Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Absurdly High Cost of Crime

Via Charles Blow, I see that an economist is offering absurd, made-up figures for the cost of crime.
For instance, how much do you think a single murder costs society? According to researchers at Iowa State University, it is a whopping $17.25 million....

(They also calculated that each rape costs $448,532, each robbery $335,733, each aggravated assault $145,379 and each burglary $41,288.)
Looking at UCR statistics, in 2009 we had approximately 15,241 murders, 88,097 forcible rapes, 408,217 robberies, 2,199,125 burglaries, and 806,843 aggravated assaults. That would mean for those crimes alone, the total cost to society was more than $647 billion dollars. I'm not sure how much the authors of the "study" would tell us were lost to the 6,327,230 incidents of larceny, 794,616 vehicle thefts or 9,320,971 incidents of property crime, but it's difficult to imagine how their inflated numbers wouldn't put the annual cost of crime somewhere well north of a trillion dollars. A simple reality check of that type of projection would be, "In years when there's a significant drop in crime, is there an associated significant increase in productivity or in the nation's GDP, and if not, why not?" (Perhaps it's that a significant percentage of people who are murdered tend to be criminals themselves, so in high murder years there's a "dividend" by virtue of murder victims no longer being able to commit crimes, whereas when crime rates are lower society bears the cost? It all comes out in the wash?)

Instead of explaining why at this magnitude their statistics appear to only function in a vacuum, the authors argue:
DeLisi sees the expensive monetary costs associated with incarcerating murderers supporting both sides of the political fence when it comes to crime.

"I think that the left and the right are both right and wrong on crime," he said. "Where the right maybe has to bend is in acknowledging the benefits of prevention. It's simply more humanistic and it's just smarter to invest up front, and the costs are so much smaller than allowing it to unfold.

"On the flip side, conservatives are absolutely correct in noting how bad some offenders are," he continued. "And here's where liberals generally aren't as strong in admitting how bad these offenders are. They really are [bad], and when you can bring out costs that show this, you can really see it."
The first non-sequitur: the economic harm caused by a person's action does not automatically translate into it's being more heinous than a less costly act. If the extent of economic harm caused by a bad act automatically translated into "how bad" an offender is, the $18 billion in losses inflicted by Bernie Madoff would mean that his crime was approximately 35 times as "bad" as the serial murder spree of John Wayne Gacy. The second non-sequitur: if conservatives see this as an economic argument, with the "badness" of an act correlated to its harm to society, we would have seen them demanding the prosecution of the bankers whose dubious and often fraudulent activities led to the recent economic collapse, rather than yammering about how the government needed to pay multi-million dollar bonuses for bailed-out companies because of the "sanctity of contract".

We also have the hollow man - "the right maybe has to bend is in acknowledging the benefits of prevention" - who on the right is arguing against prevention, and what of the response that the current system is focused on prevention in tht prosecution followed by long prison terms both prevents recidivism and deters others from committing similar crimes? Also, "liberals generally aren't as strong in admitting how bad these offenders are" - which liberals, and how does that translate into policy? Outside of parody, where can I find "liberal" voices arguing that it's not fair to incarcerate rapists, murderers, robbers and burglars?

I recognize that the authors of the study hope that the figures will inspire more programs designed to prevent crime. Coming up with high dollar figures for the cost of crime can be used to justify the cost of programs designed to prevent young people from becoming criminals. Or, as Charles Blow puts it,
Many crimes could have been prevented if the offenders had had the benefit of a competent educational system and a more expansive, better-financed social service system. Sure, some criminals are just bad people, but more are people who took a wrong turn, got lost and ended up on the wrong path. Those we can save.
Maybe I was too hard on the researchers in relation to that second hollow man - if they're arguing from the standpoint of prevention research and believe that prevention is "more cost effective than allowing these careers to unfold", they're endorsing the idea that most criminals aren't "bad" people - they're people who given better structure and support won't make the same bad choices. Perhaps their sin was in overstatement. But wouldn't that mean that the researchers, themselves, are the "liberals" that they told us "aren't as strong in admitting how bad these offenders are"? Painting with too wide a brush....

6 comments:

  1. I see the problem and solution so clearly. . . . Medicaid. People on Medicaid obviously cannot support themselves or they wouldn’t be on Medicaid in the first place. And the system allows them to have child after child without any repressions, but with added benefits . . . more monthly income. In addition to the financial cost to society for supporting these children, society also pays for it in increased education costs and crime costs. I know this is not a popular point of view, but I believe that if you are accepting entitlements from society because you cannot support yourself – then society should be able to establish some guidelines regarding child bearing. Citizens that pay for their children themselves think twice before having children and often limit themselves because they understand their limitations. This often is not the case with people that are entitled to Medicaid insurance. We have to change the Medicaid system or there will come a time where more people in the United States are receiving entitlements then are paying for them.
    P.S. I understand that not all people that receive Medicaid fall into this category, but many do. As part of my job I examine Medicaid hospital bills. If more Americans could see what I see on a daily basis, they would be outraged.

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  2. "People on Medicaid obviously cannot support themselves or they wouldn’t be on Medicaid in the first place. And the system allows them to have child after child without any repressions, but with added benefits . . . more monthly income."

    You appear to be describing two separate programs, Medicaid and ADC, as if they are the same. There are people who earn modest livings, and even children whose parents earn decent livings and qualify through SCHIP, who simply cannot afford health insurance and don't have it available as a job-related benefit. In fact, most people who receive health insurance as a job-related benefit would balk at paying the full cost out-of-pocket. That said, yes, by design, most Medicare recipients are poor.

    "In addition to the financial cost to society for supporting these children, society also pays for it in increased education costs and crime costs."

    In terms of public education, obviously if you choose not to provide public education for people who cannot afford private schools, you're going to leave a huge percentage of the population either uneducated or receiving substandard but cheap 'private' education. From the standpoint of a modern society, that's not an acceptable 'solution' to poverty - in fact, it is pretty much a guaranteed path to making the problem worse.

    Most poor people manage to live law-abiding lives; not all wealthy people can say the same. Yes, street crime tends to be positively associated with poverty. But it's complicated - the inner city street dealer sells drugs to a lot of middle class people who are much less likely to be caught and prosecuted. Police often seem content to contain drug sales to an unfortunate part of the city, as opposed to trying to stamp it out - something that seems to merely shift it to another area (or areas).

    "I know this is not a popular point of view, but I believe that if you are accepting entitlements from society because you cannot support yourself – then society should be able to establish some guidelines regarding child bearing."

    Saying stuff like that is the easy part. If you're willing to take the approach of China, and force women to have abortions pretty much up to the time of delivery, or the approaches taken by other totalitarian states... I guess it's possible. But leaving aside the legal and constitutional impediments to a state controlling or licensing procreation, it's difficult to imagine how you could implement restrictions in this country without seriously disrupting our nation's conception of individual rights and freedoms.

    Yes, if you become a teen parent or don't complete high school, or both, your chances of living an impoverished life go up significantly. Yes, people are better off deferring having children while they complete their educations. Yes, it can be incredibly frustrating that a significant population seems completely resistant to either message. But this is not an easy problem to fix. Even China has had incredible difficulties enforcing its "one child" rules, and it's a totalitarian state.

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  3. "Citizens that pay for their children themselves think twice before having children and often limit themselves because they understand their limitations."

    True to a degree, but given that about 20% of children born to married couples are unplanned, it's far from a universal truth. And it's less true outside of marriage than within marriage. We use the terms "unwanted" and "unplanned" for a lot of pregnancies not because the parents chose to start a family - quite the opposite. Making babies is easy (and fun).

    "This often is not the case with people that are entitled to Medicaid insurance."

    Do you have anything but a hunch to suggest that Medicaid eligibility makes people more likely to have children outside of marriage? It's my impression that hospitals often scramble to get Medicaid-eligible mothers, and those eligible for subsidized maternity insurance, onto a program such that they can receive adequate prenatal care.

    "We have to change the Medicaid system or there will come a time where more people in the United States are receiving entitlements then are paying for them."

    Or we could change our conception of the provision of health insurance. There's nothing wrong, for example, with 100% of the population being on a national health insurance plan - and the world's experience with that is that on the whole you get better results for less money than you do with the U.S. "market-based" approach. No state has a perfect set of answers, and there are some very good elements to the U.S. system if you can afford to access them, but we could save a lot of money in a hurry by shifting to single-payer or one of the other models followed in nations like Germany, France or Japan.

    "P.S. I understand that not all people that receive Medicaid fall into this category, but many do. As part of my job I examine Medicaid hospital bills. If more Americans could see what I see on a daily basis, they would be outraged."

    Of course, every system is subject to abuse. Even in the realm of private insurance there are abuses by patients, doctors, and insurance companies.

    As I see it, the issue is more "what type of society do we want to be"? I've been to nations that offer little to no health support for the poor, and there's not a one of them where I would actually want to live. I also don't relish the thought of living in a middle class enclave adjacent to a slum in which diseases like pertussis and cholera are rampant.

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  4. C'mon, Anonymous, don't pussyfoot around. What 'guidelines' for childbearing do you think 'society' should establish? Forced abortions? Taking babies away at birth and giving them to nice, middle-class couples? Cutting off benefits past a certain number of children so we can punish the kids for being born? Involuntary sterilization?

    Surely you have something more than a timid suggestion that, perhaps, 'some guidelines' of an unspecified nature should exist.

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  5. Maybe we could raise the kids in state-run facilities to become super-soldiers, in the manner of Sparta?

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  6. Sure, now that we've already adopted Mythago is willing to support changing the laws in our favor. : )

    . . . and Aaron, I like the concept but #1, the whole Sparta thing (with exposing sickly babies and forcing children to steal to get enough to eat) is a little to creepy even for me and #2 we don't need to steal babies for the army, we have the recession to help recruiting.

    CWD

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