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Maybe we'd be safer if we were kinder, or fairer - Input Junkie
May 14th, 2010
06:42 am

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Maybe we'd be safer if we were kinder, or fairer
From the NYTimes:
That is what both Howard Bodenhorn, an economist at Clemson University, and Mr. Price concluded from 19th-century prison records. In that era increased body weight was associated with a lower risk of [committing] crime. In the 21st century, though, in which service jobs are much more common, Mr. Price found that being overweight was linked to a higher risk of [committing] crime.

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Mr. Price has suggested that there may be policy implications in his work, saying, “Public health policies successful at reducing obesity among individuals in the population will not only make society healthier, but also safer.”


The Times article also has somewhat about the economic effects of beauty and height.

Link thanks to Mind Hacks.

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:May 14th, 2010 10:48 am (UTC)
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This theory is a classic case of assuming causation from correlation. In the 19th century richer people were fatter and poorer people thinner. Today the opposite is true. In both cases there is a correlation between crime (at least the kind that gets caught and punished) and poverty. Income inequality causes crime not obesity and there is a massive body of evidence to support that. Want a safer society? Make it more equal.
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From:whswhs
Date:May 14th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
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Your point about correlation not being causation is valid, but it applies to your own comments, too. There is a statistical correlation between poverty and crime, but that doesn't show that poverty causes crime. Several other models are possible:

* People who have been convicted of a crime have a record that makes it much more difficult for them to get decent jobs, and therefore are more likely to be poor.

* People who have high time preference (that is, are motivated by immediate rewards much more strongly than by long-term rewards) are both more likely to be poor and more likely to commit crimes.

* People who commit crimes, but are rich, can afford high-priced lawyers; poor criminals get public defenders working in a system that rewards plea bargains. Poor people are therefore more likely to be counted as criminals in proportion to the rate at which they commit crimes.

Each of these supports a different social and political narrative. Do you have independent evidence that your interpretation and your narrative identify the causal paths correctly?
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:May 14th, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC)
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There is evidence that countries with lower levels of income inequality have lower crime rates and that crime rates tend to increase when inequality increases (the UK is a good recent example of that). So I'm not arguing that absolute poverty causes crime, rather that income inequality is a determinant of crime rates (obviously not the only one). I suppose it's possible within that overall framework to construct some sort of narrative that says that societies with higher crime rates have more inequality because criminals are poor, as in your argument, but it seems highly improbable.
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From:whswhs
Date:May 14th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
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That's still statistical correlation. What evidence indicates that inequality is the cause and crime the effect, rather than crime being the cause and inequality the effect, or the two being jointly caused by some other factor entirely? Absent such evidence, "highly improbable" means "I can't think of such an explanation"—which in the last analysis leaves us with different subjective priors and no criterion for which is more valid.
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:May 14th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
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In large measure I agree with you. That's a problem with virtually any large scale assertion about society. It's not possible to do controlled experiments so correlation plus a plausible narrative is about the best one can do. Of course, if one wanted to be pedantic about this one could equally validly assert that no scientific hypothesis is provable. I can't prove that smoking causes cancer. It could be that both are caused by some third, independent, factor. Few physicians or biologists (except perhaps those in the pay of big tobacco) would argue that but it can't be disproved. In the original case we were considering, the hypothesis "obesity causes crime" is risible and demonstrably false as it is possible to demonstrate that that correlation is demonstrably false in many instances. The hypothesis "income inequality contributes to a higher crime rate" is at least not contradicted by the evidence. As a lifetime Bayesian I can live comfortably with my subjective prior!
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From:whswhs
Date:May 15th, 2010 12:58 am (UTC)
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Yes, but your priors and mine are likely different. And as you say, it's not a difference that is going to be resolved by pointing to the statistics.
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From:chomiji
Date:May 14th, 2010 11:07 am (UTC)
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Correlation is not causality. Eliminating some or all of the many factors that lead to obesity may have a positive effect on the crime rate, but I seriously doubt that efforts aimed simply at the weight issue will have much of an effect.

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From:noveldevice
Date:May 14th, 2010 12:04 pm (UTC)
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Sigh.

I wish I could stop being surprised and dismayed by this kind of thing.
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From:fengi
Date:May 14th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
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That is an unintentionally hilarious article. "A small band of economists" have decided to pretend even harder they're scientists while being all "well, maybe corellation DOES equal causation".
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From:madfilkentist
Date:May 14th, 2010 01:53 pm (UTC)
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To make a point about income tax, Gregory Mankiw, an economist at Harvard and the former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, has facetiously proposed taxing taller people more, since someone 6 feet tall can be expected to earn $5,525 more a year than someone who is 5-foot-5, after accounting for gender, weight and age.


And I thought "Harrison Bergeron" was fiction. Are they sure he was being facetious?
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From:whswhs
Date:May 14th, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
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I read that piece on his blog. It sounded as if he was aware of the humorous aspects. The actual intent, though, seems to be captured in the final sentence of the abstract: if policies such as a tax on height are rejected, then the standard utilitarian framework must in some way fail to capture our intuitive notions of distributive justice. In other words, he's coming up with a counterexample to a theory, in the style common among mathematicians and philosophers. Such counterexamples tend to be unrealistic, striking, and ideally witty; they represent philosophers at play. Or in this case, economists at play.
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From:nancylebov
Date:May 14th, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
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Fully granting that there's no reason the government should get that money, let's look at this from another angle. Assuming that height doesn't actually make people more capable, what should employers do to not be influenced by it?

I've wondered if you could come out ahead by deliberately hiring people who are likely to be discriminated against to get access to a lot of otherwise wasted competence.
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From:whswhs
Date:May 14th, 2010 05:06 pm (UTC)
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In fact, (a) that's a winning strategy for an employer, and (b) the win is enhanced if the victims of discrimination are willing to work for less . . . which they often are, if they find it hard to get jobs elsewhere. Enforced equal pay tends to block the movement of victims of discrimination into better jobs, whether the enforcement is done by government regulation or by labor unions' hostility to "cheap nonunion labor." (Historically, unions used to be major barriers to opening up good jobs to women and ethnic minorities.)

Market forces tend to erode discrimination over time; but ironically, if you command market actors to behave as if that erosion had already gone to completion, the outcome is often that discrimination gets worse, because there's no payoff for undermining it.
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From:nancylebov
Date:May 14th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
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You could probably come out ahead even paying the usual salaries, just by having less turnover.
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From:whswhs
Date:May 15th, 2010 12:56 am (UTC)
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That's at least possible, and I noted it at the outset. But forbidding members of the groups that are discriminated against to compete by offering to work for less deprives them of the ability to (a) compete by offering their services at a better price (b) that is more than they are making at their current crap jobs. It works to the advantage of the people who have skilled or otherwise desirable jobs at the expense of both the employers and the people who would like those jobs but can't get them because of discrimination.
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