We're in for an orgy of boasting, this campaign year, about the dropping crime rates, with the "get tough" crowd pounding their chests and claiming victory. For the first half of last year, FBI figures showed a 10 percent decline in "serious crime," meaning violent and property crime. Murder down by 13 percent, robbery off 10 percent, forcible rape down 8 percent. Starting with President Clinton, it would require near-inhuman forbearance for the man who has increased federal budgets for crime control from just over $1 billion to $4.5 billion over the past five years to eschew a boast over this "accomplishment."

But while crime rates -- on paper -- are continuing to drop across the country, these rates are dropping regardless of whether a tough or a lenient approach to crime is being applied. Take a look at San Francisco and New York. Since 1995, violent crime has dropped 33 percent in San Francisco and 26 percent in New York. Great law enforcement? Terrific timing? Perfect policy application? Hardly. San Francisco has established a new and less-aggressive crime strategy -- which heavily impacts crime statistics by reducing the number of arrests, prosecutions and resultant incarceration rates.

How did they do that? Dan Macallair of the progressive Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice believes that San Francisco's greater reduction in crime over New York's could be due to the city's alternative approach, which includes community involvement and diversion programs. Thanks in part to freshly re-elected District Attorney Terence "Kayo" Hallinan for this. But here is the caveat emptor -- Macallair cautions that no one can say for sure what is causing the decline in numbers.

Meanwhile, New York, with its heralded zero-tolerance approach to crime -- starting with "broken window" offenses such as jay-walking, vagrancy and public intoxication -- finds Mayor Rudy Giuliani's tough stand applauded. Talk of Giuliani's wise move to increase his police force by 7,000 officers to enforce his get-tough policies is all the news there. Wise move? Smart guy? To tell the difficult truth, we won't have the semblance of a true answer for years, if ever. There's no easily accessible correlation between public policy, policing or politicians and the drop in crime statistics. There is just no one -- anywhere -- who's been able to prove any simple equation.

Until a cause for the drop in crime is established, no policy can be praised. And let's face it, while the experts are at it, how about trying to take a realistic look at crime causation. Now, that's a novel idea, at least novel by today's standards. Back in the '60s and '70s, crime causation was all the rage. All-out efforts to understand crime were undertaken, with the usual suspects being poverty, single-parent homes, mental illness, and perhaps, most importantly, unemployment.

Several interesting studies have found that regardless of any other single factor, the only correlate which consistently has worked across the board is the unemployment rate. When unemployment is down, crime is down, and of course, the inverse holds here as well. So, what about today? Nationally, we have a statistically low unemployment rate (with the caveat that the actual rate of unemployment is usually about twice the rate advertised by the Bureau of Labor Statistics). True. We also have a statistically low crime rate. True. Anything else to look at? We could take a look at harsh and punitive measures currently in force and the fantastically high lock-up rate of the poor. We could toss in the much beleaguered but still ongoing war on crime.

But then, just to thicken the stew, we could pay attention to a recent study by the conservative Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, which was created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, who charged it with investigating causes of violence. The foundation finds that Americans are living in a far more violent society than 30 years ago, when the foundation put out its first study.

So, which is it? More violent or less violent, more crime or less crime? No way to know, and no foreseeable way to tell what the future will hold. But I 'm betting on San Francisco over New York to come out slightly better. Down the road, New York will pay a price that San Francisco with its community-based policies will not, namely the social, financial and communal cost of bringing a staggering amount of former prisoners back to their streets once the sentences are up. While no one can fully predict what this means, we do know that Mayor Giuliani will be long gone. In his wake, the poorest communities will pay the heaviest price. These are the communities -- in the war zone -- that will be experiencing the greatest degradation in living conditions. The alleged lower crime rates now being touted allow politicians to shove aside what has always been so desperately needed: education, health care, housing and jobs.

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist for The Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.