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This guest post is by heterodox economist Dr. Charles Karelis. Dr. Karelis was professor of philosophy at Williams College and George Washington University, and president of Colgate University. He is the author of “The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can’t Help the Poor.”
Poor people are more likely than middle-class people to smoke, drink, and overeat. My October 6th guest post, “On Paternalism and Poverty,” downplayed the explanation conventionally given, which is that poor people have less willpower than members of the middle class, either because they have depleted their will-power by exerting it elsewhere or because they didn’t have much will-power to start with. At the same time that post downplayed a widely-believed corollary of this low-willpower theory, that poor people need more paternalistic guidance than middle-class people in deciding how much to smoke, drink, and consume.
On the contrary, I argued, the role of incentives is conventionally underestimated. Granted, will-power is one factor in anyone’s level of resistance to temptation, but the difference between the level of resistance shown by the poor and the middle class can be explained without postulating any difference in will-power. In a nutshell, poor people resist temptation less mostly because they gain less by resisting.
Why is this? Poverty brings on a big heap of troubles and hassles, from housing and transportation problems to unhealthy food and so on. This heap is so big, in fact, that a small increase or reduction makes little difference to the poor person. Prescriptively, the impact of incentives for self-restraint on the part of poor people can be magnified by reducing the sea of troubles which drown out the felt consequences of self-indulgence.
Failures to regulate harmful impulses cause harm to individuals and to society in cases where the immediate victim is not the one who fails at self-regulation, but other people. For simplicity’s sake we will focus here on the impulse to take others’ property. Within this category we will focus further on habitual or career property criminals, since they are responsible for a large percentage of property crime.
Is it possible to generalize about these impulse-control failures? Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D. linked crime to poverty, and that idea has withstood the test of time. He must have meant subjective poverty, the perception of inadequate resources, since someone’s standing on one or the other side of an objective poverty line that he doesn’t perceive is not a very plausible explanation for behavior. Surprisingly, the alignment between objective and subjective poverty has proven in studies to be weak. Variables other than objective money income play a large role: “...current household income does not explain well self-reported assessments of whether someone is poor or rich. Expanding the set of variables to include incomes at different dates, expenditures, educational attainment, health status, employment and average income in the area of residence doubles explanatory power.”
Again, Marcus Aurelius’s idea has withstood the test of time. But the question remains: what exactly is the nature of the connection between poverty and crime? The obvious answer is that people commit property crimes when they need money. In his 1909 article “The Hold-Up Man,” Clarence Darrow supported this answer by citing statistics assembled by Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-62), who showed that over “long periods of time the suicides, the defalcations, and the crimes of all kinds increased and decreased in England, and have for years, exactly as the price of bread went up and down.”
But while property crime may vary with need, this particular theory, that people commit these crimes because they need money, can be disputed, especially in the case of career criminals. It is too simple to say that crime does not pay, but studies show that property crime is a bad bet, economically speaking. In simple terms, over the long term a career of property crime will mean intervals of incarceration that leave the criminal worse off, net of his dishonest “earnings,” than he would have been if he had used his skills and intelligence in legitimate work.
Of course the fact that property crime is a bad economic bet doesn’t prove that property crime isn’t committed to maximize income, since it could still be that career criminals typically don’t know what a bad bet it is. Perhaps they choose a career of property crime because they believe—contrary to fact—that it will generate more income than legitimate work over the long term. (This calls to mind the quip that lotteries are a tax on people who failed high school math.) But the postulate of ignorance is not compelling. That net income from crime is smaller than the likely fruits of honest work would seem on the surface to be a nearly inescapable conclusion from the life experience of the criminal himself and people he knows well.
But is it really inescapable? Some criminological studies suggest that whatever the typical property criminal would conclude if he focused on the question of whether crime pays, in actuality he avoids thinking about the question altogether. The self-descriptions of some British street criminals suggest a related possibility, that it is not avoiding the question but a narcissistic belief in his own “invincibility” that prevents the typical career criminal from reaching a correct conclusion as to whether crime pays. One well-known British street criminal, who was later honored as a criminal justice reformer, says in a well-known video interview that though he was a small man, his ego in his younger days was ten feet tall. He was sure he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. Interestingly, he and another reformed criminal recall in the interview that what lanced their bubbles wasn’t going to jail but set-backs in their personal lives.
The foregoing idea, that for various reasons career property criminals fail to take account of the fact that crime does not pay in the long run, has at least one further version, which one newspaper termed the “street cred” hypothesis. On this view, property criminals have so few economically bearable options open to them, either straight or crooked, that they pivot away from framing their decisions in economic terms completely, basing their career choice instead on achieving the status that they think they get from living a life of crime in the streets. There is empirical support for this theory, including a British survey of 120 street robbers, a third of whom had been arrested more than fifty times, summarized by one of its authors as follows: "The decision to commit street robbery can be explained in part by particular characteristics of the street culture. This finding is important, because British research has tended to explain robbery in terms of rational choice and to focus instead on the role of cost-reward calculations.”
Whether the choice of a career committing property crime is economically rational or not is too complex to be resolved here. Readers familiar with the issue can easily come up with grains of salt that might be taken with any of the hypotheses and evidence presented so far. For instance, are the career criminals reporting non-economic motives for their choices trustworthy and self-insightful? Are the economic studies suggesting that property crime does not pay in the long run unimpeachable as social science? Indeed it may be that the question of criminal rationality is unresolvable simply because individual cases differ.
That said, there are background convictions or “overhypotheses” that will incline some students of the problem to press on in search of justifications for the conclusion that property crime is economically rational after all. For instance the medieval principle of parsimony—Occam’s Razor—invites us to search for theories that impute rational self-interest to everyone if we impute it to anyone. And, for what it’s worth, rationality theories are bound to appeal to reformers, since rationality theories hold out the best hope that social reforms can make straight careers more attractive than lives of crime.
One parsimonious view begins by conceding that the up-and-down incomes of property criminals probably add up to fewer dollars over time than the steady incomes of comparable people in legal lines of work. From an actuarial standpoint, criminal careers are indeed a bad bet. But the key point is that for subjectively poor people, up-and-down incomes generate greater relief from poverty over time than smooth incomes of the same size in total—and greater relief from poverty even than smooth incomes that are larger, at least up to a point. Actuarial rationality is not always hedonic rationality.
The most scientifically respectable support for the claim that income variation maximizes benefit for the subjectively poor is that poor people consume very unevenly across a range of areas. For instance, those who work often in straight jobs often do so episodically, dropping in and out of the workforce, though it has been argued that this pattern is not always voluntary. A stronger illustration is the fact that a much smaller proportion of Americans in the lowest income quintile than in the higher quintiles have savings accounts. To explain these instances of uneven consumption along with crime by invoking various forms of irrationality would arguably become ad hoc and convoluted.
A more persuasive though scientifically unorthodox support for the claim that income variation maximizes benefit for the subjectively poor may be a thought experiment. If we represent the hassles and miseries of subjective poverty as a pile of undesirable items, such as a pile of unwashed dishes, we can appreciate that small reductions will bring disproportionately small amounts of subjective relief, making intermittent big reductions the prudent choice over the long run. For instance, if someone finds himself with twenty-four dirty dishes by the sink each evening and a voucher that would induce a helper to wash twelve of them, would that person be likelier to spend the vouchers evenly across your days, in a 1-1-1-1 pattern, so that he ended each evening with twelve dishes still unwashed, or would that person be likelier to spend the tokens unevenly, in a 2-0-2-0 pattern, so that on alternate evenings he wound up with either twenty-four dishes unwashed or a clean counter? Considering that twenty-four unwashed dishes are not much more unsightly than twelve, while a clean counter is much better than a counter with twelve dirty dishes on it, we hypothesize that most people would use the tokens unevenly. (The author has used this thought experiment with audiences literally hundreds of times, and the results are consistent.) And even if there were a bonus for smoothing the use of the tokens—such as getting thirteen dishes washed on each evening that you used a single token—most people would vary your use of the tokens, until the bonus got much, much bigger.
If the analogy between subjective poverty and confronting a pile of aversive items holds, we have some grounds for concluding that for poor property criminals, the income variations that come with their career generate enough extra relief from their poverty in the long run to outweigh the relief of a smooth, legal income that’s somewhat larger. The fruits of selling off the parts of that stolen car, like the clean counter on the complete dishwashing nights, produce an extra relief from the miseries of poverty that outweighs the relief derived from a steady income of the same total size (or larger) that, so to speak, leaves half the dishes unwashed every night.
To summarize the position being proposed here, there is indeed a close connection between poverty and crime. But the link is not that criminals are desperate for what they steal, or that they don’t see what a bad bet crime is, or that they care more about image than material well-being. It’s that poverty makes uneven consumption rational.
As a corollary, this answer predicts that whatever exacerbates felt or perceived poverty will also exacerbate crime, and this seems to be the case. Research cited earlier has shown that having less money than one’s neighbors, being poorly educated, and being unemployed make it more likely that someone will see himself as poor; and other research has shown that these factors correlate with property crime. This suggests a mechanism that does not seem to have been proposed previously—that these correlates cause crime by causing people to see themselves as poor.
Rooted originally in the faith that God made nature efficiently, Occam’s Razor has been vindicated by the success of science and technology in reducing disparate phenomena to common natural forces, elements, and principles. Different as they appear, coal and diamonds are both carbon, and so on. Here Occam’s Razor invites us to search for theories that ascribe rational self-interest to everyone if we ascribe it to anyone—to prefer an account of the distinctive behaviors of criminals that doesn’t require such complicating postulates as that criminals have an atypical indifference to long-run economic consequences, an unusual belief in their invincibility, or an unusual concern with their social image. Instead, we should look for explanations of distinctive behavior that assume common rationality and focus on the indisputable fact of different circumstances. In a word, our working assumption needs to be not, “What’s wrong with these people?” but “There but for fortune go you or I.”
But who is supposed to do this “reducing of the sea of troubles”? In my previous post I lazily assumed that the relieving (trouble-reducing) dollars or other relieving goods had to come from the state. Commenters objected. They wondered why it couldn’t be private donors or the poor beneficiary himself who metaphorically raises the perceived gain from washing one or two dirty dishes by cleaning up all the others? Their objection is correct. It could just as well be private donors or the poor beneficiary. In fact changing what’s going to seem worth working for by contributing low payoff efforts oneself is an everyday pattern, whether we are consciously gaming ourselves or not. People often grit their teeth and get started on an unpleasant project with unrewarding early stages, knowing that the effort of working one’s way through a pile of obligations (bills to be paid, leaves to be raked) will feel progressively more worthwhile as one gets closer to the bottom of the pile.
For specifics, see William P. Barr, “Rising Crime Rates are a Policy Choice,” Wall St. Journal, October 26, 2022.
See Ravillion and Lokshin, “Subjective Economic Welfare,” (World Bank Policy Development Group working paper, April, 1999). Quoted from the abstract.
See James Q. Wilson and Allan Abrahamse, Does Crime Pay? (Justice Quarterly), September, 1992, pp. 359-77.
Here is an example from the literature. “In Wright and Decker’s (1994:127-28) study of burglars in St. Louis, they found that about two thirds of the offenders simply avoided thinking about the possibility that they would get caught (see also Shover 1996:157). Other studies of frequent criminals have also noted the lack of regard for the possible legal consequences, implying that sanction threats have little influence among active offenders (Bennett and Wright 1984; Walsh 1986; Wright and Decker 1994; Wright and Rossi 1985), a finding supported by some quantitative data as well (Piliavin et al. 1986). Against these findings however are others, often reported in the same research, that argue that the risks and costs of crime do affect the decision making of even the most frequent offenders.” From DOES THE PERCEIVED RISK OF PUNISHMENT DETER CRIMINALLY PRONE INDIVIDUALS? RATIONAL CHOICE, SELF-CONTROL, AND CRIME BRADLEY R. E. WRIGHT AVSHALOM CASPI TERRIE E. MOFFITT RAY PATERNOSTER JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN CRIME AND DELINQUENCY, Vol. 41 No. 2, May 2004 180-213 DOI: 10.1177/0022427803260263
“Two Gangsters Reveal the Crimes They Regret,” LADbible, The Gap, May 15, 2022.
See The Independent, “Robbers seeking to boost street cred,” 29 November, 2006.
Professor Trevor Bennett, director of the University of Glamorgan's Centre for Criminology, quoted in The Independent. For the underlying study, see Brookman, Bennett, et al., “The Foreground Dynamics of Street Robbery in Britain,” The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 46, Issue 1, pp. 1-15, 2006
See Karelis, “The Persistence of Poverty,” (Yale,2007), p. 20.
Sounds intriguing. Agreed about falsifiable experiments in this area. My problems start further upstream, with the concept of self-deception itself. The term seems clear, taking it one piece at a time. But how can a single mind be both deceiver and deceived? And if we "solve" that by postulating two minds inside one person, is the term self-deception literally applicable? And besides, if Mind A is trying to spare Mind B from some unpleasant fact of which Mind A is well aware, then Mind A is not self-deceived in the first place, and neither for that matter is Mind B, just deceived.
I grew up poor and was surrounded by criminals….and dabbled, sadly. Here’s my first hand observations.
1- Kids and teens. Theft is very alluring to kids and teens, where a $10 score seems like winning the lottery so it’s worth it. Even if you’re poor, a $50 MP3 player isn’t even worth the hassle, but to a kid it may as well be an opened treasure chest.
Kids and teens also want to push boundaries, be rebellious, be “cool” and edgy. Seen lots of kids and teens commit property crimes and regret it later, but they did it at least once. Hell, I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t committed at least one property crime during this age period.
2- Drugs. Drugs. If you get hooked on drugs, you’re going to become a thief and a liar. No way around it. Never met one who wasn’t.
3- Mentally defective people. I don’t know any other way to explain it. There was always the “thief” the dude everyone knew to keep away. He was uncool, not welcome and always getting his ass kicked or going to jail for stealing. He couldn’t help himself. Just odd behavior. Like a pedophile, who knows it’s completely unacceptable but can’t stop because he’s mentally defective, for whatever reason.
4- Opportunistic crimes. This one is more towards kids and teens, but I’ve seen SOME poor people do this. Take something because it’s right in front of their face. But at least in the circles I knew, thievery was always looked down upon, unless…
5- Revenge. Thievery was always acceptable as a form of revenge. If someone wronged you, owed you money, or wronged one of your boys. “Go take their shit.”
6- Corporate or authority. If it’s an unlocked cop car or a Walmart, forget about it, that’s “the man” and his stuff is getting taken, and bragged about later.
7- Gangs. Gangs steal. It’s part of keeping the operation afloat. Pressure comes from the top even if it’s not explicitly spoken, stealing gets you points and street cred.
But even amongst the poor, thievery was always looked down upon, ESPECIALLY crimes against certain people, like off limit family members, the elderly, the infirm. It didn’t fly. Ever.