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The economics of crime

In Jonathan Pierce’s recent article about the British Crime Survey, many were questioning the validity of the data but the BCS has always struck me as one of the more reasonable surveys of this kind. I think one has to be very careful about drawing too many ‘obvious’ conclusions from the data (such as one commenter’s bizarre remark that declines are down to CCTV), but the data itself seems as good as one can reasonably expect.

For what it is worth, some years ago a fairly senior policeman with whom I was acquainted put it to me that the significant decline in burglary had nothing to do with CCTV or detection rates (which were actually declining) or convictions per crime (ditto) but rather that as items like computers, DVD players, CD players, CDs, microwaves, wristwatches and the like had now become so inexpensive compared to steadily rising national incomes that even in quite ‘deprived’ areas, the ‘economics of crime’ simply made that sort of offence hardly worth the effort and risk. Why buy a stolen DVD player from some thief when you can get a new one that is more likely to actually work for the relatively trivial sum of £100?

Make of that what you will.

18 comments to The economics of crime

  • SD

    As I said in my comment to the post Perry refers to, I think there is something ultimately mysterious about large scale changes in aggregate behaviour (in the sense that none of the explanations fully account for what we can observe). However I do think the best on offer are ones of the kind put forward here, essentially that people respond to incentives and as incentives change, so does behaviour. What makes this tricky is that one of the strongest incentives is to be thought well of by others whose opinion matters to you or to have high status in the group that is significant for you. This comes down partly to ideas and beliefs, such as widely held notions as to what is ‘cool’ or about how one should respond to perceived provocation. Crime against property is clearly primarily subject to straightforward economic incentives as the main motive for theft is the monetary gain. That’s why a key factor is the ability to convert stolen goods into cash. As goods become more widely owned and cheap they generate less cash, as perry says, so the incentive to nick them declines. However fancy mobiles and iPods are still sufficiently scarce and in demand that they can still be readily converted. Violent crime is more difficult since it has to do mainly with the kind of considerations mentioned. Here cultural change is the key factor, plus one other huge factor, i.e. alcohol. The overwhelming majority of assaults for example are carried out by people who are under the influence. That’s why violent crime tends to go up during periods of prosperity and decline during periods of slump – when people have more spare cash they drink more and get into fights (property crime shows exactly the opposite pattern).

  • It is also,perhap. the rapidly changing fashions in electronic goods,nobody wants yesterday’s cell phone for example.The neglible trade in value for domestiv electronics is a good indicator of how these things devalue as soon as they are out of the box.

  • Robert Alderson

    Economics may explain rising levels of street robberies. Items in the house such as DVD players, TVs, videos etc. can be worth less than items such as mobile phones and iPods which people carry around on the street.

  • Daveon

    The trend Perry mentions also covers the increase in “violent crime against the person”. We carry high value commidity, easy to sell, goods on our person now; phones, camera’s, MP 3 players and so forth. And we are carrying them younger – kids routinely now have hundreds worth of goods on them. All of which are much easier to fence and dump than bothering with breaking into a home.

    I think, to a certain extent, this also explains low burglary rates in the past. Stealing generally needs to be stuff you can carry away.

    I recall moving my parents TV set that they had bought in the early 60s, it took 3 of us to get it out of the attic, must have weighed over 100kgs.

  • Julian Taylor

    … fancy mobiles and iPods are still sufficiently scarce …

    iPods are now becoming cheaper by the release – the basic Shuffle is now priced at under £70 – while the technology for rendering a mobile handset useless has reached the point where the moment you inform your network provider that the phone is stolen then they can remotely disable it.

    With that level of pricing and security it takes a lot of stolen handsets, iPods, CD players etc. for some snivelling little drug-raddled wretch to get the level of fix that he needs. The real danger, in my opinion, lies when druggies realise that they can no longer use burglary to achieve the income they need to sustain their habit and resort to extreme violence and intimidation instead, as we saw last week with the conviction of Christopher Olokun for the murder and robbery of a young architect.

    Apropos that case it was quite a change, for once, to see the courts reject the “it was the drugs wot made me do it Guv’nor” defence so often used to excuse some of the most horrendous assaults.

  • 1327

    Yes but we have a criminal class in the UK who have to steal something to support either their drugs habit or their purchases of Burberry products (getting a job doesn’t appear to be a lifestyle choice for them). I see at work their choice of what to steal changes almost monthly. A few years ago they were into breaking open PC’s to extract the RAM , a couple of years ago it was the theft of LCD monitors , last year they were looking for ipods this year though they are looking for the really small laptops especially the latest Sony Vaio’s (sp ?). So despite the price of electronic goods falling at a rapid rate there is always a new fashionable item for them to steal. When the thefts are reported the Police always blame junkies. But when we do catch someone they don’t look like normal junkies but just seem to career criminals starting out (they are usually aged between 18 and 21) and are often tagged already.

  • SD

    I’m sure we’re all familiar with the kind of people 1327 is talking about. However they don’t form a social class as such. Most of the people like this ”get over it’ (i.e. their criminal lifestyle) by their late 20s (or they’re dead by then). The issue for public policy is what proportion of the population are like this at any given time, and how long do they tend to remain in this condition? There’s plenty of evidence on how to change these 18-21 Burberry wearing types – the key factor is having a stable relationship or better still getting married. How to encourage this though – that’s the tricky question.

  • 1327

    Interesting comment SD but I fear things have changed now. In the past a petty criminal may meet a woman , get married , have children etc and they would pretty much be forced to get a job both by financial and social pressures. These days I doubt either exists anymore. Our 21 year old criminal may already have a couple of children with different women. That doesn’t matter to them because thats what all her friends did and anyway the council gave her a flat plus the social give her money thus relieving any pressure on the petty criminal to contribute and thus conform. But hopefully I’m wrong.

    Incidentally has anyone else noticed that the electronic tags have become a fashion item which seems to be worn with pride. Twice this week I have people young men wearing tracksuit bottoms tucked into their socks with the tag being very visibly worn on top of the sock. If this is the case tagging really isn’t working.

  • Luniversal

    One benefit of the rapid greying of the nation is that there will be far fewer 14-30 year old males (who commit most crime, esp. violent and /or druggy) cascading into the social mix.

    The proposed persecution of hunters and smokers can be interpreted as the police, anticipating a shortage of hooligans, desperately casting round for something else to justify their well-heeled existence.

  • Julian Taylor

    I’m interested in 1327’s comment regarding a ‘social class’ of criminals. A friend of mine was jailed on a DUI charge some years ago, before the numbers of prison inmates skyrocketed under Howard, Straw and Blunkett, and commented then that he felt that a very large proportion of inmates needed to be in prison; that there was no other place for them in our society, given their lack of morality and their apparent inability to feel remorse for their actions.

  • 1327

    Julian I only have very limited experience in dealing with these people (perhaps 3 times a year at work) and I suppose I only deal with a specific subset of criminal. But the ones I usually end up sat with waiting for the Police to arrive have several things in common as I mentioned. However most frightening of all is that not only do they have no remorse and usually it appears no understanding why doing what they did is in some way wrong. The being held until the Police arrive is seen as just something that happens and nothing to get upset about. The only time one every got threatening with me was when I wouldn’t get him a cigarates or a coffee ! Anyway the Police arrive I give a statement and well thats it. Despite doing this at least 10 times I have never been contacted again by the Police again so suspect none of the cases ever went to court.

  • Verity

    I have said before on Samizdata and no one has ever responded, but on the third conviction, young men should be mandatorily banged up until their 32nd birthday. Bad behaviour; good behaviour. No release until 32.

    This would have several benefits. It will get habitual thieves and robbers out of the hair of wealth producers. It will have the benefit of cutting back on illegitimate births and future welfare customers. By their 32nd birthday, they will have lost touch with their old mates in crime. Finally, they will have lost some of the steam of idle, greedy young morons.

    Don’t tell me prison is a school for criminals. A) I don’t care. B) These people are already criminals with three convictions when they are banged up.

    The other solution is to make gun-owning, held with a licence, legal and normal.

  • Verity

    Here’s a little news item from The Telegraph that I find rather charming: (Link) A burglar fell off a building from a height of 60 feet, which is a semi-excellent height for death, although he may have had a vague chance of survival, depending on the circumstances. The circumstances were, his partner in crime fell on top of him.

    One does love upbeat endings!

  • Julian Taylor


    Haha, that just proves exactly the point I made – that there is a class of criminals who have no morality or remorse about their actions. I just bet that the dead man was probably thrown down so that his accomplice would have something soft to land on.

  • As the benefits of crime have decreased, we could accelerate the trend by increasing the costs. That requires the clear up rate to increase dramatically.

  • Verity

    EU-Serf – Explain please.

  • rosignol

    I have said before on Samizdata and no one has ever responded, but on the third conviction, young men should be mandatorily banged up until their 32nd birthday. Bad behaviour; good behaviour. No release until 32.

    We do something like that in some states over here, with the exception that we don’t let ’em out when they turn 32.

    Google “three strikes laws” for the details.

  • Midwesterner

    One from the ‘drug rights’ people –


    One from the pro ‘law and order’ people


    One from the lawyers –