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To stop crime and urban disorder, read Hobbes

The great 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that the most basic human instinct is to escape the threat of bodily harm. Corporate America is currently engaged in an experiment to see if Hobbes was right. Will companies stick to their loud and clear commitment to social responsibility? Or will they follow Hobbes and retreat from the growing crime and disorder of urban America?

Chicago has the dubious distinction of being at the center of this grand experiment, with 802 people shot dead in 2021, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, compared to 774 in 2020, and rampant violence and disorder. Fear clearly wins. On October 5, Tyson Foods Inc. announced the closure of its downtown Chicago office to consolidate office workers from its global headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas.

This comes on top of a string of high-profile moves: in May, the aerospace giant Boeing Co. announced it was moving its headquarters to suburban Washington, DC; in June, construction titan Caterpillar Inc. announced it was moving its base from Chicago to the Dallas area; a week later, Ken Griffin announced that he was moving his hedge fund Citadel’s main office to Miami. Griffin made it clear that the main reason for leaving Chicago (which he likened to “Afghanistan, on a good day”) was because his employees no longer felt safe getting to and from work.

US crime statistics are notoriously difficult to interpret given the size of the country and the variety of its 18,000 state and police authorities, ranging from leviathans to minnows. The difficulty of interpretation is multiplied by changes the FBI is making to its method of calculating crime and the failure of more than a third of law enforcement nationwide to submit evidence for the 2021 Crime in Crime report. the Nation.

The picture is complicated but depressing. The FBI reported that overall violent crime fell 1% in 2020, but homicides rose 4.3%. In contrast, a Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) survey of 70 urban areas found that homicides and rapes declined slightly between the first half of 2021 and the same period in 2022, but violent crime overall increased by 4.4%.

Still, it’s fair to say that violent crime is significantly higher than it was in the early 2000s. (Changes over time in the methodology and size of national surveys can skew direct comparisons.) The level of crime violence fell sharply from the 1990s before stabilizing at a lower level. In particular, big cities entered a relatively quiet period, as a new breed of pragmatic (and often Republican) big-city mayors such as Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, Bob Lanier in Houston and Rudy Giuliani in New York implemented strict crime policies. (It’s easy to forget, given his current pitiful state, that Giuliani made a name for himself as an anti-crime mayor.) Then everything started to change again, starting in the mid-2010s and then in s Accelerating: Between mid-to-mid 2020, MCCA member cities saw a 50% increase in murders and a 36% increase in aggravated assaults.

The jump in violent crime is occurring amid growing civic unrest. When I visited America a few months ago after a long absence during the Covid-19 pandemic, passing through Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, I was struck by how much the tenor of the daily life had deteriorated. Tent cities proliferated, proof that homelessness was not a problem to be tackled but a way of life. The beggars were more aggressive and more ubiquitous. Urban pharmacies had taken to locking everything up, creating the feeling of a beleaguered society. The streets of New York made the streets of London look pristine by comparison. The sweet smell of marijuana was everywhere. A disconcerting number of people on the street appeared to behave oddly, even dangerously, perhaps reflecting the high prevalence (up to 25%) of serious mental illness among homeless people. Problems that had always existed on the fringes of urban society moved to center stage.

As for the general mess, the test case isn’t Chicago (although it makes a good attempt to claim the title with locals renaming the ‘beautiful mile’ the ‘killer mile’) but San Francisco. Convenience store theft has been a fact of life in the city for years, as has homelessness and open drug use. A 2014 ballot initiative to raise the theft penalty threshold to $950 did not help. Malefactors now act as if their actions have no negative consequences: online videos show thieves carrying goods out of CVS and other stores and, in one case, a mob of 20-40 people staging a raid at high speed on Union Square Louis Vuitton store.

In addition to driving some major corporate headquarters out of city centers, the Hobbesian imperative directly and indirectly has two other marked effects on city life.

First, stores are closing in the most crime-infested areas. Starbucks is closing branches over concerns about violence and drug use, a reversal of its previous commitment to welcome everyone and anyone, regardless of behavior or willingness to buy coffee. Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens are closing dozens of stores for fear of crime and disorder. Mom and pop stores are also closing: One study suggests that each additional firearm homicide in a city cut the number of retail and service businesses by two over the following year.

Second, companies must take painful steps to train their employees to deal with the reality of violent crime. Stores that remain in city centers are increasing the number of security guards they employ while reducing their opening hours. Noodles & Company trains its workers on how to react if they discover casual drug use in their bathrooms. MOD Pizza installs panic buttons in stores and provides emotional support resources to employees after an incident. Employees are instructed never to leave the back doors of restaurants open. Fresh Market Place in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood provides all employees with safety training and coaching to avoid confrontations and de-escalate conflict. This columnist was surprised when, as part of his “new hire” training at Bloomberg Opinion, he was asked to watch a video on what to do if an armed attacker invades the office.

Before the pandemic, it was fashionable to speak of an urban renaissance as young workers returned to cities in search of stimulation, and savvy businesses followed suit. The New York Times published a celebratory article on “why America’s businesses are moving from the suburbs to the city”. McDonald’s Corp. and Motorola Solutions Inc. have moved their headquarters to downtown Chicago from their respective suburbs, Oak Brook and Schaumburg. General Electric moved its headquarters from its wooded 70-acre campus in Fairfield, Connecticut, to a red-brick warehouse in Boston in a bid to rebrand itself and attract what then-chief executive Jeffrey Immelt, called a “diverse, technology-savvy workforce. .”

The urban renaissance is now well and truly over: Far from getting sentimental about city life, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinksi recently gave a shout out to the Economic Club of Chicago. “What’s going on in Chicago?…There’s a general feeling there that our city is in crisis…We have violent crime happening in our restaurants…we’re seeing homelessness issues in our restaurants , we have drug overdoses happening in our restaurants.

But two things are worth noting as we write the rebirth obituary. First, it was always exaggerated. The flight of people and businesses from the cities to the suburbs and from the northeast to the Sunbelt continued throughout the supposed renaissance (although California increasingly acted as a northeast state rather than as a Sunbelt state). In particular, New York, Chicago, and Boston continued to lose headquarters just as the towns and suburbs of the Sunbelt continued to gain them.

Second, it is wrong to think that the renaissance is just another casualty of Covid and the work-from-home movement that Covid has intensified. This is the result of the toxic combination of Covid and growing disorder. Return-to-office rates are significantly higher in Sunbelt cities where people drive to work than in cities where they rely on public transportation. No matter how many benefits companies offer or how many warnings they issue, workers are reluctant to come to work if it means putting themselves in danger on the subway (at the end of May, a Goldman Sachs employee was shot dead in a New York City subway train) or negotiate their way past homeless encampments and aggressive beggars as they walk from the subway to the office.

The tragedy of America’s corporate flight from inner cities is that policymakers have a proven solution to the problem. This is Hobbes-ism plus: accept the truth of Hobbes’ view that the fundamental duty of the state is to preserve law and order, but add that it can only succeed in doing so if it tackles the broader social issues of homelessness and substance abuse. Hobbes-ism plus was once the dominant thought of the centre-left when the left dominated politics, most memorably expressed by Tony Blair’s phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. He was also influential in Republican circles when Republican reformers captured town halls in several major cities promising to mix crime fighting with a broader range of policies to help the poor.

Today, it is difficult to see a traditional politician adopting both the “Hobbes” side and the “more” side of this formula. True, New York replaced Bill de Blasio with Eric Adams, a more moderate ex-cop, and San Francisco recalled some of its more extreme progressives. But the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is still ascending while the Republican Party has practically abandoned the “urbia” for the “ex-urbia” and the countryside. Hobbes taught that the “war of all against all” can only be resolved by a strong and responsible Leviathan. Until America can resolve its crisis of urban government, dreams of a knowledge worker-led urban renaissance and agglomeration effects are destined to remain as they are.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Don’t blame progressive prosecutors for rising crime: Jennifer Doleac

• New York crime wave shows signs of breaking: Justin Fox

• What is dangerous is the lack of data on crime in the United States: Matthew Yglesias

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is a global economics columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at The Economist, he is the author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World”.

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