Numbers don’t add up

Most of the news coverage associated with the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery focuses on the least likely outcome.

In a Google News search of the subject by name, nine of the 10 returned results on the first page are headlined by winning tickets, winners themselves or ticket sales.

One woman wins $2 million lottery … Little Rock man wins $1 million scratch-off ticket … instant-ticket record sales in January …

Clicking through the first five pages of search results, the word “student”—the supposed beneficiary of all this—appears in only one of the 50 total headlines. It’s crowded out by more giddy and gaudy story headers that appeal to high-roller instincts: Sky-high jackpots … Sales Keep Soaring … Unique Ways to Win … This is Winning! New Slogan …

We shouldn’t be surprised that a numbers racket, even one sold on noble purposes and promises, peddles foremost the dream of instant treasure.

Indeed, if all you know of the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery is what you read in the news, you’d have no idea of how successful the organization is or isn’t with regard to its mission of funding higher education.

Lost amid the convoluted calculus of prizes, retailer commissions, tax revenue, economic impact and even net proceeds to scholarships is any sort of big-picture or high-level analysis of effect over time on the various measures of collegiate progress. And when it comes to assessing our state’s performance in higher education, the numbers don’t add up well at all.

For starters, we the people were originally asked back in 2008 to sell our souls and amend the state Constitution in exchange for $105 million in scholarship funding, dispensed to students at the rate of $5,000 for each incoming freshman’s first year and the next three at four-year institutions.

Baited.

The lottery scholarship proceeds have never gotten within $10 million of that goal. And instead of $5,000 as pledged, the first-year amount has been slashed by 80 percent, and the four-year total cut by 30 percent.

And switched.

The measly $500 per semester our record-setting lottery is providing freshmen pales even more against warned-against escalation of college costs.

With nearly a decade of lottery decadence at play on our college landscape, there’s enough data to draw reasonable conclusions. In other states where lotteries to fund education had been approved, specifically South Carolina, colleges and universities saw opportunity in games of chance and tuition spiked to such a degree that the lottery wound up making higher education more expensive.

Cost increases here have been more modest (we’re a poorer state) but still significant, especially in light of shrinking scholarship awards.

At the largest public university, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in-state tuition has grown by 28 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars (real dollar costs) since the lottery was approved. Others where tuition hikes exceed that include Southern Arkansas University (31 percent), UA Fort Smith (41 percent) and UA Pine Bluff (46 percent).

At private institutions, where tuition was already much higher, similar inflation-adjusted increases have occurred in the era of lottery scholarships. At Hendrix College, tuition is up 53 percent since lottery scholarships were approved. In 2008, a $5,000 freshman scholarship would have funded 17 percent of tuition there. Today, the $1,000 amount covers only 2 percent.

Even at more affordable state schools, the double-whammy of higher costs and lower scholarships is a demonstrable detriment. At UA Fayetteville, the original $5,000 figure represented two-thirds of freshman tuition. Today, the reneged-on sum of $1,000 is only 11 percent of tuition, and not even 5 percent when including room and board.

It’s bad enough that lottery riches were waved in our faces as a way to make college truly affordable, only to be scaled back to become irrelevant in many cost-of-attendance cases. What’s worse is that luring several billion dollars from citizens’ pockets hasn’t moved important needles like college graduation or enrollment rates.

Jefferson County, home to UA Pine Bluff, ranks 11th in population but was second in lottery sales in January (Pulaski County was first), ahead of more populous and prosperous counties like Benton, Craighead and Washington.

But UAPB’s four-year graduation rate is an abysmal 5.6 percent, which is 75 percent lower than the state average. Even using the more forgiving six-year grad-rate average, Arkansas is still 49th in the nation.

Clearly, the math’s awry.

And not just in the community where people spend more funding lottery scholarships, and university costs are rising faster, yet only six students out of 100 earn a degree in four years.

In all lotteries, the odds are stacked against players. But scholarships should be tilted in students’ favor, and we ought to restore the $5,000 on a merit basis for high school applicants with excellent grades.

Kids with 4.0 GPAs are unlikely to become college dropouts. They are hard-studying students who earned the original declared amount.

More importantly, the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery owes them what was promised in the first place.

If we can live with record lottery sales while not keeping our word to the state’s best and brightest high school graduates, we deserve snake eyes.

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Untenable half-truths

In a representative democracy dominated by dual partisan factions, half-truths are destined to abound in public discourse. They are political leopard spots, unlikely to change, especially in an “information age” that rewards volume over veracity.

Indeed, one theory for modern electioneering might hold that more national elections today are lost than are won. That the candidate whose half-truths wander least from intuitive honesty is less likely to be dismissed by lazy voters.

Regardless of campaign rhetoric, party planks, media bias and shouted soundbites, there are universal truths that are understood, whether or not they can be articulated.

Life isn’t fair. Time waits for no one. Change is inevitable. We all die sometime.

The list of immutable realities, if you sit down to itemize it, is long. And government can neither alter or eliminate any of them. Any government, and any politician, that claims or seeks such ability is either foolish or false; often both in mingled degree.

Thus the appeal of the half-truth: Rather than challenge a broad principle, attack one narrow sliver.

It is easier to argue, for example, about the the plight of poor women mutilated or killed in back-alley abortions than plead the case for killing unborn children a million times a year.

Even abortion-rights proponents always sound the chorus that legal destruction of fetuses should be “rare,” which isn’t really that far from their political opposites who think it should be never. But in the decades since, abortion has been commonplace, not rare. The early restrictions have been eroded and relaxed, till some otherwise reasonable-sounding leaders now seem tone-deaf to barbarism bordering on infanticide.

The Supreme Court justices in 1973, along with the normal majority (to borrow Will Rogers’ sublime designation) of people, would have repulsively rejected any claim of the right to abort a near full-term baby.

In other words, had the argument before the court back then been to secure the reality we have today, the case for abortion would have failed miserably.

That also partly explains the issue’s continued contentiousness, even after all this time. It has trouble living up to a “law of the land” standard because as constructed—not as a legislative product of self-governing democracy, but as a coercive judicial edict—it clashes with the universal truth regarding sanctity of life.

Across the political spectrum, each extreme hurls its half-truths into the public fray, where normal Americans weigh them against innate universalities.

For all nations, legal immigration is better than illegal, and border security is a requirement. Every illegal immigrant not only cheats our country’s laws, but also gains an unjust advantage over legal immigrants properly awaiting their turn.

The politician or party that ultimately polls better probably will be the one whose ideas and solutions least offend those truths.

On matters of crime, race, education, taxes and foreign policy, half-truths dominate discussions, complaints, promises and blame-mongering. Since few people are inclined to truly research any of them, they tend to weigh the untenability of arguments against the true north of their trusted internal American compass.

The principles of limited government and sovereign individual rights are deep-seated in our core. Those particular realities also figure favorably among the best governments ever instituted.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the furthest thing from guarantees of any specific result or outcome, however. Freedom to do wrong is still freedom, and rushing unwisely down an unsound path in search of happiness is still a pursuit.

The purpose of government isn’t to ensure through its power the selection of right choices or right paths. The American experiment has succeeded because, normally speaking, we the people possess foundational moral values buttressed by education and religion.

Only a people with a propensity for good can enjoy liberty and be productive. For people prone to mischief, liberty is an enabler of their vices. Sometimes they run afoul of laws and wind up losing their freedom. More often, they simply fall short of their American potential. Overeating is a problem that produces a host of other problems. So is irresponsible parenting. And drug or alcohol abuse. But they’re also all products of liberty.

America’s strength has always been its people, not its politicians. The true value of our diversity is realized through uniculturalism with respect to universal truths.

The way Will Rogers put it was, the American in the Normal Majority just goes along, “believing in right, doing right, tending to his own business, letting the other fellows alone.”

Stephen Vincent Benet eloquently invoked our infused national spirit to open his 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic poem “John Brown’s Body,” from which a few couplets are pertinent (and beautifully written).

American muse, whose strong

and diverse heart

So many men have tried

to understand

But only made it smaller

with their art,

Because you are as various

as your land …

A friend, an enemy,

a sacred hag

With two tied oceans

in her medicine-bag …

All these you are, and each

is partly you,

And none is false, and none

is wholly true …

So, from a hundred visions,

I make one,

And out of darkness build

my mocking sun.

The perils of neglect

The link between learning and liberty is immutable and indisputable. Every big name involved with America’s founding remarked upon the necessity of education, none more forcibly than George Washington.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote in his Farewell Address in 1796.

“Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” he continued, calling its corollary education an “object of primary importance.”

Today, his words are more likely to be found swept under the proverbial rug than anchoring school mission statements. Fortunately, our state constitution codifies a declaration of educational core values that echoed the general’s sage sentiment.

“Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools,” reads Article 14.

The Twitter-ized, truncated tendency to abandon sentence structure in texts notwithstanding, the rules of language remain intact. “And” is an inclusive conjunction; it means both when connecting two nouns or subjects.

The constitutional precept is really just a restatement of common-sense reality. Before any child can ever truly master the fundamental three Rs of education, he or she must first learn the two Rs of right and wrong. Yet modern curricula focus almost exclusively on teaching students to acquire and apply knowledge and skills—the intelligence requirement.

How many classes are built around moral instruction, and how many tests measure its successful learning? How many Common Core standards explicitly address teaching virtue?

In a search of the Arkansas Department of Education website, the word “standards” returns 8,390 results and the word “knowledge,” 3,820 results. The word “virtue” garners a mere 164 mentions–and 118 of those are contained in “by virtue of” clauses.

Derivative words are even more sparse: “morality,” 37 results; “kindness,” 28 results; “goodness” only seven results, all of which are preceded by either “my” or “thank.”

In sampling several dozens of the framework documents themselves, which cover every class for every grade and number anywhere from around 10 pages to more than 50 each, I never found the word “virtue” at all. Not in English Language Arts, not in Fine Arts, not in Social Studies, not even in the Psychology or Sociology frameworks.

In short, across the gargantuan site containing all manner of curricula descriptions, frameworks, standards and learning services, there’s basically no mention of anything regarding the second half of the declared purpose for Arkansas public schools.

There are hundreds and hundreds of search results for words like “analyze” and “critical thinking” and “explore” and “reason” and “experiment” and “calculate,” as there should be. There is no deficiency in the Department of Education’s demonstrated quest to further intelligence. Where inadequacy exists is in the cultivation of its twin criterion, which happens to be a relatively recent development.

This school year marks the 51st since the National Education Association stopped publishing its American Citizens Handbook. For 27 years, from 1941 to 1967, that volume was an inspiring nationwide model that balanced the instruction of knowledge with the development of virtue among its 400-plus pages.

It built on the foundation previously laid by the McGuffey Readers, 120 million copies of which were sold between Arkansas’ year of statehood, 1836, and 1920. An estimated 80 percent of U.S. schoolchildren were taught using McGuffey books, which embodied the founding-era understanding of virtue as essential to self-government and education the means of instilling it.

Common school visionary Horace Mann lamented the failure to match the Revolution’s governmental transformation with corresponding change in education institutions and structure. “For every dollar given by the wealthy … to colleges to cultivate the higher branches of knowledge, a hundred should have been given to primary education,” he said in his “Go Forth and Teach” speech in 1842.

Incisive perspective at a time when multimillion-dollar gifts to state universities are making headlines.

Noting that our republic allowed the “vote of the veriest ignoramus” to balance that of Franklin or Washington, Mann cast a prudent warning. “With universal suffrage there must be universal elevation of character, intellectual and moral,” he said, “or there will be universal mismanagement and calamity.”

His closing rings prescient.

“Licentiousness shall be the liberty; and violence and chicanery shall be the law …” he predicted, “of that people who neglect the education of their children.”

It would be a mistake to minimize the coincidence of the decline and fall of the NEA’s handbook as an educational influencer with the rise in criminality (every crime is a wrong moral choice).

We have not wholly neglected education—only one part of our constitutional charge, albeit a crucial part.

Perhaps the new legislative women’s caucus, which just addressed educational literacy, will step up, dust off Article 14, and take a leadership role in restoring the teaching of virtue as an educational focus and responsibility.

There’s already a wealth of timeless truths in maxims and essays and lessons out there—two centuries’ worth, enough for lots of effective frameworks for all grades.

All that’s needed now is the will.

Proactivity on recidivism

The news in Jonesboro on Jan. 7 was even more encouraging than the news on Jan. 2 had been discouraging. After suffering the first and second murders of 2019 on the opening two days of the New Year, local law enforcement took decisive, collaborative action.

That weekend, the Jonesboro Police Department swarmed higher-crime neighborhoods, hauling nearly 50 people to jail and issuing warnings and traffic tickets to more than 100 others. Guns, drugs and paraphernalia were also seized.

The successful anti-crime sweep was an immediate response to the city’s murderous New Year violence, but it was also a proactive plan born of months of crime examination, investigation and preparation.

Four days after the large-scale crackdown on criminal activity, the formation of an Organized Criminal Activity Task Force was announced. In a day and age where “senseless” shootings happen far too often, the press conference announcing the task force—the first of its kind in the state—was full of commentary, ideas and conclusions that made exemplary sense.

The basic idea is brilliant in its simplicity. Violent criminals are often repeat offenders, and as such they typically will break a number of minor laws before committing more serious offenses of violence.

If they’re on probation or parole, they are prohibited from associating with other felons and from possessing firearms, for example. Why not catch, prosecute and punish them based on those violations before they move on to worse, more damaging and more harmful crimes?

Through analysis of dozens of serious crimes dating back to 2015, 2nd Judicial District Prosecutor Scott Ellington said his office discovered some important patterns regarding mobility, weaponry and criminal fraternity.

It turns out that police in Blytheville or Osceola are often very familiar with suspects and persons of interest and victims in Jonesboro crimes, he said. Correction Department officials often also knew which violators were on probation or parole. Without a central database, however, there was previously no way to connect the dots when criminals in one city hopped in cars and drove to another city to commit crimes.

What the task force does is bring law enforcement from various cities and counties, and state troopers, as well as local and federal prosecutors and parole/probation officers from corrections all together to proactively share information and strategy.

This broad grouping acknowledges and addresses a key reality: Recidivist criminals know the system, and exploit its gaps and weaknesses.

“Crime goes up when the cost to the criminal comes too cheap,” U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland said at the press conference. The task force’s job, he said, is to make criminality a very expensive prospect.

One good example is felony possession of a firearm, which is prohibited by both state and federal law. Gun-carrying thugs aren’t afraid of a state crime conviction, because its mild penalty might only get them a couple months’ jail time.

One task-force collaborative objective is to federalize those prosecutions, where a conviction can put an offender in prison for five, 10 or up to 15 years depending on criminal history. That gets a bad guy off the streets, and the more it happens the better. Hiland said his office led the nation last year with an 83 percent increase in the number of federal felony possession firearm charges.

A federal case prosecution issue has historically been what the threshold should be.

“Here’s our threshold,” he said. “Is he a bad guy in your community?”

Local law enforcement may not have enough evidence to prosecute a suspect for a battery or robbery crime, for instance. But if they catch him with a gun, and charge him federally, they can lock him up long-term.

What blatantly obvious gun control logic! Target illegal guns and throw the punitive federal book at criminals who carry them.

What great reasoning in rounding up wannabe gang-bangers! Gangs, by definition, are criminals who gather and associate with each other, in violation of parole or probation terms. Since persons on probation and parolees have waived their Fourth Amendment rights, they’re subject to search and seizure without a warrant.

Task-force collaboration–corrections information proactively shared with police–enables effective sweeps like the one in Jonesboro, and Ellington said nearby cities like Blytheville and Osceola can expect similar activity soon.

Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott called the task force the “next generation” of crime fighting, which might be an understatement.

Chronic recidivism is a constant problem among violent criminals, and operating as islands, local prosecutors and police can’t always obtain high-time convictions for criminals with records in other jurisdictions. Coordinating the knowledge and efforts among various law enforcement divisions and jurisdictions is a revolutionary approach that can reduce that crack and others that repeat criminals frequently fall through.

Hopefully this model will spread statewide and beyond. Its successful expansion can put the worst criminals behind bars, and make high-crime communities everywhere safer for everyone.

In an admitted oversimplification, Hiland said there are basically two ways to fight crime. One is to have better people, which the government can’t control.

The other is to be tough on crime. This new task-force initiative not only does that, but does it smarter.

Janus upon us

The ancient namesake of our first calendar month is a Roman exclusive; Janus has no Greek equivalent. A god of beginnings, transitions and endings, Janus was depicted as having two faces: a youthful countenance always looking ahead and an older, bearded one always looking back.

Thus January is a time for retrospect and forecast. As the future is best approached from a solid assessment of the past, it’s worth stretching old Janus’ eyesight a little further rearward as we ring 2018 out.

It so happens that 1968 closed out as a milestone year of its own, and from our perch 50 years hence, there are a wealth of observations with potential lessons.

A good place to begin is with basic counting and accounting. The U.S. was a nation of 200 million people in 1968; our population is nearly 330 million now, representing a living body count growth of 65 percent.

The federal budget in 2018 was $4.4 trillion, which compares to a 1968 budget (in inflation-adjusted dollars) of nearly $1.3 trillion.

An increase of 340 percent in federal spending, matched against a much smaller increase in population, translates to two things: a much higher taxation demand of the citizenry, and a much higher average per capita expenditure out of Washington.

The smaller federal dollar per citizen in 1968 was divided up much differently as well. Defense consumed 53 cents to lead all categories, as Vietnam was ramping up. Education only got a nickel, as did health care. Pensions got 12 cents, transportation 4 cents. Interest on the much smaller national debt required 6 cents of every dollar.

The twin towers of the 2018 federal dollar were health care and pensions, each representing 27 cents. Of the remaining minority, welfare got 8 cents and interest got a dime. Education only got 2 cents worth, and defense accounted for 21 cents.

Massive migrations in spending among state governments have also occurred. In 1968, the leading spending category for collective statehouses was education at 25 percent. Transportation at 22 percent was a close second, followed by welfare and health care at 14 and 13 percent respectively.

But in 2018, health care had become the largest category by more than double of any other. Health care’s 38 percent dwarfed education (18 percent), transportation (7 percent), welfare (7 percent) and pensions (15 percent).

Spending represents government priorities, and some conclusions with accompanying conundrums are all too clear. The share of government dollars that can be considered investments–things like education, transportation and infrastructure–is significantly smaller. That contrasts with steep spending trajectory boosts in the more reactive categories such as health care (a function of wellness or its lacking) and interest (a function of overspending).

In a technology-driven world, how to explain the imprudent pruning of education’s share? And what reasonable expectation should we as a free, self-governing nation derive from that decline?

With smoking rates at an all-time low, and nutrition information and regulation at an all-time high, what accounts for the inordinate increase of health care’s percentage? It’s true Americans are living longer—life expectancy is up 7 years for women and about 10 years for men since 1968—and with old age comes more chronic illness.

But the math is still awry. The percentage of Americans over age 65 was 10 percent in 1968, and only 15 percent in 2018. The number of older Americans hasn’t grown nearly as much as the dollars spent on health care.

Surely part of education is teaching kids about health and wellness. Indeed, when it comes to what our kids are learning in class, a long gaze backward is insightful.

The high school dropout rate, which is generally linked to social ills ranging from joblessness to drug abuse to criminal activity, was nearly three times higher in 1968. But unemployment then was 15 percent lower than today, marijuana use was in its infancy, and violent crime was 25 percent lower.

Policymakers in 1968 probably assumed compulsory education laws would improve all those statistics. That those figures all worsened over the ensuing decades, despite drastic reductions in dropout rates, strongly indicates they and we have missed something—or several somethings.

A couple of glaring examples immediately come to mind. Five years before Roe v. Wade, births to unmarried mothers in 1968 were still very much the minority. The highest percentage was among black women at about one in four.

Today, after countless millions of abortions, the rate for black mothers is seven in 10, and among white women the growth is larger, from roughly 4 percent in the late 1960s to almost 30 percent today.

Inexplicably, in light of explosive illegitimacy, the total number of adoptions annually in the U.S. is lower now than in 1968.

Next year isn’t just a new year, it’s the first step in our next 50 years. Many political and policy assumptions born or gestating in 1968 wound up delivering contrary consequences, some of which are unequivocally unsustainable.

2019 would be a great year to truly analyze, revise and start reversing them. Here’s a New Year checkpoint: a whiff of too much Sixties on any politician’s breath can lead to impaired governing.

Scrooge’s accusation

A Christmas Carol celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. Since the novella has been adapted for stage and film more than 100 times, and print editions can be counted only in the umpteenths, much of the story has universal awareness.

Everybody knows about Ebenezer Scrooge’s reputation and reformation, his redemption and salvation.

Less known, and difficult to perceive without context to the small argument he has with the Ghost of Christmas Present in Stave Three, is Scrooge’s accusation.

The exchange appears in none of the major movies. In the book, it occurs right after, and is thus overshadowed by, one of the more famous and oft-remembered quotes from the second spirit.

Scrooge asks if there is a peculiar flavor in what the spirit sprinkles from his torch, which spreads good humor to all it touches.

“There is. My own,” the spirit replies.

“Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day?” asked Scrooge.

“To any kindly given.” The ghost then tees up Scrooge: “To a poor one most.”

“Why to a poor one most?” Scrooge steps right into it.

“Because it needs it most.”

This answer gives Scrooge pause, and after a moment’s thought, he addresses the spirit with what seems like an unexpected and out-of-place question.

“I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment.”

The spirit responds indignantly: “I!”

“You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all,” alleges Scrooge. “Wouldn’t you?”

The spirit defensively repeats, “I!”

“You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day?” Scrooge sums up his assertion. “And it comes to the same thing.”

The spirit exclaims incredulity: “I seek!”

Scrooge backtracks slightly: “Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family.”

To 21st century readers, it might seem like an archaic inside joke; but to Victorian England, the references were obvious.

In the years prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol, one member of Parliament had introduced strict Sabbatarian bills that foolishly, Dickens thought, sought to make “man truly moral through the ministry of constables, and sincerely religious under the influence of penalties.”

That quote is from a scathing essay Dickens wrote, directed at Sir Andrew Agnew, who repeatedly sponsored the legislation in the late 1830s.

In those days, domestic ovens were rare in the homes of the lower working classes. The workweek was six days long, and 10-hour days were the norm, even for children, which meant that many families had no way of preparing a hot meal until Sunday–their only day off.

Blue laws already prevented bakers from cooking on the Lord’s Day, but not from letting the poor use their ovens to cook for themselves.

That clarifies Dickens’ passage a few paragraphs before Scrooge’s quarrel with the spirit, which describes “innumerable people, carrying their dinners to the bakers’ shops.” Standing beside Scrooge in a baker’s doorway, the spirit scatters incense on their dinners from his torch.

Sir Agnew’s bill proposed to close the blue-law loophole and disallow even the firing up of ovens on Sundays.

In his stinging essay, Dickens foreshadowed the Christmas Carol scene, which contemporary readers would have recognized: “The bakers’ shops … are filled with men, women and children, each anxiously waiting for the Sunday dinner … in which a diminutive joint of mutton simmers above a vast heap of half-browned potatoes.”

The revelry would “fill Sir Andrew Agnew with astonishment; as well it might, seeing that Baronets, generally speaking, eat pretty comfortable dinners all the week through, and cannot be expected to understand what people feel, who only have a meat dinner on one day out of every seven.”

Likewise, overfed Americans today can’t understand such a culinary situation, either. Thankfully, such legislation never passed in Parliament. On the contrary, laws were soon enacted in England to protect child labor against abuses, limit working hours and require paid holidays.

Scrooge’s accusation of the ghost was actually a disguised dig at a local politician, and lost to obscurity over ensuing generations. The spirit’s answer, however, remains timely and applicable.

“There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they never lived.”

The spirit then challenged Scrooge. “Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

Scrooge promised that he would. It’s a promise Dickens knew needed to be renewed every year.

Like Scrooge, our own “business” can occupy us constantly. Henry Van Dyke nailed the essence of the matter when he said keeping Christmas was better than observing it.

Ultimately, that became Scrooge’s claim to fame: “He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

I’ll let Dickens close this column: “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

Guarding against Grinches

There are many sad truths in life, and one of them is that the coming holiday will not be a Happy Christmas for all.

In a land of plenty and a people rich with the privileges of liberty, the American yuletide will be tarnished again by crime this December. There are real Grinches, and they will steal Christmas from millions.

It’s a national irony that amid the season in which we celebrate the joy of giving, the criminal takers in society ramp up their activities to match the retail frenzy.

Because most of us aren’t criminals, it’s hard to think the way they think. Burglars and thieves are continually on the lookout for targets, and most victims are guilty of doing exactly the opposite: not paying attention at all to potential red-flag warning signals.

Crimes of opportunity are often sparked by happenstance and circumstance, and that means the foil to becoming a statistic involves mixing a healthy dose of prudent caution in with your Christmas spirit.

Victimization, in many ways, is a numbers game. There are X amount of criminals out there, and they will commit Y number of crimes on average in the next couple of weeks leading up to Christmas.

Some criminals will burglarize empty houses, some will break into cars where bulging gift bags are visible. Porch pirates will plunder Amazon and eBay packages left on doorsteps. Purse snatchers and pickpockets will permeate shopping throngs.

Holiday safety tips abound, and most revolve around common sense. Lock your doors and cars. Notice your surroundings and appear purposeful. Shop in groups. Follow your instincts—most stores and shopping destinations are happy to have someone walk you to your car if you’re feeling apprehensive.

As bad as material losses are if they occur, especially when they may have been destined to be gifts, they are still generally replaceable.

Physical violence by criminals causes damage of a different nature entirely. The good news is that truly random violent crimes are anomalies. Most assaults, rapes and murders involve people who know each other.

The bad news is that violence is also partly a numbers game. A certain number of people will experience suffering and injury and death by criminals this December. Who the victims are and who the perpetrators will be are impossible to individually predict, but by collectively heightening awareness and prevention that number can be reduced.

The FBI Uniform Crime Report analyzes six main crime categories, with the data going back decades. Arkansas is poorly reflected in the rate of crime comparisons with other states.

Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Arkansas ranks 33rd in population, which is both the lowest we’ve ever ranked and the most common ranking (32 times in the 57 years since 1960). We’ve never ranked higher than 30th.

But in contrast to that low-thirties position, our population outperforms other states in criminality. In 2016, we were a top-10 state for the rate of crime in four FBI categories: burglary, rape, aggravated assault and larceny-theft.

In the case of burglary, it’s a state disgrace that we have been No. 1 or 2 in the nation for 11 of the last 13 reported years—including a deplorable five-year stretch at the top from 2009-2013.

Our dubious leadership in the rate of break-ins and thefts appears to be a situation of Arkansas simply not improving as much as other states, because our burglary rate is down significantly in the last five years.

The same is not true of some of the violence categories. In whole numbers, Arkansas has experienced back-to-back record years for aggravated assaults, and the rate hit a 23-year high in 2017.

Both the number of murder cases and the rate of homicide also reached levels not seen in 20 years.

Falling victim to any of the FBI’s category crimes can cast a shadow on the merriment and brightness we hope for at Christmas.

But taking extra precautions for your holiday protection and safety is only part of what I hope will become a sharper focus across our state for the new year, which is the goal of making Arkansas safer again.

Reviewing the FBI data tables, a picture of unflattering change over time emerges for our small, natural state.

Overall in 2016, Arkansas ranked fifth and sixth in the violent and property crime index rates. But that’s not our history and need not be our legacy. As recently as just a decade ago we were top 10 in neither; in 2002 we weren’t even in the top 20.

Looking back at the 1970s and 1980s, we enjoyed very low property-crime rates. Until 1986, Arkansas never ranked higher than 40th in the overall index, and normally fell into the 44th or 45th spot.

Even in the violent index comparison, we never cracked the top 10 until 2009. The violence-packed 1990s, bad as they may have been here, were worse in other states.

Lower crime is partly achieved by higher preventive activities and prudent mindsets by all of us. As Christmas nears, structure your shopping and travel and entertaining around an astute, staying-safe mentality.