Why doesn’t unemployment create more crime?

By John Lloyd
January 17, 2012

With so much unemployment about, and more to come, it seems reasonable to fear that more crime will come with it. The devil, after all, finds work for idle hands, and that English proverb finds echoes everywhere. The French and the Finns say that “idleness is the mother of all vices” (the Italians think the same, except that it’s the father); the Portuguese, that “an empty head is the devil’s workshop”; the Egyptians, that “the idle hand is impure.” Who can gainsay such an accord of folk wisdom?

The U.S. crime statistics, for one. The big rise in U.S. unemployment (it’s going down a little now, but it’s still high, at around nine percent) hasn’t been accompanied by a surge in crime. The stagnation of working- and middle-class incomes hasn’t sent the sufferers out onto the street in orgies of thieving or robbery with assault. Although Americans – bamboozled by super-violent films and TV’s concentration on murder and rape – fear crime as much, if not more, than ever, still the real decline in most crimes is large, and has continued.

The reasons for rises and falls in crime are always contested, but one reason commonly cited – though not universally agreed upon – is the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. And it’s not just that the U.S. locks up people more willingly than other countries – the UK sends about the same percentage to prison. It’s that the prisoners spend longer, often much longer, inside. Research by Steven Levitt and William Spelman points to these sentences as reducing crime by a lot – about one-quarter. Other researchers say it’s much less (though still accounting for a measurable decline) and that the social effects, especially on young black men without college degrees or even high school diplomas, who are disproportionately incarcerated, outweigh the gains.

There are other reasons. Less cocaine is now taken, either heavily or recreationally, than was the case a decade or more ago. Police methods, especially forensics, have become much more sophisticated, which has meant more arrests and more convictions. People look after their property better. It may even be the case that reduced levels of lead in young bloodstreams – down by four-fifths in the past decade – have reduced crime, as high levels of lead in teenage bloodstreams have long been linked to aggression and criminal behavior.

Much more speculatively, it could be that our culture has changed. James Q. Wilson – the social scientist whose work on policing of crime-ridden areas inspired shifts to no-tolerance methods, where actions that makes neighborhoods unsafe or just unpleasant (broken windows, graffiti) are pursued and punished – said in his 2011 Manhattan Lecture that we have moved from a 1960s-inspired, ultra-liberal ethos of self-expression to a more conservative ethic of self-control. He added, though, that no one knew how to measure the effects of such a move, if move it was.

Like him, and with his caveat, I think culture is important, but I also think that as culture has changed over the past half-century, so it is likely to change again – if, that is, high levels of unemployment persist. For the loss of jobs isn’t likely to be substantially reversed when the Western economies move into growth – even relatively high growth. There are structural reasons why we might be stuck with terrible situations, like 40 percent youth unemployment in Spain and large-scale job losses week by week in Greece and Portugal.

If you divide jobs into three categories – transformational, transactional and interactional – only the last is, and will be for a while, a reliable supplier of well-paid and good jobs. The first, transformational, means making cars, doing farm work, or building houses and schools, work that is very substantially automated, and will be further. Transactional means work dealing with the public, as in call centers – which have been labor intensive, and indeed have provided something of a (low-paid) cushion against redundancies from transformational jobs – but are now also being automated, rapidly. (There is a sub-group here that is, according to the Economist, growing: domestic service. And while much of it isn’t very well rewarded, some of it is: A good butler can cost you £150,000 a year.)

It’s in the interactional jobs where the growth, and the high pay, is to be found: in finance, in the law, and in some parts of the media. These need a lot of training, and invariably at least one degree. Which means that people who took unskilled, or low-skilled – or some kinds of skilled – work now face a tough market. And that greatly exacerbates the gap between the have-a-lots and the have-littles, even for those with work (which is still most of us).

Long-term, chronic unemployment for young men with few prospects and little shape to their lives strikes me as a big challenge to a trend of declining crime. This is even more the case because criminality in the world – especially in organized-crime gangs and in corruption networks – isn’t declining: Indeed, globally, it’s leaping ahead. Stuart Gilman, an expert on corrupt practices (as an investigator, not a participant) told me that there are quite a few “kleptocracies” in the world and that “though we can stop some of it, I’m always surprised at how smart the criminals are. They are always one step ahead. Once you strip off the veil of legitimate marketplaces, it’s amazing what, in so many places, is underneath.” One of the Wikileaks documents that circulated in December 2010 was a cable from the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, John Beyrle, to the effect that corruption is the system. Gilman says that there is no easy line to draw between corruption, organized crime and terrorism – all can merge into one other.

Networks of crime, corruption and terrorism hold out to the disenfranchised young the rewards of status, money and a kind of respect (also, of course, risks of pain, imprisonment and death). States that have been able to keep these networks out, or at any rate down, face a tougher struggle in doing so than before: Globalization works for crime too, even if slowly (mafias can and do migrate, but tend to stick to their own national turf). But within these cultures, look at the “success” of organized crime gangs in Italy (now spreading to the north from the south); in Russia, burgeoning over the past 20 years; in Mexico, where the drug gangs can terrorize whole regions and account for more violent deaths of nosy journalists than anywhere else in the world; in China, where, as in Russia, a softening of tyrannical rule meant a big spike in crime; in India, where gangs flourish, violent crime has risen fast in the past half-century (by over 200 percent, for murders), and where corruption, too, is a way of government and much commercial life.

The power these criminal subcultures have – apart from the considerable ability to acquire vast sums of money, terrorize their victims and even cow (or penetrate) governments – is to lower the defenses the young have against involvement with them. It’s what happened in the U.S. and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s, when a reserve army of young labor provided foot soldiers for crime mobs. A sense of hope betrayed by economies that cannot meet the needs of employment could do the same – on a larger, more global scale.

PHOTO: A cache of weapons seized from a vehicle from an outbound (southbound) examination at Del Rio International Bridge in Texas, is seen in this U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) handout photograph taken February 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Handout

3 comments

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“Long-term, chronic unemployment for young men with few prospects and little shape to their lives strikes me as a big challenge to a trend of declining crime.” Yes, and it is the uneducated, the unmotivated, the unskilled, the unneeded that breed fastest.

Of COURSE criminality in the world” is “leaping ahead”. One follows the other as night follows day. If civilized society is to survive it may soon be necessary to put something in the water so that financial capability and responsibility must be established before procreation is possible.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Could the increase in concealed weapons permits for honest citizens have anything to do with it?

Posted by roughman | Report as abusive

Once again OOTs is a monument to pompous, selfish stupidity.

You are not really interested in society’s survival – only your own.

People like you would do all social engineering, like their very dishonest and corrupt warfare, by remote control.

If the planet listened to people like you – it would be doomed and it would deserve its fate. It would not be a civilization at all but a world of the bunkered and frightened against the very desperate. The tragedy is that so many of them are very young and you are very old.

Perhaps that movie a few years ago “The Children of Men” was an accurate portrait of the future after all? It was the world on the edge of it’s own extinction.

BTW – to the author – I was reading last night in the local shoppers weekly that there was a burglary spree affecting several towns in this area. Someone isn’t reporting the crime statistics accurately. Violent crime may be down – but robberies of abandoned or vacant property were, and probably still are, way up. Two middle aged white men (this is a predominantly white state as far as I can tell) are the principal suspects so far, but the police aren’t sure if they are responsible for all the burglaries.

An economy of money chasing money among fewer and fewer affluent people isn’t much of an economy at all. It is why the housing market is and will remain in the pits. Wealth itself will lose its effectiveness at providing the stability and blessings of a “civilization”.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive