Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Logic of Deterrence from Gaza to Oakland

Israel's fierce air war against Hamas and its operatives and infrastructure in Gaza provides a window into one of the most important forces at work in our own war on crime, i.e., deterrence. Deterrence is the economic theory, dear to both criminology and state-craft, which holds that actors will alter their behavior to maximize the net sum of costs and benefits.

Both Israeli officials and citizens defend the action as necessary to restore deterrence by making Hamas understand the high cost of shooting their rockets into southern Israel. For example, in today's New York Times, peacenik David Grossman even while making the case for restraint emphasizes this logic:

NOW, after the heavy blow that Israel has dealt to the Gaza Strip, we would do best to halt, turn to the leaders of Hamas and tell them: Until last Saturday, we restrained ourselves in responding to the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at us. Now you know how severe the retaliation can be.

But as with the criminal law, deterrence works well to curb opportunism among those actors who already have strong incentives to continue non-aggressive (even if generally chilly) relations, but works very poorly to curb those actors who have no incentives to avoid the chaos of crime or war; and indeed may have psychic or political incentives to foment violence and chaos.

Is Israel's deterrence broken? There are dozens of Arab and Muslim states in Israel's vicinity. None of them, not even the broken state of Lebanon, has lifted a military finger against Israel. Deterrence works. However for Hamas and for the people of Gaza generally, the base line conditions of life are not high enough to establish the normal incentives that deterrence presumes. If life is one of bare survival and abject humiliation, even a relatively high risk of death, especially an exciting, quick, and morally honored death is insufficient to restrain their desire to inflict pain and fear on their hated enemy (at least for the masculine culture which appears to dominate Palestinian society).

Israeli's understand deterrence probably better than any other people on earth, but their basic anger and mistrust of the Palestinians, especially after the second intifada, is such that they cannot bring themselves to do what they know they must. They know they must build up a true political alternative to Hamas, in the form of President Abbas and his Fatah Party in the West Bank, but they cannot bring themselves to make the political concessions necessary to produce for Abbas gains in sovereignty and legitimacy. They know they should be creating an economic alternative to Hamas in Gaza, by creating the possibilities for economic exchange that will pull young men into the entanglements of markets and diapers rather than honor and death, but they are too angry at Hamas for the humiliating capture of one of their soldiers. So they turn in the inevitable logic of deterrence to raising the collective punishment of Palestinians ever higher, even full while knowing it only exacerbates the fundamental limits on deterrence.

The parallels with our own war on crime, almost the same age as the four decade long Israeli occupation of Palestine, should be clear. Let us pray that President Barack Obama will show the wisdom necessary to save both Israel and the US states from this destructive logic.

Happy New Year

Monday, December 29, 2008

Crime and the Mayor: Not just an Oakland tale

As Mayor Ron Dellums reaches the midpoint of his term as Oakland's Mayor, the celebrated politician who served for years as one of Congress' few lions of the left, finds himself crucified on the issue of crime. So long as the public and the media (read the SFChron midterm report card) views Oakland as an unacceptably dangerous place do to crime, nothing else Dellums accomplishes will be considered success. However, mayors have few significant tools to address either crime or fear of crime.

In recent years many have come to believe that police, one of the few crime control tools that mayors at least influence, can make a difference. The best case of this, as my colleague Frank Zimring has shown in his book The Great American Crime Decline is New York City, which enjoyed approximately twice the crime decline that the rest of America enjoyed in the 1990s. But New York may turn out to be a unique case because of the enormous urban density that allows police pressure (especially on the heavily used subway system) to be maximally effective on both potential perpetrators and the general public (thus impacting both crime and fear of crime). Few American cities are like NYC in this regard, and certainly not sprawling Oakland.

The Mayor (and beleaguered Chief Tucker) are right to resist pressure to ratchet up arrests for the sake of a show of force. Simply feeding more young men into the jail and prison system can have little if any effect on crime or fear of crime. But what are they to do? Nobody I know has a great answer. The simplest solution, taking the drug trade away from criminal gangs (by creating a legal and heavily regulated and taxed market for the most popular and safest drugs) combined with new jobs for urban youth would produce a dramatic change in both crime and fear of crime, but mayors and chiefs of police can do nothing about that.

However, the Mayor is wrong to think that it is simply media failure to highlight the positive that is generating his political malaise. After a generation of war on crime, Americans, even in progressive Oakland, have come to believe that security against violent crime is the one and virtually only right that citizens have a claim to with government (read the case for this in my book, Governing through Crime).

My recommendation for the Mayor's New Year's resolution list is to play to your strengths. The Mayor must engage the public and the media in a sustained discussion of the real security challenges facing Oakland in which crime plays only a part. Moreover he should turn his formidable oratorical skills to a sustained attack on the failed war on drugs including shaming the incoming president (who has already signaled his timidity on this issue) to fundamentally reconsider it. His question should be the following.

Mr. President, as you have suggested, Oakland and other cities can help save America (and the world) from global warming by offering Americans a sustainable low carbon lifestyle based on diverse multi-use walking communities and public transportation. But how can you ask Oakland to help solve our national problem when the federal government continues to impose demonstrably failed policies that are sustaining a violent subculture that keeps middle class Americans from taking the responsible decision and moving back to the cities?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The High Cost of Paying Hommage to Virtue

In Mexico, the bodies continue to pile up. By the count of Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Mora, over 8,100 people have died violent, drug trafficking-related deaths since Felipe Calderon became president in December 2006. The Brookings Institute recently published a Latin America report, "Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations," that includes a sizable section on drug trafficking- which they consider to be “at the core of organized crime in the hemisphere” – and which notes that, this year alone, the same number of people have died in Mexico as have died fighting for the United States in Iraq since the start of our war there almost six years ago. Increasingly, that seems like an understatement.

A quantitatively problematic turn of a long-simmering conflict has been accompanied by a qualitative one: bodies are now increasingly headless, pinned with narco-messages, or placed in very public places. Sometimes corpses are even physically arranged to form rough but explicit messages themselves.
Today, in a front page story accompanied by a grainy mugshot, the LA Times reported on corpses in Tijuana that were found arranged to spell out “3 L”. Tijuana drug kingpin Teodoro Garcia Simental goes by the three-letter moniker Teo, and the arrangement was supposedly a message, both threat and boast, of his domination of the city.

The catalyzing combination of a steadily rising body count and a new level of viscerally disturbing gore has led to the focus of a considerable amount of American media attention on Mexico’s drug trafficking industry. Mexico is the new Colombia. Often, as today, that coverage is transmitted in simple narrative form. The violent end product of a toxic mix of factors- including an insatiable American appetite for illicit drugs, the lack of viable alternative livelihoods for many well-intentioned, supply-side citizens, and cross-border policies that have the effect of increasing inequality and enmity- is boiled down to the story of a particularly ruthless or fascinating drug kingpin. Today, proclaimed the LA Times, that man is Teodoro Garcia. We always seem to learn fascinating personal details: Teo supposedly likes to arrange private horse races, at which he bets heavily, at ranches outside of Ensenada.

As a literary device, the biographical news sketch has the advantage of breaking a complex tangle of issues into a manageable chunk of digestible information, convenient and accessible to a casual news-follower. For the same reason, it brings with it the danger of oversimplifying a multi-faceted problem, of reducing to black and white, hero and villain, a tricky interplay of factors and characters, and in the process distorting the way things really work. So, while such devices are understandably used to convey mass media news, they are disastrous as a basis for policy formulation.

Nonetheless, since the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the first real drug super-villain, in the early 1990s, this has been America’s approach to counternarcotics work. Taking out the kingpin and his cartel, or the kingpins and their cartels, will eliminate the supply of drugs in America, or at least reduce them to a level where prices are unaffordably high, the theory goes. Accordingly, when Escobar was finally hunted down and killed in 1993, there was a sense, according to John Carnevale, then budget director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, that this military triumph was “a big part of how we would go about winning the War on Drugs.”

History has not been kind to that vision. Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was merely replaced by the Cali Cartel (rumored to have colluded with Colombian security forces against him to eliminate their chief business competitor). The center of the drug trafficking world eventually shifted to the Caribbean, and then to Mexico, and drug kingpins continued to be killed, and their organizations dismantled, at an impressive rate. Still, new groupings of traffickers, ever more inventive and sophisticated, kept popping up.
Now, 15 years after Escobar’s demise, cocaine prices in the United States (according to Brookings calculations) are lower than ever, which suggests that the flood of drugs north remains unabated, and has maybe even increased.

Until Teo Garcia made the front page, the drug super-villain of the moment has been Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The story of "El Chapo", or "Shorty," and his rise in Culiacan, on Mexico’s Pacific coast 650 miles south of the border, formed the foundation for recent articles in New Yorker and Rolling Stone that explored the Mexican crisis, and political attention has lately been focused on his reigning Sinaloa Cartel. Guzman, 53 years old, married an 18 year old beauty queen last year; he also reportedly likes to stay up late drinking and dancing at his Sinaloa hill country hideouts. While El Chapo and his fellow 'capos' may have colorful personal lives that provide fodder for fascinating character studies, they don’t provide the key to efficient counternarcotic strategies, or ways to reduce the damage of drug use and abuse.

More focus and attention, it seems, needs to be directed to less flashy, though more substantively important, underlying factors. For instance, 2,000 guns cross the border from the United States, where they are legal, to Mexico, where they are not, on a daily basis. This becomes very significant when you consider that, according to the ATF and their Mexican counterparts, approximately 90% of the weapons that are the physical means of Mexican drug violence originate in the United States.

The Brookings report ends by recommending that the United States “undertake a comprehensive, cross-country evaluation of counternarcotics policies,” which it concludes are “failing by most objective measures.” America’s drug war is “more a balloon than a battlefield,” and it seems like the sooner U.S. policymakers realize that, and that every Pablo they kill is going to beget a Chapo or Teo, the sooner they can begin preparing an effective response.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Don't Mix Crime and Politics

Check out the Daily Show's lengthy riff (12/10/08) on crime and politics in the context of the Rod Blagojevich implosion in Illinois. Jon Stewart compares the imprisonment rate of Illinois governors to murderers (point out that the odds of staying free are higher for the latter). He also compared Blagojevich to a boogey man figure from medieval German fairy tales, making the latent reference to the highly politicized field of sex offenders, a theme Stewart then made explicit by shifting into a satirical special news segment for children, ill-tabbed "Jon Stewart touches kids."

Nicely underscoring the irony that governors as criminals (and presidents one might add since four of the last eight of so presidents have been at least linked to crimes that could result in prison, two of them actually facing impeachment charges), is just the other side of an executive branch that has made fear of crime a major foundation for its style of rule, Stewart shows a snippet of Patrick Fitzgerald opining that people get into trouble mixing politics and crime. Stewart points out that the same could be said of crime and mothers day.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Infrastructure Nation: The City is Back

I watched President Elect Barack Obama's Saturday morning "radio" broadcast video on U-Tube (see it here) twice this morning (the second time, after my 11 year old daughter showed me how to make it fill my laptop screen was even more interesting). Anyone wishing, hoping, to find that Barack will not shrug off the FDR comparisons will find much to like here. No civilian conservation corps, but as elements of what he promises to be a much bigger plan, this morning's message signaled a willingness to move federal investment through multiple pathways into energy saving and mission enhancing infrastructure and technology spending. Federal buildings will get energy upgraded (a nice move that will make sure that something visible is going on in almost every big city in America). State's will get money to spend on highways and schools, but only if they spend it quickly. More money will flow into wiring hospitals and schools, whether through states or some other vessels is not clear.

Like FDR, Barack Obama's one step forward always has a bit of a half step back. In his 2.5 million jobs created or saved, I thought I heard a watering down of the number that has been out for a week.

Like FDR setting matters. Barack Obama spoke from a desk with curtains behind him slightly open to reveal that he was high up, presumably in one of Chicago's downtown skyscrapers. Behind him on one of those grey Chicago winter mornings that I remember all too well having grown up there, snake lighted streets and highways and slumbering neighborhoods. When was the last time we had a President so identified with urban America (something intertwined with but not exhausted by his race)?

When he spoke of the real families behind the more than half a million jobs lost in November, for the first time in a long time one could be sure that those families included the very substantial portion of the American population living at or near the urban core of metropolitan areas with more then one or two million people (I'm no demographer), and not just the morning in America small towns and suburbs.

Even more important, cities for Obama, like Chicago, are not a "problem" of poverty and crime to be solved by some federal "medicine" as concerned suburbanites look on, as they have been for Democratic presidents since LBJ. Instead, cities, like his Chicago, are centers of expertise for problem solving, and platforms for low carbon, high content life styles.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Crown Prince of Crime Control? A Ray of Hope in a New Cabinet

As American government was transformed around the problem of crime in the 1960s, one of the most significant and fateful development was the morphing of the attorney general into the nation's "top law enforcement officer." Once a quasi-judicial officer with a special brief to defend the rule of law within the administration, the attorney general became a veritable crown prince of crime control, astride an ever growing law enforcement and punishment behemoth (at least until the formation of Homeland Security cleaved off some chunks, but that's another story).

Actual attorneys general have varied in how much they took up that potentiality. Some from both parties emphasized crime fighter aspect, including Robert Kennedy (who served under JFK and LBJ) and Edwin Meese (who served under Reagan). Others were more concerned to restore the rule of law job (like Ford's AG, Edward Levi), or were simply too involved in political machinations to bother (like the recent Alberto Gonzalez).

There are some encouraging signs that new appointee Eric Holder may be more in the Ed Levi camp than the Ed Meese (and G-d knows the rule of law could use some bolstering).

In introducing Holder at Monday's press conference (December 1, 2008, read the NYT transcript here), President Elect Obama mentioned crime, but not the "usual suspects."

Eric Holder has the talent and commitment to succeed as attorney everyone from his first day on the job, which is even more important in a transition that demands vigilance. He has distinguished himself as a prosecutor, a judge, and a senior official. And he is deeply familiar with the law enforcement challenges we face from terrorism to counterintelligence, from white-collar crime to public corruption.

During his own remarks, AG nominee Holder seemed to suggest a wider range of interests then crime.

I also look forward to working with the men and women of the Department of Justice to revitalize the department's efforts in those areas where the department that's unique capabilities and responsibilities in keeping our people safe and ensuring fairness and in protecting our environment.

When Holder did mention crime in his statement, he emphasized the lead role of state and local government, a good sign, since leaders at the state and especially the local level have a much more nuanced view of crime problems and can craft less harmful solutions.

We will need to interact with our state and local partners in new innovative ways to help them solve the other issues that they confront on a daily basis. National security concerns are not defined only by the challenges created by terrorists abroad but also by criminals in our midst, whether they be criminals located on the street or in a board room.

Photo Credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images, USA Today