Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Freedomnomics Chapter 4

Crime and Punishment

On page 111 Lott writes: If something becomes more costly, people will do less of it. This is the fundamental principle of economics – a simple notion that also explains a lot of human behavior in realms seemingly far removed from trade, industry, and finance.

He forgot one major caveat, though. The sentence should have read: All other considerations being equal, if something becomes more costly, people will do less of it.

If all other considerations are not equal, then what?

A person who lives 15 miles from where they work and 5 miles from the nearest shopping center in a suburb with no public transportation or nothing but intermittent busses that use the same gasoline and are stuck in the same traffic as the person in their car is not, ever, going to reduce their gasoline consumption because the price goes up. No, they will reduce every OTHER kind of spending they can until it becomes clear to them that their choice is either gas or starvation – and in the above scenario, a lack of gas IS starvation, because they have no other means of obtaining food, medicine, or other necessities of life. Since, as we have seen in previous chapters, this is in fact the reality facing millions and millions of suburbanites, any projections by the government or private industry that shows a gentle, protracted decline in gasoline usage is wildly unrealistic – as are hopes that the biofuel pipe dream will ever solve our nations transportation problems. At the point where they have to abandon their suburban home in order to survive, the economy will already be in such bad shape that everyday economic situations won’t even apply – just Darwinism.

Likewise, a person with strong religious convictions is going to follow the diet proscribed by their sect and will not purchase food that is not approved by their religious authorities, regardless of how cheap the stuff is from giant food conglomerates.

A person who is convinced that processed, genetically-modified, factory farmed food products are dangerous for their children and unhealthy for themselves are not going to stop buying organic, regardless of how expensive it is compared to giant agri-business produced junk – not until there are absolutely no other options available.

People who have adopted certain philosophies and religions that question the wisdom of interfering with natural processes such as childbirth or shun artificial chemicals such as birth control pills have not shown any tendency to stop having children, though raising children is now more expensive than ever. Muslims and some Latinos, in particular, have adopted a war of attrition whereby they take over areas by sheer force of numbers eventually because they refuse to use birth control. Such motives have been publicly declared by these groups on numerous occasions, but the American public ignores them – in part BECAUSE they elevate these economic considerations above all others, whereas other cultures don’t and won’t.

Lott continues: And if you offer a meaningful reward for some type of behavior, you can bet more people will do it, even if they shouldn’t. Again, all other considerations being equal, this is true. The problem is, how do you define “meaningful?” American culture is alone in valuing money above all other things.

On page 112 Lott writes: Violent crime in the US shot up like a rocket after 1960…increased by an incredible 372 percent…what’s more (pg 115), the drop in crime may be even larger than these statistics indicate due to one factor that is often overlooked: rising rates of crime reporting by victims…So what explains the fantastic plunge in crime rates during the 1990s? (pg 116)

Before we talk about Lott’s answers, I would like to draw your attention to Lott’s own words, “rising rates of crime reporting by victims.” That statement needs evaluated in the time and place in which it occurred: the 60s, 70s, and 80s. During this time, the definition of what was considered a “crime” was greatly expanded. Prior to this time, it was considered a man’s right to use physical discipline or violence, against his wife – and it was considered his right as part of the marital covenant to expect sex and to use intimidation and violence – even rape – to get it. It was considered nobody else’s business that he did so. Also during this period, “child abuse” came into vogue – whereas previously, again, a parent’s right to discipline their child by whatever means was considered nobody else’s business. “Hate crimes,” while never legal, per se, were tolerated in the south and small homogeneous areas and not vigorously investigated or prosecuted until about this time. In many areas of the country, crimes against religious minorities in small or medium sized towns was also ignored to a certain extent, as long as it wasn’t outright murder.

During this time illegal drugs became big business, moving from an occasional nuisance to a full-fledged epidemic as Viet-Nam veterans came back addicted to opiates, marijuana, cocaine, and other exotic drugs – and the mobsters and gang members flourished under the black market conditions the government made necessary. And here, surely, is proof positive that making something illegal, including fines, jail time, and loss of property, is not enough to stop people from doing what they want to do. The drug business became (and still is) a multi-trillion dollar business during this period, and now that crack, meth, and prescription drugs are thrown into the mix, will only get worse – especially since escapism is the only real option for freedom from worry and anxiety that people have whose communities have had their economic base wiped out by the “globalization” con game.

It is during this period, also, that slavery (which never was eradicated from most third world nations in the first place) made a comeback under the radar in the US as people desperate to flee communist Russia or poverty-ridden Asian countries made whatever deal they could to get here – and people from Muslim nations and other areas where slavery and violence against slaves is tolerated came to the US and brought their culture – and their slaves – with them. Just as the Italian Mafia had earlier grown on these shores, so too did the Russian mob, Asian mobs, and South American cartels dealing in drugs and contraband of every kind, including slaves. Sex slavery, whether by means of drug lords or just plain economic desperatism, also grew exponentially – along with the crime and violence that goes with it. Our support of various Muslim revolutions and the cold war against Russia and our quest for oil put us in bed, so to speak, with Islam. So multiculturalism has now brought us terrorism, for good measure, from Middle Eastern immigrants. We imported a great deal of our current troubles during this time period, in other words.

And finally, it was during this time period that membership in religious sects declined precipitously and children were taught about “survival of the fittest” in even rural schools, giving the baby boomers and the generation x-ers and y-ers the definite impression that crime not only pays, but only the “unfit” won’t do anything and everything necessary to get ahead – hence the rise in cheating, thievery and the so-called “blue-collar” and “white-collar” crimes.

These three trends together account for the vast majority of the “rise” in crime since the WWII era – geometrically enlarged definitions of what constitutes “crime,” the import of cultures that tolerate gangs/drugs/slaves/scams, and the decline of the religious ethic that prevented many crimes in the first place.

I agree wholeheartedly with Lott when he says that …abortion, in fact, increases crime. By reducing human beings to an equation where a person’s personal comfort, finances, and self-centered desires is portrayed as being more important than the consequences of those actions, crime increases. People aren’t stupid – the only difference between a born baby and an unborn one is about 30 seconds. There is no magic wand being waved that makes the child human – the child was human all along. All abortion does is desensitize people to violence against children, which in turn gets passed along to their parents or anybody else that becomes a “burden” to them. Abortion makes killing and violence against human beings ok, plain and simple, and we all know it.

And it is particularly telling that Lott notices Eugenics play a big part in some earlier hypotheses that abortions lowers crime by “reducing the population of poor African Americans.” (pg 121) When Margaret Sanger founded planned parenthood, she never imagined that wealthy or middle class white women would ever want to have an abortion. The sole purpose of her group was to reduce the population of “undesirables” which by her definition meant anyone who was poor or who was not white. Abortion is the ultimate racism, which is why there are more planned parenthood clinics in inner cities than in suburbs by a long shot, and it’s good that Lott exposes this flaw in earlier works.

Lott also says on page 121: Remember, the fundamental principle of economics: If something becomes more costly, people do less of it…the cost of sex is relatively high due to the possibility of pregnancy. There is another serious issue here that Lott overlooks – a very perverse economic incentive indeed. And what is that, class? Let me tell you – the number one cause of death of pregnant women in this country is murder. Lott is deadly wrong when he says on page 122 that: many men, feeling tricked into unwanted fatherhood, will likely wash their hands of the affair altogether… Ummm, no. Hasn’t Lott every heard of child support? Paternity tests? The courts in this country REWARD unwed mothers by extorting a marriage covenant for them after the fact, giving them not only their child, but money and insurance for it and other support for the next 18 years – or 23 in some states that throw in college years for good measure. A girl who doesn’t want to be a mother has many choices – she can neglect to tell the guy and have an abortion, she can neglect to tell the guy and give the child up for adoption, or she can give the child to her family to raise, again, without ever even telling him or naming him on the birth certificate. What option does a guy have not to be a father if he is so named? Zero-nada-zip. Murder has become the ONLY option men have from getting out of 18-23 years of a court-ordered de-facto marriage obligation – so increasing numbers of men do or try to do just that. Faced with two decades of extortion which will basically ruin the rest of his life and diminish his ability to provide for later, wanted children in a later, wanted marriage – murder looks very tempting. And this situation will not stop until courts come to their senses and say that in the absence of a marriage certificate, a man has no obligation to support a family unless he voluntarily agrees to do so. If he does not agree, his parental rights would be 100% terminated – end of line. No free ride at his expense for unwed mothers, no murder necessary. If he does agree, by signing a contract, only then can a court enforce that agreement with garnished wages, etc. This is the only way that the cost of pre-marital sex will become “too high” for girls and they will return to the social contract enjoyed by their female antecedents since the dawn of time: no marriage, no sex – when married, support is expected and required for her and her children.

And of course, Lott is absolutely right on page 123 when he points out that kids raised by single parents or by parents who aren’t married will never be a top priority in their parents economic or social lives. I would add, of course, that children of two working parents who are raised in herds by barely educated minimum-wage workers who can’t possibly share the family’s social, philosophical, political and religious values are just as disadvantaged as their illegitimate counterparts above.

Lotts analysis of Affirmative Action, which starts on page 127, is interesting. It’s sort of the other book-end to the Eugenics issue. It’s clear that a “less-educated” (page 129) police force is detrimental to an area’s ability to prevent and investigate crime. While free and public education is available to everyone in this country, and many famous people of all ethnicities who were dirt poor as children used those resources to become very successful as adults, there are many youths today who, for whatever reasons, choose not to take advantage of their opportunities. School just isn’t important to them – as was discussed briefly in previous chapters. So they enter the working world at a considerable disadvantage compared to those whose family or culture stressed education and pulling-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps and all that. Kids today want a handout, and Affirmative Action is one program that obliges. It is entirely debatable whether or not racism truly stops anyone in this day and age from achieving an education. There are poor students in third world countries using decades-old textbooks that outperform average American students on standardized tests – there are even places where such students who aren’t native-born English speakers outscore American kids even on tests of English proficiency. So it is clear that motivation plays a huge part in how well a student does in school. The opportunity is there, frankly, for anyone who wants to take advantage of it. Scholarships abound for those who apply themselves. For the rest, well, they are the ones who, as Lott says, where…many DC cases were thrown out because prosecutors couldn’t read or understand the arrest reports…the officers simply lacked the ability to write comprehensible English.

We as a society need to decide what is more important, your skin color or your competency to do the job correctly. And somehow, I don’t think Dr. King would go for the “skin color” answer.

On page 130, Lott quotes a reporter: Why was a tiny woman, or any woman, given such a job [guarding a hulking brute who wrested her gun from her and shot several people in court]?...because the…police force has been subjected for years to government demands for “gender and minority” balance, changing rules and lowering standards so more women and people from ethnic minorities can join up.

I think the reporter was mistaken, however. It was not government that initiated these policies, rather it was public action and civil rights groups who elevated skin color demographics above all common sense and competency standards and physical fitness minimums. As Lott notes on page 131, this has resulted in increased costs to society, not decreased crime, since the officers are less physically able or less educationally competent to do their jobs. In the case of women officers, most are physically not fit enough to …control resisting suspects by themselves, [which] puts more pressure on police departments to shift away from one-officer or two-officer patrol units as well as to reduce the number of walking and bicycle patrols. So thanks to feminists and others who advocate Affirmative Action for the unqualified, we have more officers and less ability to prevent or investigate crime.

And last but not least, minority officers may be reluctant to arrest or interfere in the criminal activities of their friends and family from their ethnic neighborhoods. The result is …the biggest spikes in crime…[in] places already plagued by terrible crime. (pg 132). No argument there.

Lott then goes on to discuss the Death Penalty. He says that: Those who argue that the death penalty has no effect on violent crime assume that the risk of execution in no way deters criminals from committing capital crimes…[but] the notion that it is irrational for them to take into account such an enormous risk runs contrary to human nature. (pg 133)

Since murder is, as previously noted, the main cause of death of pregnant women whose boyfriends don’t want to pay child support, I think it is salient here to define “risk.” If you are such a man, or you are a gang member, or in a crime related business or crime controlled neighborhood, or in a town with a relatively ineffective investigative police force, or in a situation where the victim has the capacity to do great harm to you or your situation, then you know the risks of not committing murder can be as much as or greater than the risk of being executed yourself. And, of course, in cases like public multiple-victim acts of terrorism, where the idea is for the assailant to be caught or killed on purpose, no amount of deterrent is going to be effective.

It is true, apparently, that the murder rate has gone down since the death penalty was re-instated, but to be truly effective, it will have to be much more efficient. People who aren’t impressed by global warming in 50 years or peak oil in 5 years aren’t going to be impressed by a process that can take most of the criminal’s life to be accomplished. To be truly effective, you would have to change the law to say that executions would take place one year from the date of sentencing, unless new compelling evidence was presented before then. Only then will 18 years of unwanted financially crippling child support seem better by comparison.

On page 138 Lott says that …arrest rates of criminals are usually the single most important factor in reducing every type of crime. But that is only true in cultures and sub-cultures that shun an arrest record as dishonorable. In growing segments of American society, such a record is not only not a liability, but can be an asset. Especially since, as Lott says on page 139, …the actual time served is often much shorter than the official length of a criminal’s sentence.

Then Lott says (pg 139 still) …Obviously, locking up the most crime-prone individuals will further decrease crime by keeping habitual criminals off the streets. Indeed, putting more people in prison explains another 10 to 12 percent of the drop in crime rates.

One has to ask, though – at what cost to society? Our prison population has exploded, and the costs of incarcerating all of these people is fast becoming astronomical. And this is, of course, prior to the coming breakdown of people’s ability to get to work and household necessities in the wake of ever-increasing gasoline prices due to peak oil. Already the very poor are being priced out of the market, so you can expect a large increase in crime over the next decade which will completely eclipse any so-called progress that was made before.

And then there is the philosophical and ethical question – does being put into prison really prevent anyone from committing crimes once they are released? It is interesting to note that in the Bible, there are all sorts of crimes and punishments discussed – but no commandment to establish prisons. In fact, there were only three basic ways the Bible deals with crime: 1) the death penalty, 2) repayment of what was stolen/mis-appropriated plus 20% extra, either by selling the criminal’s possessions, garnishing their wages, or selling them into indentured servitude for 6 years, and 3) “exile” to a “city of refuge” where someone who had killed unintentionally could live until the high priest left office. The salient points about exile and indentured servitude was that the family of the criminal was not left to fend for themselves – they could go with the criminal to the city of refuge, and indentured servants were not slaves as we understand the term – they worked a set number of hours a day to make up their restitution and the rest of the time could be spent with their family or on the farm or at a second job to support their family. Today’s idea of “prison” rips fathers (and mothers) away from their children and more often than not leaves the family in dire poverty which perpetuates the cycle of crime. Apparently, that was not God’s intention for dealing with criminals in non-capital cases. I have to wonder if maybe God is a little smarter than American politicians.

Evidence seems to indicate that in prison situations without drug treatment programs, without programs for education including learning trades and skills, and without psychological services that can, among other things, re-program gang bangers and other violent subcultures to re-integrate into normal society – prison without those things simply does not work. And the costs of these programs would far outpace the already extensive costs of prison itself, so they are not likely to be universally implemented.

Lott’s analysis of carrying concealed handguns is thorough, but doesn’t mention one point. That would be the tendency for criminals to target kids, the elderly, and the disabled in areas with conceal-carry laws. After all, these people don’t usually shoot back.

Starting on page 145 Lott studies the factors of age and race on propensity to commit crime. One disappointment was his omission of the issue of illegal aliens. Our metropolitan area now has approximately 30,000 (some say 40,000) illegal aliens in a county whose legal population is only around 280,000 or so. That makes them slightly more than 10% of the population, but responsible for upwards of 50% of reported violent crimes in many neighborhoods, not to mention an unknown number of blue and white collar crimes that are never reported, since their employers or landlords can hardly admit to harboring illegals in the first place. Some landlords and employers in turn exploit the illegals, also – which is another serious matter, since by doing so they undermine wages and benefits for citizens and distort efforts of local or regional governments to engage in serious economic development planning.

I am also disappointed that Lott doesn’t seem to realize that gun registration laws were never really about reducing crime in the first place. Their purpose is far more big brother than that, and that fact was never hidden from the public. Our government, like every government in history before it, thinks it can prevent it’s own inevitable fall by preventing people from having the means to oppose it. A government that has no fear of the people rising up against it is one that serves only the elite, not the common man.

Broken window laws sound good at the outset – by supposedly having a zero-tolerance policy for petty crimes, major crimes are supposedly thwarted. But in reality, they are a variation of class warfare in many ways – by requiring the elderly, for example, to maintain the exterior of their homes in an aesthetic manner when failing to do so is not actually structurally dangerous in any way is just a back-handed means of forcing them to sell their debt-free homes to someone who must take out a mortgage to get it. Implicit in the prosecution of the perpetrators of petty crimes is the expectation that the property owners must not permit the results of these petty crimes to remain visible to the neighborhood – and generally homeowner’s insurance will not cover such small damage amounts. So the cost for all of these petty repairs have to come out of the homeowner’s pockets. In neighborhoods where the economy is not good to start with, this will, as Lott noted (page 150) actually have the eventual effect of increasing crime, since few legitimate ways of increasing incomes to meet extra expenses exist in such situations.

Rent control is the red-headed stepchild of the affordable housing movement. Clearly it only results in low-quality badly-maintained or even substandard housing, but so far no one has figured out how to avoid forcing the poor and elderly out of their homes or apartments without price controls of some sort. Some would say that this is just the free market at work, and indeed it is. No one, I suppose, is ultimately “entitled” to live in an apartment they couldn’t otherwise afford. But on the flip side, where are the poor supposed to live, exactly? It now costs more even to build a Habitat house than the average income in most states will support. This is part of the subprime mortgage meltdown problem, and is probably beyond the scope of either Lott’s book or this article. There is no good answer here.

I had to chuckle when I read Lott’s comments on page 155-6 which said: Some evidence even indicates that more children are being injured on playgrounds despite safety improvements because bored kids are “taking more risks in order to have fun. In real life, playgrounds were never “unsafe” to begin with – as children we used to love the merry-go-round, the high slides, etc. that are now gone. I don’t recall anyone every being seriously injured at the playground in our neighborhood. The playgrounds today are so lifeless and sterile that only very small children want to play on them at all. The upper elementary and middle school kids who in years past would have been outside playing all afternoon now are entirely allergic to physical activity because their parents have become paranoid control-freaks, not because kids were dropping deal left and right on the old playgrounds. They get their thrills vicariously, in video games, and their parents are just fine with this because it’s a whole lot less trouble than having to walk down to the park and read a book while the kids are playing. So in an incredible irony, petrified parents have ruined their kids health in the name of “saving” it. Go figure.

And finally, Lott discusses Gun Locks, which are just liberals way of trying to make guns useless so they can say later that – see? - owning one doesn’t protect you from crime. Lott ends with a brief comment about prosecuting environmental crimes. Yes, they have been effective, as he found. That’s why the CEO’s are all moving their operations to places that have no such laws.

What it all boils down to is a question that Lott did not ask: Do we, as a society, actually have the means and resources to deal with crime when the culture has adopted a self-focused me-first survival-of-the-fittest irreligious philosophy of society that shuns the collective good and elevates monetary accomplishment and the material goods it can buy above all other things?

I think not, class.


John Lott said...

The notion of holding everything else constant is understood in these discussions because that is always the assumption.

I am glad that in this chapter you seemed to like a few more points than in the past ones. I think that the abortion discussion is a particularly important one.

Ahavah bat Sarah said...

I know that you, as an academic, have an idea that "all things being equal" is part of the equation. Most lay-readers don't, and real life, of course, has no such parameters. This is why academia often falls short in everyday world applications - because their idea of "rational" behavior is strictly mathematic, not philosophical.

There was an article, even, in the past couple of months, I think, that was linked on one of the websites I regularly browse, where the authors found that people's real-life reactions to price fluctuations tend to be "irrational," - that is, not in their "best" interests as defined by mathematical analysis. You may have seen it.

And I never said I hated your book. I liked Freakonomics, but it did have some problems. Since you came out as so hostile to it, I decided to read your book and comment on it. I was, obviously, offended when Freakonomics seemed to be endorsing abortion as a means of crime control for philosophical reasons, as well as wondering just how true their analysis really was in light of the fact that even with abortion, many groups still have a much higher birthrate than middle or upper class white people who fear burdening themselves with the expense of children. So crime should have still gone up, I thought, on that account alone. It was nice to see you disprove Freakonomic's theory on mathematical terms - their own turf, so to speak. Academics like the authors of Freakonomics have gone too far when they begin thinking abortion and eugenics are somehow good for society as a whole. That is ivory tower oblivion at its very worst. This is the kind of thinking that leads to atrocities - because if killing some "undesirables" is good, then killing "more" must be better.

And racism is only gone from America so long as things are relatively stable. There has been in recent months a very subtle trend in various writings that makes me suspect that the pendulum of "tolerance" is about to swing the other way - a trend toward what I am calling "radical conformity." People are near the point where they have "had it up to here" with "tolerating" other cultures that they consider deviant, backward, or dangerous to them in any way. I think we will start to see hate crimes of all sorts going up steeply in the not-too-distant future. It is so much easier to blame the "other" for their problems than to look at their own lifestyles and choices as being a major contributor. And I don't think law enforcement is in any way able to deal with this type of issue - big brother technology notwithstanding. Throwing more and more people into prison is only going to make things worse.

Oh, well. This is the bed we have made - the question is now how we will deal with it, "mathematically" or morally.