I would like to comment on a recent Popular Mechanics article: Debunking the Myths of Katrina. This article is a must read for anyone interested in the topic of New Orleans reconstruction. While the amount of raw facts is impressive, the general tone of the article is more concerning. The argument of the article is set up so as to use raw empirics as refutation against alleged myths concerning the government’s inadequate response, meteorological reality, and environmental engineering. Factual data concerning Katrina needs to be presented and understood, this leads me to say that this article is a good one. My reservation is only in regards to the language of the argument to assert magnitudes of appropriateness to issues of economic rather than technological efficiency.
These reservations are easily satisfied by clarifying the difference between economic and technological efficiency (one of the most basic economic concepts). Technological efficiency gets a lot of intellectual distance out of physical reality. When comparing two engines for example, the questions of speed, durability, and gas mileage are ones of technological efficient concerns. But answering the question; which of the two should be purchased given subjective preferences and a dynamic presence of opportunity costs is one of economically efficient concerns. The language of the Katrina catastrophe is one which runs the risk of conflating economic with technological efficiency. What should have been done? Was what was done sufficient? Could it have been done better? To offer truly useful and meaningful answers to these questions it does one good to constantly reiterate, at what costs, and to whom are they imposed?
That being said I’d like to move onto a more specific concern with this article. The forth myth presented in the text is “Anarchy didn’t take over. Myth: They have people…been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans, killing people, raping people.” I already mentioned the trend of the article to present raw facts as evidence to refute alleged myths. This section is more of a lack thereof. Since the myth is defined as the occurrence of violent crime and general chaos, the refutation is framed as a pointing towards the lack of formal confirmation to any of these rumored claims. Does this suffice to dismiss the violent conditions of post-Katrina New Orleans as mythical? What degree of certainty do we attribute to the system of gathering formal confirmation of crime? To get an idea of the criminal reality of New Orleans regardless of Katrina see here and <a href="http://www.morganquitno.com/cit05pop.htm“>here.
Inferring from statistical evidence runs the risk of committing a significant bias. Biased data is a common feature of interpreting all criminal statistics, not just in the New Orleans case, but I would state that my personal experience in New Orleans would lead me to believe it is even more of a concern there than it is in most other places in America. The impression you get from talking to people in New Orleans about their experiences and expectations pertaining to the police is laughable. Large portions of criminal activity simply don’t get reported to the official reporting authorities (i.e. the NOPD). Do we have a good explanation of why this is the case?
Having lived in New Orleans I think there are three reasonable explanations none of which are exclusive from one another. In coexistence with one another these three explanations give a revealing picture of why the Popular Mechanics dismissal of the myth of post-Katrina violence may not be sound.
1) People lack trust and faith in the institution of law enforcement:
I think this first explanation is very much related to the later two. Experiences of positive and negative incentives guiding behaviors into repeated results feedback into individuals’ perceptions of faith and trust in ways which may not even be consciously realized. The terms faith and trust are broad in meaning and are subject to different interpretations. There may be no line in the sand or quantifiable way to express how much trust the people of New Orleans have in their police officers, but hearing people speak about their interactions with NOPD and their opinions based upon such interactions are very different from people who live in suburban West Palm Beach (the place where I grew up) for example.
2) People lack positive incentives to report crimes:
This is a concern I have of the criminal justice system in general, not just New Orleans. To illustrate the phenomenon we should confine the example to one of property crime. Let’s say you wake up in the morning, your car, which was parked in your drive way, has been broken into. The door is open, and the ignition consol has been damaged from what you assume was an attempt to hot wire the car. The car doesn’t start now because of a built in anti-theft device from the manufacturer. You car insurance deductible is $1,000 and you estimate the repairs to be around $800. Do you call the police? More specifically, do people in New Orleans during this scenario call the police? My inclination is no. The likelihood of the police gathering any useful evidence from the case is very unlikely, catching the criminal even more unlikely, succeeding in the first two and the court system finding him guilty in a timely manner in today is almost hopeless, and restitution is not even on the political discussion board. Filing a police report has no bearing on your insurance provider’s willingness to cover the costs. Iin fact it would only signal to them that you’re a higher risk customer because you live in an area where cars get broken into. Calling the police means waiting for hours for them to arrive, take finger prints, photograph the scene, question you and get personal information, and finally leave, which leads into our third listed explanation.
3) People face negative incentives for reporting crime:
I think this explanation can be dissected into two categories; (1) opportunity and transaction costs of going through the arduous process of reporting crime, and (2) actually being bullied by local gang members. The first is encapsulated by the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Reporting a crime, filing a police report, testifying in court, etc. is a very costly process. Some counterbalancing benefit would have to be present to motivate the individual towards participating. This could be a high utility attributed to justice for its own sake or even the returns expected from solving the crime and regaining one’s property, but as already stated restitution is rarely on the table for political application.
The second category; gang bullying is difficult to accept because it brings to mind elaborate notions of Mafia type shake downs with witness protection program solutions. I don’t mean to imply that those things are happening in New Orleans, though they might be, because I have no particular experience with them and can’t speak with any degree of authority. What I do mean to imply is a more realistic story. In the previously described car burglary example, let’s say you suspect the man across the street as the criminal. Inferring what we said earlier as to the unlikelihood of the justice system working to root out the criminal and hold him accountable, the victim may very well ignore the crime in favor of the alternative scenario. Interacting with the suspect after he has been openly accused of committing the crime can act as a negative incentive to reporting crime. The victim may very well want to avoid instigating the response of future retaliations. If you know the guy across the street stole your wallet, but you can’t prove it, or the justice system isn’t going to punish him, in fact he’s going to be right across the street tomorow and for many days hence, you may think twice about calling the police on him especially if you think him to react violently in retaliation.
In conclusion, I have a very real concern that reported criminal statistics suffer from bias because of the previously mentioned explanations, but how does this claim affect the way we explain post-Katrina social order. The place to start would be accepting the spike of violent unrest immediately resulting from the hurricane but also recognizing the general lower crime rates in the city now several months later (apparently displaced to Houston) and explaining them.