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Meritocracy: Response to Prof. Gelman on Jewish Elite Overrepresentation
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One noticeable disappointment in the ongoing discussion of my Meritocracy article has been the relative lack of critical commentary. Both my previous Hispanic Crime and Race/IQ series had unleashed vast outpouring of harsh attacks, thereby assisting me in sharpening and refining my analysis. But I think that so far the overwhelming majority of the many published responses to my recent research have either been favorable or at least neutral and descriptive. Fortunately, this somewhat lopsided state of affairs has now begun to change.

Early yesterday morning, Prof. Andrew Gelman, a statistics expert, published a sharp 3,500 word critique of my Jewish results, apparently based almost entirely on the critical analysis provided him by Prof. Jane Mertz and Nurit Baytch. As it happens, their material has been floating around the Internet for at least the last couple of weeks, and one or two people had previously forwarded it to me; I also discovered that Mertz had left a couple of hostile comments on the TAC website. Since I found their work confused and specious and they never made any effort to publish it anywhere—even if only on a personal blogsite—I never bothered to directly refute it. But now that Prof. Gelman has published major portions of it backed by his own imprimatur, I will undertake to do so.

I had actually already addressed some of these issues less than two weeks ago in a previous 1900 word column defending my techniques of Jewish surname analysis, but since neither Mertz, Baytch, nor Gelman seems to have bothered reading the piece, I must apologize for being forced to partly repeat myself.

First, Weyl Analysis—the use of extremely distinctive ethnic surnames to determine prevalence—is obviously a sampling technique, and can only be applied effectively on extremely large datasets. In my own case, none of the Olympiad or other competition lists were remotely large enough for this purpose, so any estimate of Jewish numbers could only be performed by direct surname inspection, which raises obvious questions about the accuracy of the latter approach.

In some of her TAC comments Mertz seems to have labored under the serious misunderstanding that except for explicitly Jewish surnames such as Cohen and Levy, I assumed that all other European ones, notably even including “Schwartz,” indicated Gentile origin. Obviously, if I had followed such an approach, I would be a total laughingstock, so I most certainly did not. In fact, as I have previously mentioned, the huge historical over-representation of Jews on lists of top academic performers led me to generally assume that nearly all distinctively East European or Germanic names were likely or almost certainly Jewish. This over-estimation was intended to partially compensate for the substantial fraction of Jews whose surnames—such as Miller, Gordon, or Brody—would be impossible to detect. For entirely similar reasons, I tended to assume that all “Lees” were actually East Asians, even though that surname is also quite common among American whites and blacks.

As I also pointed out in that previous column, I recently discovered that J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Jewish Forward, had published a column a couple of years ago, using surnames to estimate the number of Jewish Science Talent Search winners across several years, and when I compared his total to mine, they were virtually identical: he found 100 Jews for those ten years while my total was 96. Such a close match with the editor of America’s leading Jewish newspaper would tend to indicate that my methods are not wildly inaccurate.

However, the best independent check of direct inspection methodology would be to compare it the results from the much more precise Weyl Analysis, and fortunately the combined total of the dozens of NMS lists I located provided well over 20,000 names, a dataset sufficient for that purpose. Across all those lists, my estimate of the national total of Jewish NMS semifinalists was 5.95% based on direct inspection, and 5.92% and 6.03% based on two separate Weyl Analyses. These results tend to validate the approximate accuracy of my direct inspection methodology, which strengthens the case for its use on the STS, Olympiad, and other lists, for which Weyl Analysis is inapplicable.

One source of severe confusion on the part of Mertz/Gelman is their listing of eight or nine states in which their estimate of Jewish percentages derived from Weyl Analysis is larger—sometimes significantly larger—than my listed estimates of Jewish percentages based on direct inspection. But this is exactly what we would expect from applying a sampling technique to several small subgroups: in some cases it will overestimate the true figure. However, if Mertz had provided similar results for the other seventeen states I used, Gelman would have noticed that Weyl Analysis results were smaller—sometimes considerably smaller—than my direct inspection estimates, and these latter states (which Mertz omits) actually include California and Texas whose NMS totals are by far the largest. Indeed, given the nature of small-size sampling, there are eight states whose Jewish estimates are zero under Weyl Analysis, but often quite significant in my table based on direct inspection. The key point is that once we aggregate all this sampling across all the different states, the overall statistical results match quite closely, as I described above. In effect, Mertz is claiming my sampling technique must be wrong because roughly half the time it tends to underestimate the result, without noticing that the other half of the time it tends to overestimate the result. I suspect that if she or anyone else made such a ridiculous logical error in one of Prof. Gelman’s own introductory statistics courses, she would surely be flunked.


One source of estimation error I had emphasized in my Appendix E was that the NMS lists I located covered only 25 states. But these states included the eight largest, and also contained over 80% of both the Jewish and the Asian populations, providing reasonable grounds for national extrapolation. After publication, I also managed to locate an NMS list for Massachusetts, and the percentage of Jewish names there was considerably above my extrapolated result. But MA is a rather small state, containing just 4% of American Jews and 2% of the NMS total, so the impact upon the national Jewish NMS average is negligible.


The next issue which Mertz/Gelman raises is the accuracy of the Jewish undergraduate percentages enrolled at the Ivy League and other major American universities as reported by Hillel, the national Jewish campus organization. I have myself repeatedly emphasized that the Hillel estimates might certainly be somewhat inaccurate, but that they are the only figures available, and are regularly used by The New York Times and all other elite MSM outlets, while also constituting the basis for Prof. Jerome Karabel’s award-winning scholarship. So I feel very comfortable in following the lead of every reputable organization and using the Hillel figures, though certainly with some caution.

Let me cite an example from my original article which underscores the credibility of the Hillel figures in elite circles. During 1999 it was discovered that Hillel’s estimate of the percentage of Jews enrolled at Princeton had dropped from 16% to about 10% over the previous 15 years, and this resulted in a huge national media firestorm, with articles appearing in the NYT, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Observer, as well as four front-page stories in the Daily Princetonian, all with mention of anti-Semitism bandied about. Princeton’s administration profusely apologized for the decline in Jewish numbers and agreed to completely overhaul its admissions policy as a consequence. At that point in time Princeton’s president was Jewish, Princeton’s provost was Jewish, and Princeton had just finished building a multi-million-dollar Jewish activities center on campus; but Hillel’s report of a substantial decline in Jewish enrollment was regarded as near-prima facie proof of anti-Jewish bias at the university, especially since the figure was much lower than the figures reported by Hillel for Harvard, Yale, and Columbia.

Mertz argues that I should ignore these Hillel estimates—which everyone else always uses—and instead perform Weyl Analysis on the surnames of all of America’s major universities to determine their Jewish enrollments.

But this is a total absurdity. To the best of my knowledge, American universities do not make their complete lists of past graduates publicly available, and even if they did, the total number of such names for the Ivies, the University of California campuses, and the various other schools I considered would run into the millions over just the few decades I considered. Counting the Jewish names among them all would be insanity.


Next, consider the Mertz/Gelman complaint regarding my estimates of Jewish names on the Math Olympiad and the Putnam, both exams for which long historical datasets exist. For most of these, the number of winners listed each year is quite small, generally five or six, and obviously surname analysis or any other sort of inspection technique can easily produce errors for a given year, which is why I grouped the results by decade in hopes of minimizing these problems.

In particular, Mertz sharply criticizes me for suggesting a large decline in likely Jewish names, and cites my failure to realize that winner Brian Lawrence had a Jewish mother or that winner Daniel Kane’s family had Anglicized their name generations earlier. But such criticism is nonsensical, since just as I claimed, neither of those particular names is Jewish. Such identification error will always be a problem in any small sample analysis, but my argument is that the large decade-by-decade decline in likely Jewish names across every major competition category is probably real rather than merely spurious.

An important part of Mertz’s Jewish identification data was apparently drawn from her lengthy 2008 AMS journal article, which was repeatedly referenced by Mertz/Baytch and which I skimmed. The overwhelming focus of that article was to rebut the controversial speculation of former Harvard President Larry Summers that men might be somewhat better at math than women. Mertz and her co-authors demonstrated that generally some 5-10% of America’s top math students have been female, and claimed this refuted Summers, concluding that “the myth that females cannot excel in mathematics must be put to rest” (p. 1258, bold-italics in original). Frankly, I hardly think that Summers had meant to imply that no female could possibly do well in math, and I doubt he would be shocked that 10% or more of America’s top math students were female. I mention these points merely to provide some indication of the strongly ideological tendencies that seem to be driving one of my critics.

Although the article focused on gender issues, for reasons not entirely clear Mertz and her co-authors decided to undertake extensive background research (p. 1249) to determine the precise number of full-Jews and part-Jews among the math competition winners, summarizing those findings in exactly the same sort of Jewish/non-Jewish white/Asian tables that appeared in my own article. As it happens, their exhaustive biographical research determined that 26 of the 1988-2007 American Math Olympiad winners were Jewish or part-Jewish (p. 1253), while my own very casual surname analysis had estimated a figure of 23 for those same years. All things considered, I hardly view the difference between 23 and 26 as a gigantic discrepancy, nor evidence that my simple surname analysis tends to be wildly inaccurate.


Now let us combine these separate results.

For decades, the Hillel estimates of Jewish enrollments have been accepted as generally accurate by all media outlets, academic scholars, university administrators, and Jewish organizations; in any case, there is no other source of such data across American universities.


Next, the aggregate NMS semifinalist lists, though certainly imperfect, seem the best national dataset of high academic ability students, with the total numbers large enough to allow Weyl Analysis to be performed to determine ethnic distributions. Jewish surnames are hardly as distinctive as East Asian ones, but the almost exact national match between the results from direct inspection and those produced by two different Weyl Analyses lend reasonable confidence to the result. Under these estimates, the current Jewish share of high-ability American students seems likely to be around 6%, the Asian one at 25-30%, and the white Gentile total at 65-70%. I would strongly argue that the burden of proof shifts to anyone who argues for a substantially different set of figures.

Both these underlying estimates certainly contain a substantial nimbus of error, and for any result obtained by combining them, such errors would obviously be compounded. Indeed, if any of the statistical anomalies I found regarding Jewish enrollments had merely been in the 50% or even the 100% range, I would have simply discarded them as quite possibly due to measurement error. But my actual findings were in an entirely different range.

In one of the scholarly books cited in my original article, there is an extended discussion of the claims of Ivy League discrimination against Asian applicants during the 1980s. Hsia (1988) pp. 94-119 notes that after the admissions rate for Asians dropped a level substantially below the general rate, many observers viewed this as strong evidence of racial discrimination. The result was a federal investigation, and the determination of all the Ivy League schools to henceforth keep all their admissions rate figures absolutely secret so as to avoid similar problems in the future. Apparently an admissions rate anomaly of 20% or more was considered extremely suspicious, and this provides us with a useful benchmark.

Now let us return to the Jewish enrollment figures which were the subject of Prof. Gelman’s lengthy posting. If we combine the Hillel data with the officially reported racial data, we discover that college-age Jews in America are approximately 3,000% more likely to be enrolled in the Ivy League than their non-Jewish white counterparts. Even if the Hillel figures are indeed somewhat inaccurate, I strongly doubt that correcting for any such error would reduce the anomaly below the 20% threshold discussed above. Even correcting for the fact that Jews are more likely to live in the Northeast and Northeasterners are somewhat more likely to attend the Ivy League would have only a small effect.

A natural suggestion would be to normalize these enrollment figures based on the estimated totals of high performing students; but doing so is not entirely obvious. As I mentioned in my original article, the recent book published by a former Harvard Senior Admissions Officer claimed that these days Ivy League schools select only 5% of their students based solely on demonstrated academic ability, with the remaining 95% selected based on a holistic weighing of individual personal traits using a complex or subjective metric known only to the admissions office. So if nearly all Ivy League students are selected on amorphous, holistic grounds—rather than objective academic merit—perhaps the Jewish enrollment anomaly of the previous paragraph is actually the correct figure to investigate and somehow attempt to justify.

On the other hand, if we do choose to simply disregard the actual admissions policies practiced in today’s Ivy League and adjust our enrollment figures for high ability students, the anomaly of Jewish over-representation shrinks considerably but still remains rather large. We are now faced with the additional potential errors inherent in our surname analysis of the NMS lists, but the data indicates there are around ten or twelve high-ability white Gentiles in America for every such high ability Jew. Meanwhile, the Hillel figures indicate that the number of Jews and non-Jewish whites are approximately the same across the Ivy League. Thus, adjusting for the number of high ability students lowers the level of apparent Jewish over-representation to roughly 1,000%, a figure still comfortably above the 20% discrepancy threshold that helped spark a federal investigation in the late 1980s regarding Asian students.


As mentioned earlier, one irritating aspect of responding to this lengthy critique was that neither Profs. Mertz nor Gelman had apparently noticed that less than two weeks ago I had already published a similar column on Jewish surname analysis, which dealt with many of these same issues.

Still, they are hardly alone in such carelessness. By a remarkable coincidence, their critique was published almost simultaneously with that of a critical column by Prof. Kevin MacDonald, whose focus of greatest interest seems very similar to that of Prof. Mertz. In Prof. MacDonald’s case, he chided me for no longer discussing the Jewish aspects of my analysis. Apparently he, too, had failed to notice the same column of mine missed by Prof. Mertz.

Given that Profs. MacDonald and Mertz share such a strong commonality of personal interests, yet are both sometimes a bit prone to carelessness, perhaps they should join forces and henceforth work closely together to ensure that none of my future columns accidentally slips by them.


Finally, I should mention that I’ve been invited to give a Chicago Law School presentation next week, focusing on my recent NRO column. With the talk having the provocative title of “Asian Admissions Quotas: Was Bakke Based on Fraud?” I suspect the turnout will be reasonably good.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Meritocracy 
The Meritocracy Series
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  1. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    This fails to address the fact that the numerator and denominator are different (saying that the denominator was “hard” to compute by the same method is an excuse, not an argument). There are many reasons why Hillel might want to inflate their numbers. This was Gelman’s main point, right?

    This fails to address the fact the Ivies draw disproportionally from the North East. Pointing out that Texas and California have relatively few Jewish NMS semifinalists (according to a Weyl analysis) just seems to make this issue more relevant. (I realize that you brought up this example to caution about making inferences from smaller data sets, but you do know that there are more Jews in New York and Massachusetts than in Texas, right?)

    Talking of small data sets, why use the Mathematics Olympiad data at all? Assuming that Gelman/Mertz is correct, it seems that your numbers here – however they were computed – are just wrong. A pity that these were the numbers quoted by David Brooks.

    Why do you say that Gelman missed your post addressing the Jewish aspects of your analysis? It seems like you didn’t address any of his key points there either.

  2. Prof Kevin MacDonald’s primary point is that the response to your analysis has focused on the so called discrimination and underrepresentation of Asians and not on the more blatant discrimination and underrepresentation of non-jewish whites at the elite ivy schools.Please continue to persue these highly charged issues.You are a seeker of the truth and a patriot.

  3. Mike says:

    You ought to watch what facts you are bringing to public attention, Ron. Pretty soon the Southern Poverty Law Center is going to label The American Conservative a hate group.

  4. R.S. says:

    The quality of your work on this issue has been extraordinary.

    Actually, although many would not view this as entirely complimentary, it reminds me of Charles Murray’s studies.

    The problem is really that most groups in this country are quite tribal minded on these matters.

    If Jewish students have a ten-fold advantage adjusted for intellectual ability in gaining entrance to elite universities, and if progress in many academic fields, finance, law, and scientific research is dominated by graduates of these same elite institutions, then I’m afraid that most Jewish elites and their allies will either deny the facts or simply ignore them. By and large, the latter is happening in this case with a few perfunctory attempts at denial, one of which you handily dispatch in this essay.

    How can America’s elites admit that systematic ethnic preference on behalf of a privileged minority exists in our supposedly multicultural and enlightened age? They simply cannot. The only realistic prospect for reform lies with agitation by Americans of talent and ability who stand outside the gates looking in.

  5. Matt says:

    I agree with Anonymous @8:33 that this response seems to dodge Gelman’s main criticisms rather than respond to them directly.

    On my reading of Gelman’s post, his correspondent used Unz’ own methods to estimate the number of Jews at Harvard. Quoting Gelman:

    “Start with the claim that 25% of Harvard College students are Jewish. That number comes from the Hillel Foundation, the Jewish student organization. I received an email from a Harvard alum who went through the names of Harvard students from the classes of 2009-2012 and estimated the proportion of Jews using the same scale-up methods [see details below] that Unz used to validate his personal estimates of the rate of Jewish names in high-achieving groups (Unz stated here that these scale-up methods produced results within 1% of his own estimates based on direct inspection). Using the scale-up methods, you get an estimate that 10-11% of students at Harvard are Jewish, not 25%. My correspondent suspects that the scale-up estimates are too low and that Hillel’s numbers are too high.” [-end Gelman.]

    IF this is true (and I have no reason to doubt it, but see below), then Unz’s dodge – direct inspection of student names is impossible because the data is not public, and even if it were, it would be too hard! – is irrelevant. Surely if we *have* that data, then it would be best to *use* it in our analysis; that way our estimates will be directly comparable. To refuse to use it, simply because everyone else uses Hillel’s estimates, is probably methodologically unjustifiable.

    It seems to me that the reasonable response from Unz would be to ask to see Gelman’s correspondents’ data. For if the analysis is good, then it does seem like the Jewish over-representation claim (at least at Harvard) mostly disappears (coupled with the geographical distribution point that Gelman makes as well).

    Of course, the “reasonable response” assumes that Unz is primarily interested in finding out the truth of the matter, and is not so invested in his hypothesis that he is unwilling to see it disconfirmed. So how about it, Mr. Unz? Why don’t you check and see if your findings are robust to different estimates of Jews at Harvard? Replicate Gelman’s correspondents’ replications!

  6. Ron, I personally have no issue with your analysis of Jewish names, which if anything, sounds like it slightly over-counts jewish names on the “achievement” lists. But if Jews are in fact overrepresented at ivy colleges relative to their academic strength, it raises the question of how they can so rapidly acquire greater academic ability in time to apply to selective law schools.

    Law school admissions, more so than any college or professional-graduate school, is almost entirely a numbers game. You get a very high lsat and GPA and youre basically guaranteed admissions to one of the very top law schools (except for Yale). While top medical and business schools have average mcat/gmat scores hovering in the low to mid 90 percentiles, almost every top law school has an average LSAT in the 99th percentile (although this will not likely continue for so much longer now that law school applications are plummeting). Moreover, it probably is more difficult to score a top percentile on the LSAT- which is taken only by college students- than it is on the SAT which is taken by pretty much everyone.

    So if Jewish achievement is actually declining, we should see this reflected at elite law schools, which are more numbers based than even Caltech. Yet, if you look at class lists at elite law schools, the proportion of Jewish students seems to be in line with their numbers at elite colleges- about 20% (again, perhaps not true for Yale law).

    Here is Columbia Law’s 2011 graduating class, which had an average LSAT in the 99th percentile (I couldn’t find Harvard’s, but I did find their law review board which is over 20% Jewish). Using a rough analysis I count about 20% jewish.

    And here is Penn’s class list which is over 20% Jewish (also of note, their medical school is also about 20% jewish).

    It would be pretty easy for you to get a hold of a bunch of recent law school commencement programs and analyze those for jewish names (and obviously it can be done as well for med schools and business schools, but those admissions aren’t as numbers based so it wouldn’t necessarily be at odds your argument the same way that law school admissions would).

    Now, I concede that some of this could perhaps be explained by self-selection. That is, jews might be more likely to apply to law school than other groups; but that cuts both ways, since it would also possibly explain why we are seeing fewer jewish names at Caltech or certain math competitions. Not to mention that once you introduce the “self selection” argument into the analysis, it could be argued that high achieving jewish high school students are far more likely to apply to the IVY’s than their non-jewish counterparts.


  7. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “For decades, the Hillel estimates of Jewish enrollments have been accepted as generally accurate by all media outlets, academic scholars, university administrators, and Jewish organizations; in any case, there is no other source of such data across American universities.”

    Unz could not be more wrong.
    This is partially anecdotal, so take it FWIW. I attended two SUNY schools in New York. The Hillel calculations were laughably wrong by a large margin as well. I don’t know how they reached their numbers but it certainly wasn’t done in a methodical/statistically accurate way. Even if they calculated gentile participants in Hillel sponsored interfaith events it wouldn’t reach the numbers. Unz’ claims that its valid because it’s been generally accepted by the media. Based on this line of reasoning any statistical figure that is “generally accepted by the media” is valid due to a lack of other sources (so for example, law school’s “99 percent employment rate” was true before its falsehood was exposed…. due to the media’s accpetance of those figures).

  8. Dave says:

    If the Hillel stats are a terrible source, then the fact that others use them doesn’t make them any better.

    Just don’t use them. And if that means you can’t make a conclusion as a result, too bad.

    GI, GO

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    ere is an example of Hillel’s falsehoods. Took me about 2 minutes to find (I won’t bother looking at more at this point)

    Boston College

    It stats that there are:
    4642 graduate students
    0 Jewish students

    It’s absurd to believe that there are 0 Jewish graduate students (even for this hands off Catholic institution).
    The law school is similar to Cardozo-Yeshiva’s law school in the sense that religion plays a marginal factor.
    Boston college as a whole has 25 Jewish studies courses, an Israel program, a major in Judaic studies and kosher food.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if 5-10 percent of the graduate students (especially in law school) were Jewish. According to Unz, Hillel
    is a relatively accurate source for Jewish student population.

  10. Scott says:

    Basically what we can conclude is that Hillel numbers are fine when they’re being used to agitate for more Jewish students in the Ivies. But when they’re being used to raise questions about the unfairness of Jewish ethnic networking, they’re filled with holes and can’t be relied upon. Got it.

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Ron Unz wrote an extremely pointed article.

    I would also like to add that the actual differentiation starts taking place at a much earlier level. A lot of prestigious schools that feed the ivy leagues will have a differentiated grading system with AP courses being given a higher weight. However, all AP’s will be given equal weight be it physics, BC Calc or US History. Typically the effort and the time required for Math & Science courses will be significantly higher. The asians will typically take the toughest math & science courses, foregoing a lot of extracurricular activities, that will make a resume shine to a top college. Their SAT scores will be through the roof, easily scoring 800 or close.

    However, their GPA might be lower than another student who took all non-math or non-science courses. Now, they are no longer the top 5 in their school even though they have the highest SAT’s. Based on their lower scores, they might apply to a lower ranked school and never apply to the top schools, per the counsellor suggestions.

    Often asians are the first ones from their family to have gone to college in US. They have not hired a college counsellor who will tell them that colleges will often weigh their grades differently than how the school did. But since, they never applied, they never got in.

    Devil lies in the details. I can at least attest for this particular school district.

  12. Never too late. I read or re-read this piece after reading the latest UR article about the collection of essays and articles. What struck me was the number of Comments criticising aspects of the contra Gelman article without any reply from the author although some seemed to require a put down at the very least. The point about Law schools, if not the ones about Hillel is particularly noteworthy….

    Ron – any chance you have tidied up somewhere in a later piece I have missed?

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