Harry Clarke On economics, politics & other things

July 20, 2013

Cultural vandals in Botanic Gardens

Filed under: crime,environment — hc @ 7:22 pm

What they have done to the ancient trees in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens by ring-barking them is horrible. What is says about the mentality of certain sections of the human race is much worse.  The cretins who did this were born by mistake.   The world would be a better place if they had never existed.  Moreover, these types of crimes have been repeated several times in recent months – it has become a fad to wreck devastation on these objects of beauty, environmental value and cultural significance.   Words fail.


July 13, 2013

Genes & neurology – virtue & criminality

Filed under: crime,law — hc @ 11:37 pm

The “ought implies can” principle of ethics suggests that it is only if people are morally autonomous that they should be required to act ethically.  So what if neurology or genes program people to behave in a way that society condemns? Is a pedophile an evil monster or simply a human with predetermined, unusual tastes? The Marquis de DeSade, in fact, simply describes such people as “preferring their fruit green”. While this seems monstrous it is in fact a version of an old argument about free will and determinism.  If I tell you that should jump over the Sydney Harbour Bridge I can hardly find fault with you if you tell me you cannot. It is a tricky issue and although I have never entirely been happy with positions that assert high degrees of individual moral responsibility,  regardless of personal characteristics, I’ve uneasily stuck with the view that to not assign such responsibility in many practical situations would be too socially disastrous to contemplate.   (more…)

March 4, 2013

Aussi media lynch mob

Filed under: crime,media — hc @ 10:09 am

The man who shot himself in a burning house that had been attacked with tear gas rather than go back to jail was described as a “Mad Dog” by most of Australia’s press.  Certainly by newspapers such as The Age.  He had assaulted his girlfriend and faced the prospect of returning to jail after already experiencing a long stint there.  I don’t condone his past crimes but I wonder if the inflammatory language (he was described last night in one media outlet as the “dead rapist”) used by the media and the police tactic of blearing a siren outside the house he was holed up in helpede drive this situation to a helpful conclusion.  Did calling him a “Mad Dog” encourage this man to believe he would receive fair treatment if he surrendered.  Did he deserve to die on account of the assault? The crime reporter John Silvester comments that television reporters enraged the victim him by calling him “Mad dog” – it wasn’t only television reporters however  that used this label, so too did The Age as the sub-editors did on the online version of Silvester’s story.

I noticed the press over the weekend self-righteously criticized the Chinese Government for displaying a group of prisoner’s prior to their execution by lethal injection.  I wonder if the aussi media behaved that much better in relation to this man. I find the judgementalism in their language unfortunate, inaccurate and dangerous.

The same judgmentalism is arising not only with respect to those judged by the media to be criminals.  It also extends to our Prime Minister. There is literally nothing Julia Gillard can do that makes sense. The press treat the recurring polls as a cheap source of news and feed off them offering advice on who should replace her and why she should be replaced.  Of course they help drive them as well. As she has done in the past (here) again Anne Summers sums up the campaign against Julia Gillard accurately.  It is exaggerated, sexist and vicious and impolite. Its the same essential issue as for the so-called “Mad Dog” namely a bunch of nobody reporters making judgments about people and attempting to foist these judgements on the Australian people.

December 16, 2012

Gun control in the US will fail

Filed under: crime,current events,US — hc @ 10:48 pm

One can empathize with “the tears, the thoughts, the prayers and the broken hearts” (a synthesised quote from several newspapers) that Americans are expressing/experiencing in relation to the murder of  26 people in Connecticut.  The murders of the 20 mostly 6 or 7 year old school children naturally create a feeling of deep sadness and, indeed fear, for all parents. But the sense of having heard all this before and that absolutely nothing will change in the US creates despair at how far Americans have moved away from being a decent society. (more…)

April 15, 2012

Economics of the Sicilian mafia

Filed under: crime,economists — hc @ 8:13 pm

There are a few academic papers on this topic (see here) but my interest is in the sheer inefficiency of gangster-like rule of a country.  I have not read any of the scholarly accounts but have gleaned most of my insight from Peter Robb’s meandering Midnight in Sicily – it is one of the most entertaining and well-written treatments of the modern history of this region I have seen.

Interspersed with mouth-watering descriptions of Italian tucker is a rollicking good modern history of the region with an emphasis on the role of the Mafia.

This is a cruel organization that has penetrated the highest levels of Italian politics. But as an economist what struck me was the enormous social inefficiency of meeting a ‘property rights failure’ in western Sicily with rule by a mob of hoods which instituted killing as the punishment for rule-breaking. This sort of social history  is the ultimate anti-libertarian tract since the overwhelming implication is that strong central government, based on western-style democratic values, vastly outperforms rule by a mob of hoods. Self-interest decidedly does not drive the social advantage.

Delayed and inefficient economic development, low productivity and a social culture based on fear are some of the worst implications of mob rule.  It is both unfair to citizens subject to its rule but also grossly economically inefficient – even ignoring the transfers the society is impoverished by having a bunch of illiterate thugs running things. Social Darwinism fails.

December 7, 2011

US imprisonments

Filed under: crime — hc @ 7:42 pm

Nearly 1 American in 100 is in prison – the exact figure is 0.8% of the population.  This is astonishingly high and 4-5 times the level of other developed countries.  The Australian rate is 0.17% for example. At the Becker and  Posner blog these statistics are discussed.  Becker argues that imprisonment is effective in reducing crime and that crime often does cause real harm. However he still sees imprisonment rates in the US as far too high.  He argues that imprisonment is the wrong punishment for all victimless crimes. An important example he claims is imprisonment for drug offences – eliminating this would cut US imprisonment rates by 30%.

Posner is puzzled by the fact that high crime rates coexist with high rates of imprisonment and offers several explanations.  If blacks has the same rate of imprisonment as whites then the rate falls to 0.6% which is still quite high.  He makes the astute observation that Americans have a high aversion to crime and criminals and the direct cost of the US prisons at $40b is a tiny part of GDP.  Hence there are no strong pressures to reform the system – sticking miscreants in prison might be one of the luxuries a wealthy society can afford to indulge itself in.  There are of course indirect costs of high imprisonment rates that stem from the fact that young potential workers are excluded from the US economy – the US prison population is generally young.

April 21, 2010

Carl Williams

Filed under: crime — hc @ 8:39 pm

I was saddened by the death of Carl Williams.  He was a murderer who probably killed more people than he was convicted for.   When I look at the guy’s face he seems to be someone I might have enjoyed a beer with.  I feel sorry for his family and friends. The crime wars in Melbourne have become a TV soap opera but they are nothing of the sort – all of those killed were someone’s daughter or son, mother or father, uncle or aunt. There is no glamour here – just shit-awful human misery and an irresponsible press that have turned murderers into heros.   It reminds me of the irresponsible behaviour of rock stars who glamorise taking drugs to sell their music.

I am saddened that the jailed Carl Williams was killed while jailed.  I am surprised that, in a closely-guarded situation, he lay dying in his cell for 25 minutes before being given assistance.  If Williams was cooperating with police – that his daughter’s school fees were being paid by police suggests so – who organised the killing? Corrupt cops or his criminal enemies or both?  This needs to be sorted out and those sent to prison need to be able to believe that incarceration is a penalty that falls short of a death sentence.

August 10, 2007

A murder conviction

Filed under: crime,people — hc @ 9:14 pm

The murder of Mersina Halvagis at the Fawkner Cemetery in 1997 was a haunting event. It was a senseless act of brutality. I remember seeing on a television newscast the anguish of her father Mr. George Halvagis after the murder. His obvious pain sent a message to every father who was watching. Mr Halvagis still visits his daughter’s grave every day. It is a unending, loss for him and the whole Halvagis family.

Finally, yesterday, after 10 years, mutiple murder Peter Dupas was convicted of the murder. It will hopefully give some closure to the family to these tragic events.

Central to the verdict was the sworn testimony of convicted drug trafficer, Andrew Fraser, who was in jail with Dupas and who recalled in court conversations he had with Dupas. Fraser is eligible for a $1 million reward for helping to secure the conviction and has already applied for the reward. The jury who convicted Dupas knew that he had been convicted for the murders of Nicole Patterson in 2000 and Margaret Maher in 2004. The judge in the case told jurors to ignore past convictions.

Dupas is a terrible man who deserves no sympathy and the Halvagis family deserve compassion and, by any reasonable standard, need closure.

April 24, 2007

Nikki taught Cho

Filed under: crime,people,poetry — hc @ 7:46 pm

Nikki Giovanni (more here) was one of Cho Seung-hui’s professors and is supposed to be a great black poet.

Below is one of her poems. It might help us understand her now deceased student.

The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts) by Nikki Giovanni


Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you kill
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? nigger
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your’68 El Dorado
(that’s all they’re good for anyway)
Can you kill
Can you piss on a blond head
Can you cut it off
Can you kill
A nigger can die
We ain’t got to prove we can die
We got to prove we can kill
They sent us to kill
Japan and Africa
We policed europe
Can you kill
Can you kill a white man
Can you kill the niggerin you
Can you make your nigger mind
Can you kill your nigger mind
And free your black hands to
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can you shoot straight and
Fire for good measure
Can you splatter their brains in the street
Can you kill them
Can you lure them to bed to kill them
We kill in Viet Nam
for them
We kill for UN & NATO & SEATO & US
And everywhere for all alphabet but
Can we learn to kill WHITE for BLACK
Learn to kill niggers

Learn to be Black men

April 23, 2007

Gun control: murder & suicide rates

Filed under: crime,economics — hc @ 1:35 pm

Christine Neil and Andrew Leigh have released a fascinating paper on the effects of the Federal Government’s gun buyback on murder and suicide rates in Australia. Generally the authors are careful to not read too much into their statistical findings but overall conclude that the buyback has reduced the number of murders from between 2–36 per year and the number of suicides from between 126-247 per year. This suggests significant overall effects of gun control on rates of suicide, in particular, but also possibly on the murder rate. This contrasts with the finding of no effect on murder rates and no explicable effects on the suicide rate in an earlier study by Baker and McPhedran here.

Neil and Leigh do not make strong claims in this regard – it is a hard call since homicide rates and suicide rates have been trending down strongly through time anyway. The punch line in the author’s claims is that homicide rates are bounded below at zero so that recent substantial decrements in this rate, since 1996, are very significant since the rate itself cannot fall below the natural barrier of zero.

In Andrew’s blogpost, though not in his article, he calculates the cost of the buyback at $500 million and then aggregates the suicides and deaths together to deduce that a minimum total of 128 lives per year were lost. Taking recent estimates of the value of a human life at $2.5 million he calculates that the buyback paid for itself in two years.

That sounds right if the value of a suicide prevented is taken at $2.5 million. But people presumably kill themselves when they feel their own lives are not worth living. Their incomes may be low, their prospects poor or they may suffer from serious debilitating diseases. In short to follow the ‘optimal suicide’ literature (Hamermesh and Soss) ‘as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life’ (Shopenhauer, On Suicide). Adopting this viewpoint, preventing a suicide may not increase society’s wealth – it may in fact decrease it if you respect individual preferences. Presumably this is the idea behind the case for voluntary euthanasia.

Even if you dislike the macabre notion of attaching a zero welfare gain to preventing someone from killing themselves I am unsure that preventing people from killing themselves with a gun substantially reduces the suicide rate. Are not things like sleeping pills and carbon monoxide relatively painless substitute ways of killing yourself? If this is so then gun-driven suicides may be replaced with other types of suicides.

In either case, the cost-benefit case as presented becomes weaker. Including only the murders and maintaining a zero discount rate the results would suggest a net gain from the gun control measure if account is made of murders saved over 100 hundred rather than 2 years if the lower bound on effects is taken.

Another puzzling point that Neil and Leigh do not deal with is that suicide rates apparently declined for different forms of suicide – not just those involving guns. Thus the decline in the suicide rate might be hard to attribute to gun control.

Lest I be misunderstood I am in no way arguing that the ‘gun buyback’ was not good policy. This is only a qualification on what seems to me a very interesting study. I have lived in a society where there was widespread gun availability – Thailand – and I think that the fears that are a consequence of widespread gun ownership outweigh any benefits. The murder rate in rural Thailand while I lived there in the 1980s was massive and much of it was associated with gun use.

February 1, 2007

Hakeem Hakeem & limits to compassion

Filed under: crime,immigration — hc @ 3:26 pm

Hakeem Hakeem has been sentenced to 24 years jail for the violent rape of a 63 year old woman and for raping and assaulting 3 teenagers all in a period of 3 days. Before the attacks he had been chroming and using amphetamines. The 63 year-old woman he attacked spent more than a week in hospital recovering from fractures to her eye socket, nose and cheek that she suffered during the savage beating.

Hakeem entered Australia only a month before the attacks as a refugee from Sudan. In his defence it was argued that Hakeem was young and had experienced violence in both Sudan and Egypt. He had also been forced to leave his infant son and girlfriend behind in Egypt and apparently didn’t want to be in Australia.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has ordered an investigation into how the troubled Sudanese refugee was allowed to settle in Australia and will consider deporting him after the 21-year-old has served his time in jail.

I am interested in the outcome of this inquiry. The unfortunate Hakeem has had a miserable life but granting him refugee status was a mistake. Compassion has been stretched too far. Noone develops a drug dependence in a month. As Neil Mitchell points out there are problems in the Sudanese community in Australia that cannot be glossed over by appealing to their difficult circumstances back in the Sudan. As Mitchell continues:

‘There is now increasing evidence of a culture of violence imported to this country with some refugees. There is no point dodging around that fact for fear of being called racist’.

January 15, 2007

Noble Park riots

Filed under: crime,immigration — hc @ 1:22 am

Noble Park is 30 km south east of Melbourne’s CBD. It’s a rapidly urbanizing part of Melbourne with fairly cheap land and a high migrant population. During the 1980s it had one of the most notorious street gangs in Melbourne. Last Friday night it had a fully-fledged riot with a clearly criminal element supported by a mindless mob.

1500 drag racing morons and their brainless supporters (some with kids in prams) rioted, threw flares and rocks, at a hopelessly inadequate police response, and smashed up property including a video store. The rioters were proud of their achievements and put video clips of their rioting on YouTube – see here and particularly here.

Police, of course, were quick to use these clips to identify these bright sparks. 5 offenders were arrested at the site but hopefully a lot more arrests will come.

Some of the YouTube clips have been taken down by those who had posted them – but the police already have them. In addition the TV stations have their own video footage and the Herald Sun has run photos of the louts trashing the video store on their web page. This might help to catch them.

You can wail on about disadvantaged youth and so on but zero tolerance is called for here. The drag racers could kill themselves or – more significantly – innocent parties. And rioters who smash up shops and attack police are an aberration in Australia that is intolerable. Take back the streets.

December 25, 2006

Penalising drunks who kill

Filed under: alcohol,crime — hc @ 11:24 pm

More interesting analysis from the law and economics, Becker-Posner blog. This time B-P address drink driving penalties. I like this blog so much because it addresses significant issues of social importance using the sort of economics any well educated person can understand.

Gary Becker estimates that the cost per drunk driver arrested of drunk driving in the US is about $10,000. This is the order of magnitude he asserts should be levied as ex ante fines on drunk driving – or the ‘equivalent’ in license suspension costs or imprisonment. He argues that such hefty penalties would reduce the scale of alcohol-induced deaths on US roads to the levels of European countries where very heavy penalties are standard.

Richard Posner responds that the Becker ex ante penalties makes sense only if the theoretically more sound proposal of penalizing ex post those drivers who do kill an innocent by the cost of the innocent’s life fails to deter drink-driving deaths. He estimates the value of a statistical life at $7 million so, if 10% of drink driving offenders fail to be convicted, he argues that any driver convicted of killing an innocent should be penalized $7/0.9 = $7.8 million.

The case for ex post penalties is hardly convincing to me. Although it is true that most drink driving does not involve the death of an innocent party, motorists exaggerate the extent to which they can manage risk-less driving when drunk. The general point of each author’s analysis however is that the external costs of drink driving are huge.

It would be a simple matter – and I might do it myself as a 2007 New Year’s resolution – to compute the optimal scale of penalties in Australia (from ex post and ex ante perspectives) for drink driving. Penalties here are currently higher than the US. Compared to the US where 40% of road accident fatalities involve drunkenness the figure in Australia is ‘only’ 31%. But still the Australian courts are increasingly reluctant to imprison even repeat drink-driving offenders and sentences for killing innocents on the road are often pathetically small.

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