open-market operations undertaken after July 2010, after a two-year lag.

....Credit Suisse’s borrowing peaked at about $45 billion in September 2008....RBS’s use of ST OMO hit about $30 billion in October 2008....Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank’s use peaked at about $20 billion in October 2008, its chart shows.

This is via Felix Salmon, who comments:

Why did the Fed set up a short-term lending program which seems to have been aimed overwhelmingly at European banks? And how does lending $45 billion to Credit Suisse support the flow of credit to U.S. households, in any but the most circuitous manner? It’s probably not worth asking the Fed these questions. But it does seem that the governments of Switzerland, Germany, France, and the UK should all be sending thank-you letters to 33 Liberty Street if they haven’t already done so: it’s entirely possible that the New York Fed bailed out their banks without those governments even knowing about it. That’s just how generous we are, in this country.

A recent tweet from Tim Pawlenty:

Seriously? This is the kind of childishness it takes to compete for the tea party vote these days? "Aren’t there any grown-ups left in the GOP?" asks Mark Kleiman.

Alex Tabarrok links to a New Orleans Times-Picayune story showing the dramatic effects of school reform in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It's impressive. Statewide, the number of kids scoring at basic or above went up about five percentage points. In New Orleans it went up around 25 points in the charter-oriented Recovery School District.

Still, be careful. New Orleans has changed a lot in the past six years. The median income has increased from $31,000 to $40,000. The black share of the population has decreased by five percentage points. And the share of residents living in high poverty neighborhoods has gone down by nearly ten percentage points. Those are pretty big changes, and all of them are well known drivers of test scores.

At a glance, the New Orleans test scores look even more impressive than you'd expect when you take those demographic changes into account. But we'll need a considerably more detailed analysis before we can genuinely conclude that their educational reforms have really worked.

GE is bullish on solar power:

Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

“If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.

....GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent....The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent so far this year, and the cost of solar power is now about the same as the rate utilities charge for conventional power in the sunniest parts of California, Italy and Turkey.

Now all we have to do is find lots of sunny places to put it all.