The Crooked Ladder and Total Enforcement

Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias comments on Malcom Gladwell’s article about the “crooked ladder,” the way that organized criminals moved to respectability.  Matt’s gloss on it is that it’s an argument against total enforcement.

Let’s dig in, there’s a lot to discuss here.

The Crooked Ladder

Read Gladwell’s article.  It’s well written and interesting.  But the summary is that in the latter days of the mafia, which is to say maybe the 50’s through the 70’s, successful mafia dons steadily and successfully turned themselves and their families respectable, and large numbers of their family members exited crime entirely, perhaps eventually becoming entirely respectable.  They did this by creating effective front operations to launder their money, and eventually their front operations became real businesses and their income became legitimate.  This, Gladwell claims, was the usual pattern up until that time, with the Italian mafia being only the latest wave of immigrants to legitimize themselves, following the Irish and eastern Europeans.

In contrast the drug dealers today have no feasible route to launder their money, or even really to accumulate it.  Law enforcement isn’t good enough to stop the drug trade, but it’s good enough to prevent anyone in the trade from being secure.  The lives of drug dealers are punctuated with prison time, their pocket money is seized during stop-and-frisk, and attempts to launder money are less successful due to the increasing sophistication of tax and law enforcement’s financial analysis.  As a result, the drug dealers of today have no route to legitimization, and this creates the stagnant poverty-stricken societies that are, for example, shown in The Wire.

Some Caveats

Malcom Gladwell’s whole schtick is that he takes some under-sourced or contentious idea and elevates it to a certainty and importance not born out by the evidence.  There definitely may be some of that here.  His main sources are a couple of case studies by anthropologists, one of the mafia, and of modern drug dealers.  So let’s recap:

1.  It’s only two case studies.  It’s not like there’s significant analysis of how central any of this is to the larger subcultures of poverty at the time, or even of the criminal gangs of the time.  Maybe at the same time that this one mafia don was chasing respectability, another don was ruthlessly expanding his criminal empire with no aspirations ever to go straight.  Maybe two blocks down from the drug dealers was another drug dealer who made some money, was careful, stayed out of jail, put himself through college, and entered respectability.

2.  Also, the mafia case study started with the anthropologist finding an already-successful don, making friends with him, and studying his family.  In contrast, the drug dealer case study started with the anthropologist tutoring at-risk teens in high school, and following their lives as low-level drug dealers.  Clearly, there’s a big risk of selection bias if we try to extrapolate these two case studies into trends.  Perhaps if the mafia guy had befriended a low-level “soldier,” and the drug dealer woman had befriended a kingpin, we would have seen the exact reverse: unending poverty for the mafia, respectability for the drug dealer.  Maybe the real story is that life sucks at the bottom of the crime pyramid, and it’s pretty good at the top.

Total Enforcement

Yglesias’ view is that these data suggest that we should be careful about how much we enforce the law.  He points out that Barack Obama used drugs, and that it probably would not have been to the social good for Obama to become a felon.  Perhaps, Yglesias thinks, we should return to the more lax policing of the 60’s, where crooks had the chance to get away with their crimes (the non-violent ones at least), and go more respectable.

Yglesias and I have, I think, the same ultimate goals.  We’d both like to see societies in which you don’t go to jail for using drugs, and where minor, and particularly non-violent, crimes don’t derail you life for good.  But I think that his idea that we should thus encourage more lax enforcement is precisely backwards.

The life of the drug dealers is one marked by constant legal harassment.  Warrants (some criminal, but mostly administrative) pile up on the young men who have had contact with the law.  They’re frisked constantly.  They live on the run.

What enables that kind of police harassment is that most people in the USA don’t have to deal with it.  People like Matthew Yglesias, people like me, and people like Barack Obama don’t get this kind of targeted attention.  We can be fairly sure that if we experiment with drugs, we’ll never be prosecuted for it.  We can be fairly sure that we won’t be beaten by the police unless we go on some kind of violent rampage.  Our property won’t be stolen with asset forfeiture, etc.  As a result, the kind of life that the drug dealers cope with is literally invisible to the vast majority of Americans.

Total enforcement would force the general public to confront what the law technically allows, but which is not applied to them.  And these kinds of laws, that neither Yglesias nor I like very much, could not long survive their application to everybody.  It’s precisely selective enforcement that allows these nasty situations to continue.  I’ve written about this before, mostly under the heading of “security through banality.”

The Crooked Ladder, again

The argument over total enforcement aside, I think it’s worth asking, given that toxic, stagnant criminal culture and extreme poverty is bad, and the crooked ladder is a qualified good, but also given that we do not believe Gladwell that the crooked ladder is a fundamental fact of life, how can we encourage the switch over to respectability, and what, besides policing, might be making it less likely today than it was in days past?

It seems to me that organized criminals are probably at the margin rational, and that the decision to move to respectability probably has a lot to do with what kind of incentives society provides.  That means we would see more respectability if:

1.  The income and wealth available in legal trades is equal to or superior to the income and wealth available in illegal trades.  It’s going to be a lot more tempting to legitimize yourself if you get to basically keep your economic status.  This may mean we should hope that Picketty is more or less right — that if you can accumulate some capital, that capital just automatically increases itself at an advantageous rate.  Conversely, we may worry that any decrease in respectability comes as much from Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over as from increased policing — that is, it may just be harder for a front organization to become a profitable legitimate business now than it was in years past.

2.  Law enforcement provides some “stick” to incent crossing over to respectability without providing so much “stick” that the slightest brush with it ruins any chance of becoming respectable indefinitely.  This seems like it might be a hard balance to strike.


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