The Polite Society
June 9, 2011 7:56 PM   Subscribe

"The argument is straightforward: When less legal work is available, more illegal 'work' takes place. ... But there have long been difficulties with the notion that unemployment causes crime. " Author James Q. Wilson on crime, law enforcement and the economy.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (13 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
...used very little crack and instead smoked marijuana.

There's your answer right there.
posted by fartknocker at 8:55 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nice article. It's interesting that there are so many theories which seem not to actually explain the drop in crime rates. They (very willfully) don't get into the abortion-crime connection, but I had heard that one before. (Specifically, the claim was that Giuliani's big gains as mayor of New York came almost exactly eighteen years after the legalization of abortion... Coincidence, question mark?) Does anyone know some good links on that debate?

It's interesting, too, because if crime can be decoupled from economic circumstances, it could provide a good deal of hope for countries which normally become massively unstable in the face of economic troubles.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:02 PM on June 9, 2011

Maybe committing crime is an impulse that can be satisfied (like other impulses can be) via the internet and so all those illegally downloaded songs, movies, and books are simply soaking up the crime potential.
posted by fartknocker at 9:25 PM on June 9, 2011

(Specifically, the claim was that Giuliani's big gains as mayor of New York came almost exactly eighteen years after the legalization of abortion... Coincidence, question mark?) Does anyone know some good links on that debate?

Yes, chapter 4 of Freakonomics.
posted by rkent at 9:37 PM on June 9, 2011

Nice rundown on the various theories causing crime to fall. Short answer: nobody really knows for sure.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:04 PM on June 9, 2011

As a white collar professional, I commit many crimes from my 40th floor office in downtown Manhattan.
posted by planet at 10:07 PM on June 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

John Donohue and Steven Levitt have advanced an additional explanation for the reduction in black crime: the legalization of abortion, which resulted in black children's never being born into circumstances that would have made them likelier to become criminals.

Alternately, the parents of smaller, planned families have more time and resources to dedicate to their children than to larger, unplanned families, resulting in happier, better adjusted adults.

Why does that little stat always wind up worded in terms of "less ghetto babies to grow up to be criminals?" Jeesh.
posted by Jilder at 11:16 PM on June 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

No no. It's actually fewer ghetto babies exposed to violence inducing lead paint.

Here's the link.
posted by stratastar at 12:19 AM on June 10, 2011

Well, no kidding crime is related to unemployment. When you lay off cops you reduce the capacity of the police department to respond to reports of crime, fewer reports of crime are written and entered into the database, and *low-and-behold* the reported crime rate decreases.

Your actual crime rate may vary, but the statistics never lie!
posted by three blind mice at 1:03 AM on June 10, 2011

Hope this is relevant and not a derail...

The Freakonomics abortion argument has always struck me as pretty weak. Unfortunately, I don't have any links right now (posting from a phone)--but the gist of the problem is that it doesn't give nearly enough consideration to the demographics of abortion.

There's an assumption in the argument that the drop in crime is related to abortions because people who would be most likely to committ crimes were never born.

However, the magnitudes just don't match up, because a large number of abortions have always been performed on upwardly-mobile professionals (many of whom determine that their career and life goals are incompatible with having children).

This is obviously somewhat speculative, but from what we can tell, the children of women in similar circumstances (who do carry their pregnancies to term) don't end up being all that likely to end up with criminal convictions.

So although it does make intuitive sense that legal abortions had am effect on dropping crime rates (and it mist certainly did), Leavitt's argument is very much overblown.

(Full disclosure: I've always had an axe to grind when it comes to the arrogance of economists who believe that the rational actor theory can explain sociological phenomena better than, ya know, sociology).
posted by graphnerd at 6:03 AM on June 10, 2011

Upon RTFA,

One other possible solution has to do with the decreasing scarcity of "easily stolen" goods. (not sure who first proposed this, but Dalton Conley has written about it).

With the advent of ATMs and credit cards, there is now less benefit to mugging someone. Same with smartphones (which of course are easily traced or remotely destroyed).

Personal electronics are now so cheap that they're hardly worth stealing, and economic segregation and better security means it's much harder to break into the homes of the wearily to get really any items with resale value.

All in all, I think that if it were possible to steal experiential or ethereal goods and sell them on the black market, the drop in the crime rate would've been much smaller.
posted by graphnerd at 6:16 AM on June 10, 2011

If fewer people are employed, then criminals who commit property crimes on foot or using public transportation face two disadvantages: 1) fewer commuters to quietly pick the pockets of on busy trains, subways and buses during the commute/rob on the way home from work after cashing their paychecks; and 2) fewer people sticking to a regular workday schedule, so breaking and entering in the daytime is riskier. You're less likely to encounter an empty home/apartment at random during business hours, and once you've robbed all your neighbors or hit up all the easy marks nearby, those people are unable to replace the stolen goods with new ones. Thus, you've cannibalized your victim pool effectively into extinction.

Not only that, but there's less of a market for fenced goods if people don't have disposable income with which to purchase them; but I'm not thinking of the kinds of goods that show up in pawn shops, I'm thinking of expensive car parts, guns, and large consumer appliances that "fell off a truck."

Maybe that assumption's way off-base, it just feels like stolen goods aren't as profitable as cash. Even selling coins, gold, jewelry, etc. is a pain in the ass and you have to show your ID most places.

Also, this article doesn't mention employers moving to a direct deposit system instead of issuing paychecks that must be cashed as a factor, and I think it should be. The disappearance of "legal" menial-labor job opportunities that were mostly paid in cash, such as housekeeping positions, unlicensed in-home daycare operators, various service industry jobs and the like could also have had an impact. There was a time when bank robbers and thieves could easily time their efforts and get a guaranteed payout (1st, 15th and last days of the month, for example, or seasonally); those opportunities have dwindled thanks to technology's near-ubiquitous role in most U.S. financial transactions.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:01 AM on June 10, 2011

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