Saturday, April 16, 2005

Death Penalty, Freakonomics, and Ira Glass

Proponents of the Death Penalty often use the argument: “with the DP as the hghest possible punishment, we can get criminals to plea bargain and get life imprisonment, and other things we might want (in the case of treason, there clearly is intelligence value). We don’t want to kill people, but the threat is very valuable.

Economists who like engaging in social engineering (such as this) by creating artificial incentives often shoot themselves in the foot because you create all sorts of other incentives as well. We can rarely predict all of them, especially when often proposed incentives (tax cuts, death penalty) are “solutions in search of a problem”. This preview of Freakonomics, an introduction to microeconomics and looking at economics in everyday behavior, ironically shows how such artificial incentives can easily create the opposite reaction.

I was thinking about all this when I heard today’s This American Life. They interviewed a man who’d been wrongly convicted of murder. When preparing to take the stand during the sentencing phase, he decided to paint himself as a despicable person who was in favor of the death penalty himself. Why? Because if he was stuck with Life without Parole for the rest of his life, there was no chance he’d ever be acquitted. But if he was on death row, he’d have every lawyer in the state looking at his shoddy conviction. He got the death penalty, and 15 years later, the guard who says he witnessed someone else commit the murder was allowed onto the record, and our man was set free.

Which all just goes down to: The government killing people in order to create incentives, is as distortionary a policy as any tax loophole.


At 11:09 AM, Blogger Dennis said...

I'm just waiting for the day...

"It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program we choose a theme, and invite a variety of economists to take a whack at that theme. This week: perverse incentives. How do they make us feel, how people act in the middle of them, and why they exist in the first place. We have arrived at act three of our program, act three: Freakonomics of Death. In this act, contributor Tony Villa..."


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