Monthly Archives: August 2013

Double-take on Inmate Statistics

The Aug. 29, 2013 US edition of the Wall Street Journal contains a sobering story, “Crime Persists as a Grim Challenge for Blacks“.    The article as a whole contains troubling, heartening, and certainly illuminating statistics from a variety of sources  about the social achievements and problems of different populations in America.

The graphic accompanying the article demands more thought, however.  The image shows the number of inmates (local, state, and federal) per 100,000 people, grouped into men and women, and by race categorized as “Black”, “White”, and “Hispanic”.  Statistics are shown for both 1960 and 2010.  The data originated with the Pew Center, from Census and Bureau of Justice data.    The values for men are:

  • Black, 1960: 1,313
  • Black, 2010: 4,347
  • White, 1960: 262
  • White, 2010: 678
  • Hispanic, 1960: 601
  • Hispanic, 2010: 1,775

The absolute numbers are appalling and should be causing people to ask questions, if not march in the streets.  However, just glancing at the figures, a relationship seems to show up: inmates per 100,000 for each group have roughly tripled between 1960 and 2010. In other words, on average, there are three times as many people in each group who end up in the jail/prison system today as there were fifty years ago.  There are some race-based disparities in the rates, but the rate of increase is still about three.


The first answer that came to mind, probably exposing priors, is “the War on Drugs”, which supposedly began in the early 1970s.  What other explanations account for this data?  Better policing?  More crimes on the books?   Or have Americans simply become three times more likely to become criminals?

Just Do Something

During a 2010 episode of EconTalk, author Nassim Taleb and host Russ Roberts talked about an observable bias toward action rather than inaction in the face of crisis, even if the available data is incomplete or inappropriate (from the transcript: “always better to do something rather than do nothing.  We have had that bias for acts of commission, not acts of omission.  Very hard for people to say we don’t know what works so we’ll just do nothing.”).  Taleb made a specific reference to ancient medicine, where “doing something” was more likely to cause harm than healing.

Behavioral economists and psychologists likely have the specific answer, but a philosophical source suggests this may be both Western and relatively recent.  In a 2008 Philosophy Bites interview discussing Machiavelli, Quentin Skinner notes that one of Machiavelli’s later letters states and The Prince advises action above all – “it is always better to have acted, and regret it, than not to have acted, and regret it.”  The virtuoso is one who exercises virtue, a manly quality, and the leader must always demonstrate manliness.

Is this bias toward action universal, like status quo bias?  Or is it a late Western introduction from Machiavelli (or Italian culture)?