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Noah Berkowitz

Great idea of yours.
thanks for posting like this.


My first reaction is that of little mention of pervasive rates of high unemployment in both urban areas and rural pockets of grinding poverty. Surely when there's little hope for employment at all, much less a wage that pays the bills, coupled with a relatively high demand for various vices and both the imported drugs mentioned and the meth mfg'd here.

"Yet the indirect costs of high levels of incarceration must be very great, in the form of the lost output of the large number of prisoners, most of whom are of working age."

........... few politicians seem to mention that aspect of having 2 million locked up. Suppose there were better solutions for one million who might earn an average per capita income of $21,000 and that their product was at least equal to their wage that's another $21 billion to add to the costs....... assuming an economy that could provide jobs paying $100/day.

The "$40 billion" appears to be the direct $20,000 costs of imprisonment, but there are often costs of welfare for related family members.

In terms of "global competition" if we get to $100 billion of actual costs and losses that's "only" another $1,000 per US household to be added to paying 17% of GDP for H/C.

David Friedman

"Another is a high elasticity of supply for criminal activity, so that discouraging or preventing one person from committing crimes induces someone else to enter the crime industry."

I think you have that backwards.

If the supply is highly elastic, that means that quantity is very sensitive to price--a small increase in the cost to criminals of committing crimes (i.e. a decrease in the net benefit to them) results in a large decrease in quantity supplied.

Robert Morris

Thank you for posting on this important topic.

America definitely imprisons too many people. Professor Becker rightly points to the war on drugs as an unnecessary contributor to prison populations. I thinks he may understate the possible benefits of decriminalization however. Prisons manufacture criminals. Non-violent offenders are often brutalized in prison. They return to their neighborhoods with diminished potential for employment, angry, and with a much higher propensity to commit violent crime. It may take a generation, but if this cycle is stopped, prison populations may decline well beyond the 30% figure cited.

Deterrence is not a concept that applies to drug enforcement. For a system of deterrence to have an effect it must be perceived to function fairly. Our system of drug laws does not do that. The affluent suburb I was raised in was rife with illicit substance abuse, with very few consequences. In my work at the Washington DC courts I saw people facing life-shattering consequences for behaviors that my peers considered essential components of an evening out. This imbalance is obvious to those at the bottom of the income scale, though perhaps less so to the better-behaved among the privileged.

I have written about this issue, and others relating to the drug war, in this polemic. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006D8FO22


High elasticity of supply would mean that supply would quickly respond to an increase in Price/Demand. With the fixed demand/price of what I think is Posner's point, he's pointing out that the arrest of one leaves a vacuum quickly filled by another.

Neither of our profs touched on what seems evident to any economist, that of ever dollar and "success" of the DEA and other enforcement efforts simply increasing the price spread between grower and "street price". It's just a perfect example of pure supply and demand as a prospective "mule" with a starving family to feed who turns down $10,000 for the risk/reward being unattractive need only wait a short time for P to increase and generate a $20,000 commish on the delivery. When the consumer price soars, all they are accomplishing is to force the addict to engage in more vices including that of becoming a small time dealer themselves.

Ha! the US KNOWS how to wreck a business and from time to time does so like a destroyer running down a small sailboat and never even noticing.

Here's the formula I presented a quarter century ago using well established economic principles:

1. Continue to interdict and make it a costly enterprise to transport drugs.

2. Using intercepted drugs (tested of course) or other, to supply existing addicts who'll come in to a street front clinic (where they won't be treated as criminals) very cheaply while gently encouraging them to enter drug treatment on demand programs.

Even in the unlikely case that this program doesn't lower the number of addicts we'll have stolen the consumer from the marketer and ruined his necessarily high margins and enjoy a much lower crime rate as the desperate addict "comes in" rather than going out stealing, selling drugs or engaging in prostitution, or god-forbid becoming a WS thief.

Next? In both urban and rural ghettos of high unemployment and dismal wages there has to be a public/private (or ANY) means of providing job training and jobs. The branch of econ that deals with real people and their motivations, or lack of such, would easily understand that corralling millions in urban or rural areas of 20% unemployment would easily predict that they aren't going to starve with a high percentage engaging in crime.


Thanks for sharing such valuable information. Keep posting such great info for us, thanks.


You all make it sound like you think that every person is an equal social commodity in all respects. NOT! In our society we have no mental health system to help manage mental and emotional problems in part caused by the lack of family structure and meaning, a totally bureaucratic and ineffective urban school system, consequential unemployment and loss of hope and no second chances for the poor convicted of sometimes minor crimes. I agree with Jack (unusual). Please reread "Les Miserable". The poionts made about societal cost should be talen care of by simply subtracting the cost of crime and punishment from the GDP.

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I definitely see your point, the balance between justice and finance isn't one that's easily achieved.


Am I alone in thinking that cops saturate Amerikan life?

I spend months at my home in the mountains above Rio de Janeiro, where I never see a cop on my local street and only rarely one stopping drivers for speeding, etc.

Petty crime and mugging are supposedly common in Brazil, but, I have to say, I feel my liberty more threatened by Amerikan cops here in Texas than by Brazilian street crime. It seems that in Amerika, a person can be stopped, fined or locked up over car registration, inspection or insurance, for having a tail light out, or for "weaving" if the cop can't find another reason. I never see that in Brazil.

I don't think Amerikans realize what a fascist country we live in.

Terry Bennett

I'll just throw this out. I suspect our higher-than-our-peer-countries' crime rate stems at least in part from our diversity. In a culturally unified country, everybody comes from the same background and understands what is expected of them by the tribe and how to fit in. As our once-dominant culture erodes into minority status, we see not just an increase in the sort of crime we've always had, but terrifying non-WASPy-type crimes characteristic of various ethnic groups. Also, large chunks of the crime are contained within a sub-culture, e.g., Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese crime. This may be skewing the statistics upward, in terms of what actually to expect on Main Street.

Second, speaking as one who has never used tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs, I agree that we have addressed our drug problem with a blunt tool. Large numbers of people in this country have in fact integrated the apparent pleasures of illegal drugs into their lives without major negative consequences. Why should we deprive them? It seems a few problem substance abusers spoil it for all of you. A friend once told me, "I drink a lot of beer, but I get up and go to work the next day." A very large number of Americans, very well a majority, use alcohol. We've come up with some plausible restrictions on it - don't use before you are old enough to appreciate and accept the consequences, don't drive, etc. - and we've actually done a good job of bringing down the number of alcohol-induced traffic deaths (although that is of little consolation to individuals such as my best friend, killed by a drunk driver).

I represented a heroin user in court today. When I looked into her eyes, there was something missing. It made me think of the dementors in Harry Potter. She's one of the losers. The non-losers, we don't notice, and I suspect they are by far the majority. They do whatever they do with drugs, and they function more or less normally, and when I look in their eyes I don't notice anything missing - so I really don't care if they keep doing it, anymore than I sit in judgment of a guy in a lawn chair guzzling beer.

Habitual drug users probably have higher per capita health care costs, assuming they treat, and as we move that "system" toward socialism we may not want to encourage them lest we be the ones to bear those costs. However, exactly the same can be said for users of alcohol, tobacco, excessive prescriptions, meat, sugar, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and a host of other modern American staples. I stopped by the hospital today to see another friend, dying of alcoholism. I recognized the pickled-liver smell on his breath, from when my father died by the same method years ago. That broad generic problem is a topic for another day. At the moment, I think I'll go have a donut...maybe two...

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All of the sci-fi stories pointed to a shorter work week, more leisure time and industries developing around increased leisure time coupled with the income to enjoy it. We have nothing like that in place or even in mind. Instead those desperate for any kind of job are to work longer hours for less pay and be appreciative for their opportunity.

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All of the sci-fi stories pointed to a shorter work week, more leisure time and industries developing around increased leisure time coupled with the income to enjoy it.

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We have nothing like that in place or even in mind. Instead those desperate for any kind of job are to work longer hours for less pay and be appreciative for their opportunity.

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The bitter truth is that the employment prospects for a recent college grad are far more grim, especially full-time employment in their field of study.

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The Occupy Movement and everyone else worried about earnings inequality should be emphasizing the need to find ways to encourage more high school dropouts and high school graduates to get the required background and study habits so that they can, and want to, continue on for a college education.

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As compared to the post-World War II era, Americans with high school diplomas today are much less likely to find manufacturing jobs, because there are 2-3 billion people in emerging economies with similar skills who are willing to work more cheaply in order to have a shot at attaining a middle class standard of living.

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Global demographics instruct that manufacturing job growth in nations with emerging economies will continue to outpace manufacturing job growth in America.


This brief article calls drug crimes "victimless" which we seem to agree is a stretch and given the source likely has some spin to it...... for example how does it handle property crimes perpetrated by an inebriate or drug user? Still, I imagine the percentages aren't far off.

We don't have a "prison problem" but a drug problem. A big one that is not responding to the silly, wasteful, punishment based system of the last half century.

Punishment? Something from our Puritanical past? Whack'em because they're "having fun" or had fun, are "slothful" and deviate from the norm?

Suppose we'd tackled TB, AIDS or cancer similarly "because lifestyle choices" played a role? Ludicrous? By now we know drugs exist, are readily available despite budget busting interdiction efforts and we know that many are drawn to try them and that of them some are more readily addicted than others and that some drug use and addiction is due to predatory enslavement.

Then what? Costly clinics for those of the incomes to afford them, but not much of anything for the rest until they run afoul of the law. Then perhaps a short, or inhumanely long prison sentence. Spin the roulette wheel to find out. Even incremental change such as "drug courts" that are better able to deal with what is more sickness than criminality move at a snail's pace.

Time for a change but even incremental changes such as "drug court" move at a snail's pace.

Perhaps we can quit thumping our chests about "American exceptionalism," in all things and look at what the seemingly more civilized nations are doing. I'll bet three things make the top ten list;

1. Poverty being more dire in our urban and rural ghettos low income and continually high unemployment.

2. That universal H/C provides some access to mental health and drug rehab.

3. A different and less punitive philosophy. In the early days of AIDS with the Reagans attending the funerals of a number of their Hollywood friends, Nancy begged him to better fund AIDS research, those of more sense than ideology, strongly recommended free needle exchange programs. Even when we found our hospital blood supply infected little was done. In Vancouver? there are nurses who reach out to exchange needles, distribute literature, and let addicts know where to come when they're ready.

And a fourth? I'll bet few of those nations have turned their prisons into a private industry replete with growth seeking lobbyists.


Victimless Crime Constitutes 86% of The Federal Prison Population
September 29, 2011
By michaelsuede

Some shocking prison statistics brought to you by Drug War Facts.org

The 2009 federal prison population consisted of:

Drugs 50.7%, Public-order 35.0%, Violent 7.9%, Property 5.8%, Other .7%

Drug offenses are self-explanatory, but the public-order offenses also fall under the victimless crimes category. Public order offenses include such things as immigration, weapons charges, public drunkenness, selling lemonade without a license, feeding the homeless without a permit etc..

The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, 756 per 100,000 of the national population. The world population in 2008 is estimated at 6,750 million (United Nations); set against a world prison population of 9.8 million this produces a world prison population rate of 145 per 100,000 (158 per 100,000 if set against a world prison population of 10.65 million).

In 2008, according to the Department of Justice, there were 7,308,200 persons in the US corrections system, of whom 4,270,917 were on probation, 828,169 were on parole, 785,556 were in jails, and 1,518,559 were in state and federal prisons. This means that the US alone is responsible for holding roughly 15% of all the prisoners in the world.


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"There are a number of other possible explanations for the conjunction of a high rate of imprisonment with a high crime rate. One is not enough police, or intelligent enough police, to prevent and detect crime effectively."

In the big cities police officers are often chosen by lottery rather than a paper and pencil test. This is because all paper and pencil tests show racial disparities, and so in order not to have disparate impact police officers are chosen by lottery. There's actually been studies done showing that more affirmative action on a city's police force leads to higher crime.



RA: As crime rates fluctuate with it being difficult to identify the causes, I suspected it was pap. It occurred to me that the "black officers" might be more effective and make more arrests than the "white" officers, and perhaps the female officers were more prone to defusing a situation with diplomacy and not making an arrest.

Then I looked at the paper and seeing John Lott's name at the top I then knew it was pap. He hires himself out to produce pap for the NRA, haha! depicting our murder prone nation as being safer when even more guns are close at hand, despite gun banned NYC being the safest of mega cities and the slaughter rates of Canada, the EU, Japan being just 10-20% that of the US.

These guys routinely out themselves with statements like:

"When one looks at the problems with these bulbs, it becomes very understandable why people aren’t rushing to own them. Possibly people are a little smarter than the Democrat controlled congress that passed these rules."

......... is that the opposite of "Republic" controlled?


Look at it this way. There is the hypothesis

A) pen and paper tests which correlate with IQ (i.e., all pen and paper tests) predict performance at work. That has mountains of data behind it.

Those who want affirmative action in hiring argue that A is overcome by the proposition that

B) Black police officers are better at working in black neighborhoods compared to white police officers with equal or better test scores

B may or may not be true, but those who think effect B outweighs consideration A need to prove it.

The main problem with affirmative action in policing is that it lowers standards for everybody. The Supreme Court says you cannot have quotas. So basically everyone is given a test and then people are picked at random to get racial balance. If you just had a quota, you would at least get the most competent of every race.

If you say proposition B makes affirmative action worth it, you have to basically argue that black officers are so much better than white officers with similar or better scores that the difference overcomes the advantage of selecting everyone meritocraticly.

Just as likely as B, one could hypothesize blacks make worse officers than whites with similar scores, because

C) other personality factors

D) black officers are more likely to have criminal friends and relatives and not want to crack down on those close to them

E) black officers might be less willing to use racial profiling for ideological reasons

C, D, and E are just as possible as B. A is the only thing that's been proved, and those who went to use nonobjectvie standards have the burden of proof on them.

Jamie Boldman

Is this a trick question?

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