Undercover Economist

Criminal interest

Even I do not get terribly excited by the typical economics paper (a recent example picked at random: “Consumption and Labour Supply with Partial Insurance: An Analytical Framework”). But a couple of recent titles grabbed me and, much as I wanted to, I couldn’t look away.

One was “An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization”, while the other was the more sobering “Weaponomics: The Global Market for Assault Rifles”. Very different pieces of research, but both inhabit the tiny niche of the economics of crime.

Economists are interested in crime, of course: it’s big business and has a big impact on ordinary people. The trouble is that the conventional tools of empirical economics are usually brought to bear on publicly available price data, company accounts and national statistics. Inconveniently, Mafiosi rarely file statements of quarterly earnings.

An alternative economic approach is to look closely at everyday life and think about what you see. I try to follow this advice myself, and it is elegantly demonstrated in a wide-ranging new book from Robert Frank, The Economic Naturalist. And yet neither I nor, to my knowledge, Frank, have spent much time buying crack cocaine or observing human resources policy in the local street gang.

In case you’re wondering why, just think back to those images of Michael Dukakis in a tank or William Hague in a baseball cap, and you’ll get a sense of how badly an economist would blend in with a gang of racketeers.

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