Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in the United States fell 51 percent, from 9.8 per 100,000 residents to 4.8 per 100,000. Property crimes such as burglary also fell sharply during that period; auto theft . . . dropped an astonishing 64 percent. . . the trends continued in the first half of 2011. . . . the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957. . . . the United States is still more violent than Europe or Canada. . . But . . . is far, far safer than it was as recently as the late 1980s. . . .
Crime’s continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the . . . myth that hard times force people into illegal activity. . . . Yet recent history also refutes . . . [those] who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage “superpredators” would unleash a new crime wave. Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates. . . . Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities. . . . [I]ncarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime. . . . [But,] crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place. . . . what’s most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes. . . . state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008. This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime — and its most troubling byproduct. But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink.
Incarceration rates in the U.S. are still unrivaled in the world, despite falling slightly, but the U.S. has reduced its use of the death penalty by every measure: new death penalty convictions, executions carried out, and circumstances when its imposition is permitted. The single largest source of executions in the world, China, has greatly reduced its use of the death penalty in the last few years.
Disproportionate federal criminal sentences for crack cocaine use have been materially moderated. DNA testing has produced the exoneration of many wrongfully convicted individuals while producing convictions for suspects who could have been shown to be guilty of rapes in no other way. The use of DNA in burglary cases has produced convictions of individuals guilty of hundreds of burglaries each.
Teen consumption of hard drugs has fallen. Cocaine and meth are a lot less popular than they used to be. Criminal gangs are less powerful. The decriminalization of medical marijuana in a variety of states has turned would be criminals into tax paying small business owners filling a gap in the economy during hard economic times. More teens who need prescription drugs for mental health problems are getting them.
The decline in crime is not the only good news.
Accidental deaths have declined dramatically on an age and population adjusted basis (increasing population increases accidental deaths and some accidental death causes like falls have always been heavily geriatric), in every category except accidental deaths from prescription drugs (mostly a small subset of prescription painkillers often fraudulently obtained). It is now almost as safe to work in a factory as it is to work in an office or retail store, and for most kinds of workers, ordinary automobile accidents and homicides that happen to occur on the job are the most common causes of work related deaths (farming remains the least reformed in terms of worker safety). Drunken driving deaths, in particular, are way down, and traffic deaths generally are now less frequent than accidental deaths from prescription drugs.
Suicides are also down, although some of that can be attributed to deaths that might otherwise have been treated as suicides being classified as accidental prescription drug overdoses.
Dramatic reductions in smoking, early detection of cancers, and improved cancer therapies have reduced deaths from cancer dramatically. Improved treatment regimes like cholesterol control drugs, asprin therapy and moderate alcohol consumption, as well as reductions in smoking, have reduced deaths from cardiovascular diseases. The life expectency of people with HIV and AIDS has expanded greatly as treatment options have improved, and new infection rates are not increasing, although they aren't really falling either. Progress has been made in finding treatments for spinal injuries and in the way that trauma can be treated in specialized emergency room settings.
Births to pre-teens and teenagers are at record lows, and this is due to fewer teen pregnancies, not rising abortion rates, as abortion rates are also at record post-Roe v. Wade lows (for all ages). Births to poor women have fallen to rates similar to those of more affluent women, limiting excacerbation of their poverty. Infant mortality and pre-term births have also become less common. Emergency contraception has become more widely available, preventing unwanted pregnancies, and drugs like RU-486 have made early term abortions more widely available and less traumatic to obtain.
Divorce rates have fallen significantly for college educated couples.
Air pollution has declined somewhat, motor vehicle fuel efficiency has increased significiantly, lighting energy efficiency has made dramatic strides, renewable power production has surged, and exposures to lead and mercury are greatly reduced. Hybrid cars, plug in electric cars, and fuel efficient microcars have entered the mass market.
The percentage of people who are graduating from high school, and who are obtaining further education after high school, is rising.
Housing is more affordable than it has been for decades. Consumer debt is falling signficantly. Inflation is negligable. Federal tax rates are at near record lows. Customs duties, quotas and other barriers to international trade are far less common than they were several decades ago. Illegal immigrant populations have fallen, and the government facilitated part of that decline has disproportionately focused on convicted criminals. Government leaders in every political party at every level of government take seriously the need to facilitate a positive economic environment for business, even though they disagree about how to make that happen.
Streaming high quality video has become widespread and affordable. The cost of long distance calling within the United States has greatly declined. Mobile phones and mobile internet access are available to the masses. Electronic books have become feasible and widespread. While it once cost a considerable sum of money to buy an encyclopedia for home use, now, access to information sources just as vast, including full text scholarly journal articles in many disciplines, are now freely available. You can get a good summary of your genome for a couple of hundred dollars and a whole genome which was impossible to get at any cost a couple of decades ago can now be sequenced for a few thousand dollars.
Fast, relatively painless, modest risk surgical correction of nearsightedness is now possible for about the cost of ten pairs of glasses, and contact lens are now cheap, disposable and better in quality than they used to be.
Gay rights have made significant advances: several states permit gay marriage, more permit civil unions, gays can now serve openly in the military, and the U.S. Justice Department has decided to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act's decision to not recognize same sex marriages that are valid under state law. Many states, including Colorado, have adopted laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The percentage of people who identify as non-religious has grown dramatically, and with it so has the social acceptability of that religious self-identification. Fundamentalist evangelical sects have seen their growth plateau in favor of less politically minded non-denominational megachurches. We are seeing patterns of secularization in the United States similar to those seen in Europe a generation or two earlier.
The war in Iraq is over and no more U.S. troops remain stationed there. The practice of disregarding the legal rights of U.S. citizens and legal aliens suspected of terrorism in the United States, while remaining a threat, is no longer a matter of administration policy, the adminstration has ceased to rely on torture and widespread extraordinary rendition of prisoners aimed at facilitating human rights abuses, and the terrorism souced paranoia in the nation's airports has ebbed a bit. Osama bin Laden and a very large share of other senior al-Queda leaders have been killed or captured, including almsot everyone with direct involvement in the 9-11 attacks. The Taliban went from being on the very of ruling all of Afghanistan to being routed in Afghanistan where they have been replaced with a fragile new civilian regime, although a low level Taliban insurgency continues there and across the border in Northwest Pakistan.
Two decades after the end of Soviet style communism, many of the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations have significantly reformed themselves in a Western democratic capitalist model, and few are more totalitarian than they were in the Soviet era. China's path towards market based economic reforms has continued and its totalitarian limitations on personal freedom and political express have loosened somewhat. China and Taiwan are on a path towards more detente. Dictatorships have been ousted in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia. The South Sudanese have secured independence from an oppressive regime in the North. Burma is taken steps towards restoring civilan rule and Nigeria has the most democratic civilian leadership it has had in decades. Kim Jong Il is death and there is some reason to think his son who has become his successor will be at least no worse and probably somewhat better in governing his nation than his father.
Less recently, but also notably, dictatorships in Indonesia and Iraq have been replaced with fragile emerging democracies, and democracy has made progress in Pakistan. East Timor has held onto its political independence and democratic government. Kosovo has been established as a functional independent nation. Most of the most prominent Serbian war criminals are dead or have been brought before international human rights tribunals. The humanitarian fallout from natural disasters in Haiti have begun to resolve itself without resulting in the ouster of a democratically elected civilian government that followed decades of totalitarian rule. Long civil wars in Sri Lanka and Mozambique and Ethiopia ended (giving birth to the sovereign nation of Eritrea in the last case). Long years of seemingly never ending suicide bombings in Israel have declined to a trickle, and the Palestinian Authority has more authority and is more democratic than it has been in many decades past. Civil wars in Bosnia, Ivory Coast and Liberia are over. Cuba is easing up slightly on its restrictions on private ownership of property and private enterprise. The struggle with near sovereign narcotics cartels in much of Columbia has grown far less intense. A campaign of genocide in Darfur, Sudan has been tamed, even though that regimes abuses of not ended. Violence related to disputed sovereignty in Kashmir has ebbed. Kate Middleton's marriage to Prince William has given the world a delightfully perfect new princess of the countries of the British Commonwealth to gossip over. Absolute monachs in Jordan and Morocco have adopted democratic reforms.
Democracy, freedom, peace and economic prosperity aren't universally making gains in the world. Mexico continues to be immersed in an orgy of drug related violence and political turmoil (in Veracruz it was so bad that the city recently fired every single employee of the police force and Navy sailors stepped in to patrol the city while it the civilian police force was rebuilt from the ground up). Unemployment in the U.S., much of it long term, remains high, and declining consumer debt is often rooted in foreclosures and bankruptcies. Europe faces a sovereign debt crisis that threaten the E.U. economies and eurozone as a whole. Iran is still sword rattling in the Persian Gulf. Syria is violently cracking down on dissent from its dictatorial regime. Sudan is indiscriminately dropping bombs on the communities of the Nuba Mountain area and bullying newly independent South Sudan over oil pipeline charges. Depots still reign in many of the "stans" of the former Soviet Union, an active and violent insurgency continues in Chechnyia, and Islamic terrorist violence in Northern Nigeria is surging. Belarus, Venezula and Hungary are at serious risk of becoming fully non-democratic regimes. But, on balance, there is actually more good news than bad out there.