Sunday, January 6, 2013

Inequality, chemistry and crime

My latest column in Bloomberg (published Sunday night in the US, I think) looks a little at the link between socioeconomic inequality and crime. That there is such a link has been established rather convincingly by statistical analyses across many nations spanning decades. This was all laid out convincingly in the 2009 book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. See also this short TED talk by Wilkinson which covers the main points very clearly.

But I also referred (rather vaguely) in my column to two other lines of research that deserve some discussion. One is an idea in criminology known as "routine activity theory" which has increasingly become a branch of applied computational social science. In effect, it views crime as a kind of natural social chemistry taking place between potential offenders and targets, and has a good track record in accounting for empirical patterns of crimes of all kinds by considering simple factors such as patterns of human movement on streets, of street lighting, of building architecture and so on. It more or less gives up on thinking about the deep psychology of crime and its motivation. In general, this perspective asserts, you tend to get more crime where you have more targets coming together more frequently with more potential offenders, just as you get more chemical reactions whenever potential reactant molecules come into contact more frequently. I've written about this a little before in New Scientist (a copy of that article is on the web here).

The empirical success of routine activity theory is sometimes taken as evidence that factors such as poverty and social inequality don't matter in crime, as the theory doesn't explicitly consider such factors. This is a serious misunderstanding. After all, the theory focuses on the factors that bring together potential or motivated offenders with potential targets, and doesn't attempt to explore the factors that might give a person the motivation to commit crime in the first place. Here the analogy to chemistry is again constructive, I think. In chemistry, reactants coming together isn't enough. They generally need sufficient energy (or a catalyst) to help them overcome an energy barrier (caused by repulsive forces between molecules) before they can react. It's entirely plausible to think of prevailing social norms as a kind of energy barrier to the commission of crimes, as these forces tend to persuade people to avoid crime. In general, we should expect high levels of trust and strong social norms to suppress and discourage crime, much as a lowering the temperature of a chemical solution makes reactions go more slowly. (Low temperature increases the effective size of energy barriers to reaction, which must be overcome by collisions between molecules; these are stronger at higher temperatures.)

Analogies aside, the point is that routine activity theory actually fits together quite well with the existence of larger social factors that influence overall probabilities of crime. The factors considered in the theory can determine detailed patterns of crime, even as the larger global factors influence overall rates. The work considered by Wilkinson and Pickett strongly suggests that social inequality is one of the most important global factors encouraging crime (and other measures of social dysfunction).

The second body of work I wanted to add a little detail on looks at what creates high levels of inequality in the first place. On the drivers of inequality, of course, there is a huge literature in social science and economics and I don't pretend to be an expert on it. However, there is an interesting perspective motivated by physics that I think should be much more widely known. This paper from several years ago by Jean-Philippe Bouchaud and Marc Mezard analyses a very simple model of an economy and shows that a high level of economic inequality is a more or less generic and unavoidable outcome. It is something to be expected on mathematical grounds alone. The basic idea is to model an economy as a system in which wealth flows around among people by two fundamentally different processes. First, it flows between individuals when they make exchanges or trades, through contracts, employment, sales and so on. Second, wealth also accrues to individuals (or departs from them) on account of investments in instruments yielding uncertain returns. Importantly, the second factor contributes an element to individual wealth that involves a random multiplicative factor -- random because investments are uncertain, and multiplicative because, quite sensibly, the wealthier invest more than the poorer, and typically more in direct proportion to their wealth. The poor partake very weakly in this multiplicative channel to wealth growth, while the wealthy participate progressively more strongly.

Bouchaud and Mezard showed that the inevitable outcome in such a basic system is that a large fraction of the total wealth in the economy ends up being held by a small faction of the population. This is the case even if every individual is considered to have the same inherent money making skills. (The authors, of course, do not believe this to be the case; but making this assumption makes it possible to explore how natural economic dynamics can drive large wealth disparities even in the absence of any differences in skill.) It's the multiplicative nature of the returns on investments that makes it happen. This pattern in the distribution of wealth holds in every nation and was known long ago, being first described by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. This paper gave to my knowledge the first really fundamental explanation of why this pattern holds everywhere. Since then a number of works have taken this approach much further.

However, the universal form of this distribution does not preclude the possibility of some societies being more unequal than others. You can have a society in which the top 5% hold 90% of the wealth, or in which that same top 5% holds 99.9% of the wealth. Such variations are driven by the relative strength of multiplicative returns on investment versus the flows in an economy that might act to reduce inequality. Obviously, taxation is one mechanism that leads to a redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer and one should expect, in a broad brush way, that lower taxes should tend to associate with higher levels of wealth inequality.

I strongly recommend this paper -- it's short and you can skip over some of the mathematical detail -- as it shows how some very important global economic realities may have quite simple underlying causes. The bigger problem, of course, is learning then how to craft real world policies so as to keep inequality within bounds, avoiding the many kinds of social dysfunction it clearly seems to give rise to.


  1. Great piece on bloomberg, the type of crime (usually volume crime) is symptamatic of social issues. The poor will use drugs for recreation and even simple things like non payment of local taxes will land them in prison. They can go in as a marijuana addict and be released as a heroin addict due to heroin being undectable after 2 days rather than taking 30. So people who are court and punished will reoffend due to the criminal record and without rehab to their problem. I work on behaviourial analysis to anticipate crime and location is a key element to predict but more importantly so is the back ground of the person to find out why. Hunger, homelessness and social inequality are the man causes of volume crime like robbery, burgalry and criminal damage.the justice system needs to recognise this as well, so policy makers need to be involved for these assessments and even more so the law enforcement officers who deal with these groups.

  2. presents an exclusive variety of health plans online for group or individual or for families and also for business concerns. It provides the convenience of choosing group /individual health insurance plans and gets guidance in choosing by getting it through online quote system from Kaiser permanente health insurance.
    Kaiser insurance has taken the health awareness through insurance to a level where is has been deeply appreciated by President Obama too. It helps to choose from low cost coverage schemes and accessibility to top quality physicians at the same time.
    For consumers a toll free number is provided to serve round the clock. Customers can discuss in detail and speak to the customer care executives for in-depth understanding of the policy and its coverage. It provides small business health plans for the business groups extending the coverage to their employees.
    It has drafted a data plan with special and unique rates applicable according to the state and plan chosen by particular individual, families or group. A simple online enrollment by filling a form can start with the insurance plan process. Dental section is also covered through a different plan. It provides complete information with relation to jobs change and policies.

  3. Credit repair is one of the key services that are required these days by many people. is among the best websites that provide this service along with services in some other areas like loan modification, etc.

    Credit card settlement involves the use of a strategy in which the creditor comes in agreement with the debtor to pay less than the full amount. In these cases a credit card debt solution is best provided by companies who can negotiate properly with the credit card companies.
    Debt consolidation program is an important program carried out by This program deals with some of the important requirements of any customer which includes their debt management. They provide the debt relief services at the best available prices in the market. This on many occasions eliminates the late payment fee that needs to be paid and also reduces the overall outstanding debt amount. The customer is freed from legal issues as well. It also helps in reducing the number of collection calls and in fact after the contract with a credit card debt solution company, most of these calls are taken by the company only. This also helps in avoiding complete bankruptcy as well. Hence, it is highly recommended for people undergoing huge debts and are finding difficult to pay them back on time.

  4. In today’s age when several lawsuit cases and other claims take a large amount of time to get it cleared, the importance of settlement lenders come in place. They understand that the requirements of the money to the customers are at this moment and not several years or months later when they get their claim. So if one keeps on waiting for the amount to come after their case gets settled, he will find it very difficult to pay his everyday expenses as well.

    Even for accidents claims where the hospital demands immediate money deposit, any delay in waiting for the claim can be life threatening as well. So the concept of advance loans like inheritance loans, lawsuit loans, etc arose. Lawsuit cash advances can help in avoiding all kinds of financial disasters including complete bankruptcy as they have immediate loan provisions which can be cleared in less than 2 days as well. has settlement loans and settlement money at their immediate disposal. They value their customer’s interest above all and hence are always present beside them in times of despair. They make sure that the customer does not suffer just because of the delays in processing their lawsuit and other claims. Hence they are highly recommended by all those who have used their service.

  5. holds a position of providing services to all the tax related problems. It invites and provides services to Corporate Tax Returns, Small Business Tax Returns and Audit Assistance.
    Meade also provides free initial consultation through toll free phone or request on internet. You may like it, find beneficial and simply carry the processes forward. In a situation of multi-year returns outstanding pending over the years you may get easy assistance in calculations and filing returns.


    Each requirement is met with special structured solutions tuned with time and cost. The array of services include income tax service, services for proprietorship and partnership, tax audit assistance services, individual tax preparation services, statement preparation services, services for lawyers, services of accounting and bookkeeping.
    Equipped with incredible network of resources it can forward and assist in every aspect of tax. A huge network of services is provided for easy accessibility of clients across the geography like Hamilton, Oshawa, Pickering, Milton, Vaughan, Thrornhill, Whitby, Richmond Hill, Markham, Toronto (GTA), Brampton, Mississauga, Ajax, Oakville, Woodbridge, Concord and Maple. Virtual tax log services of Meade Accounting & Taxation’s are also available in Calgary, Halifax, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver.
    Make visit for hassle – free tax Services!

  6. Online Payday Lenders

    You need money to link the gap from beat and affordable cash advance lenders. Experiencing money problems is difficult; facing it alone is even more complicated. The great factor is that you are not alone. Fast cash advance Canada financial is in your area, providing you entry to an assistance of helpful online payday lenders. We want to provide you a side up by providing you money for gold. We know what you are feeling; we believe in your prospective and are thankful for to be able to be the one sure factor that you can depend on.

    Our payday cash advance staff Supervisors and Mortgage Consultants is diligent, down to earth people who comprehend your needs on an individual and financial stage. Each one has accepted good client connection exercising and brought up the idea of assistance to a new stage. Cash Canada locations front side range team and control will take you where you are in your lifestyle now, without moving verdict. Cash Canada financial will get you with regard, complimentary, and face-to-face Best of Category easy payday loan solutions. Payday advance online cash services should variety a protected site that can securely exchange your private details. They should also publish their reports, rates and fee details before you publish your application so that you can make an informed choice about which service matches your quick cash needs the best.

    We are involved about conference your cash advance online needs and will use all the sources and funds available to us to make it right, and get it right for you. Our fulfillment comes from saying yes.

  7. The motto behind setting up of Self managed super funds
    Australia is to offer money at the time of retirement without selling your other assets for present enjoyment.

  8. Your work forces out your followers for blog commenting.

  9. It’s amazing in support of me to truly have a blog site, which will be valuable meant for my knowledge. Thanks admin.
    franking machine costs

  10. I am agreed with you. You make me think of this. Inequality is a bad thing and should be uprooted.
    Personal Loans Wilson

  11. Pay day loans are popular but at the same time a lot of people are against them. Many people are afraid of taking pay day loans because of high rates. But I can say that the most important is to find a good pay day loan company. I take Canadian loans without credit check. These loans are very convenient for people who need money and who don’t have money for paying their credits and debts. With the help of these loans a lot of people stabilized their financial situation.

  12. شركة نقل عفش
    اهم شركات مكافحة حشرات بالخبر كذلك معرض اهم شركة مكافحة حشرات بالدمام والخبر والجبيل والخبر والاحساء والقطيف كذلك شركة رش حشرات بالدمام ومكافحة الحشرات بالخبر
    شركة مكافحة حشرات بالدمام
    شركة تنظيف خزانات بجدة الجوهرة من افضل شركات تنظيف الخزانات بجدة حيث ان تنظيف خزانات بجدة يحتاج الى مهارة فى كيفية غسيل وتنظيف الخزانات الكبيرة والصغيرة بجدة على ايدى متخصصين فى تنظيف الخزانات بجدة
    شركة تنظيف خزانات بجدة
    شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالدمام
    شركة نقل عفش واثاث


  13. شركة نقل عفش بالرياض وجدة والدمام والخبر والجبيل اولقطيف والاحساء والرياض وجدة ومكة المدينة المنورة والخرج والطائف وخميس مشيط وبجدة افضل شركة نقل عفش بجدة نعرضها مجموعة الفا لنقل العفش بمكة والخرج والقصيم والطائف وتبوك وخميس مشيط ونجران وجيزان وبريدة والمدينة المنورة وينبع افضل شركات نقل الاثاث بالجبيل والطائف وخميس مشيط وبريدة وعنيزو وابها ونجران المدينة وينبع تبوك والقصيم الخرج حفر الباطن والظهران
    شركة نقل عفش بجدة
    شركة نقل عفش بالمدينة المنورة
    شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض
    شركة نقل عفش بالدمام