A friend posted this on my Facebook profile, courtesy of rall.com:
Hee. This is particularly funny to me considering that I tutor for the LSAT. It also reminded me of a paper that I read a while back.
It’s unclear to a degree whether criminals are acting rationally- i.e. whether they are considering the real costs and benefits of an action and coming to the conclusion that yes, it’s the optimal choice to rob this bank, or yes, it’s the optimal choice to mug that little old lady. (Funny that in both of those situations there is a pretty good chance of getting both cash and candy.) When lawyers and/or economists (law and economics classes are becoming more common, which I think is awesome) talk about the concept of deterrence, they typically think that the potential criminal really is thinking ahead and doing some sort of net present value calculation. (Or even if they don’t think this is the case, they acknowledge that there is no way to deter those criminals who are just batshit insane and focus on what they can control.) The concept of deterrence is an attempt to set punishment in order to shift the outcome of the cost/benefit analysis to the “not worth it” side. There is even a concept known as marginal deterrence that aims to shift criminal behavior to less severe activities in the cases where they may not be able to be prevented entirely. (i.e. set punishment so that the criminal only kicks the old lady rather than throwing a brick at her. Isn’t the economics of crime morbid?)
Are criminals rational? David Lee and Justin McCrary argue “probably not, in a lot of cases” in their paper “Crime, Punishment and Myopia”. (In case you are curious, myopia refers to nearsighedness, so if you are acting myopically you are being short-sighted. Take that, SAT verbal.) They find a natural experiment as a result of the fact that legal punishments are generally much tougher once an individual turns 18 and is a legal adult. This would suggest that, if criminals were acting rationally, you would expect to see a. more crimes committed by minors (after adjusting for other factors), and b. less criminal activity within an individual once he turns 18 and the punishment increases. The authors of the study look at the second implication most closely but do not find the evidence that the change in punishment would suggest. They conclude that “potential offenders are extremely impatient, myopic, or both.”
Lesson learned: when the dude in the ski mask breaks into your house, economic principles are not likely to be nearly as helpful as a baseball bat or golf club. (Sidenote: I got mugged once. I tried to reason with the guy by kicking him in the groin. It didn’t entirely work, but it gave me time to get my house keys out of my bag- important since I was right outside my front door. How’s that for marginal deterrence?)