Friday, December 31, 2010

How to live rent-free the rest of your life. OR, Five Big Mistakes Criminals Make During Police Interrogations.

 "...the technique of violence was first developed in 2 million B.C. by the australopithecines and tried by forthwith primates, who had no brains to speak of, but nonetheless invented the tomahawk and used it on each other. This practice led to the enlargement of the brain, another useful weapon. Yes, murder was invented even before man learned to think. Now, of course, man has become known as the 'thinking animal.'"
- spoken during the credits of Death Race 2000 (1975).

One of the reasons I love reality television is that it can make you feel like an expert in fields you have no personal knowledge or training in whatsoever. From watching many episodes of A&E's crime show, "The First 48" I feel pseudo-enlightened about the workings of the criminal justice system, and I'm here to share that almost-wisdom with you.

For those unfamiliar with the show: The First 48 is named after the first two days of a homicide investigation. As the audience is informed during every opening credit sequence, “the chance of solving a murder is cut if half if detectives don't get a lead in the first forty-eight hours.” [It never says what the chance of catching a killer is overall, probably because the data is difficult to collect and the existing numbers are less than encouraging. In New York, for example, the NYPD “solved 59 percent of homicides last year.” Not the best average, but far better than the conviction rate for auto theft, at just 9%].

Now, a homicide detective's job is far from easy – witnesses tend to be scared of murderous criminals, logically enough – but criminals do make their share of dumb mistakes. Without further ado, I present: the five biggest mistakes that murder suspects make leading up to a police interview.

Mistake #1: Not understanding capital-murder statutes. In the criminal code of most states, if a person is killed during the commission of another crime, all parties who were involved can be given a life sentence, even if they didn't pull the trigger. It's the last part that trips suspects up the most often. It doesn't matter if you planned to kill someone; if you're part of a robbery and then they die, you might as well have been holding the gun yourself. 
On The First 48, it's fairly common for the police to catch one person who was involved in the crime. They'll try to distance themselves from the murder; “We wanted the money, sure, but I didn't even know he had a gun. I just drove the car. I don't even know what happened, who shot, or anything. I just drove away as fast as I could.” Doesn't matter; the above was still a confession to capital murder. In one case after a woman was killed, the police charged the three young men who were there (one was the getaway driver), and also a fourth who lent them the gun and the car for the robbery. Basically, if you're in for a cut of the spoils if the crime goes right, you're also in for a life sentence if it goes wrong.
Lesson for Criminals: if a robbery goes bad and someone dies, you might as well shoot your co-conspirators too. You'll wish you did later when they confess by accident.*
*Just kidding. Killing people is never a good idea. 
Mistake #2: Giving ridiculous phony alibis. Often, criminals will turn themselves in after they hear the cops are looking. One might expect they'd take some of that time to get their bad alibi straight. One might also be wrong. 
Interrogation Room Dialogue:
Suspect: It couldn't have been me. I was with my cousin playing video games all Saturday.
Detective: OK. [Stands up, walks out.]
**Detective calls the cousin**
Detective: Was _____ with you on Saturday?
Cousin: No way, I haven't seen him in weeks.
**Detective hangs up, goes back into interrogation room**
Detective: So, it's not looking good for you...

The reality is, even if you're innocent, giving a questionable alibi can get you convicted. This is why even innocent people should probably avoid talking to the police, and criminals shouldn't count on others vouching for them (especially when police start throwing around ugly phrases like “obstruction of justice” and “accessory after the fact”).
Lesson for Criminals: say you're with your mom. At least she'll probably back you up. 
"The Law of the Streets."
Mistake #3: Committing crimes during broad daylight in front of witnesses. This one seems pretty intuitive, but apparently many career criminals think their bad-ass reputation will keep anyone from snitching on them. They're mostly right – it'll keep almost everyone from snitching – but all it takes is one eye-witness. For your convenience, I attached a chart depicting the positive relation between “street cred” and the chance of being snitched on. Street cred depends on being a violent bastard (at least in some circles) and also leaving people alive to tell about it. When the number of witnesses increases, the chance of keeping them all quiet falls quickly, especially when the criminal's reputation is sufficiently bad-ass to make people nervous they might get killed just for seeing, even if they don't talk.
Lesson for Criminals: decide in advance whether you want a career in crime or show business. You can only pursue both if you work at the White House. 
Mistake #4: telling family, friends, or random acquaintances about the details of the crime. People are both innately bad at keeping secrets, and expect people close to them will be excited about similar things they are. This is a bad combo for criminals because no matter how much they love you, your mom/sister/nephew/uncle/drinking-buddy is probably not as thrilled about your most recent robbery-murder as you are. Blood is thicker than water and all that, but no family wants to be famous for a star appearance on America's Most Wanted. They will turn you in.
Lesson for Criminals: see #3.

Mistake #5: Keeping all the evidence on your person. If I've learned one thing from crime shows, it's that blood can end up in the darnedest places; on the bottom of shoes is an especially popular one. New shoes are expensive and all, but nothing compared to a life sentence. It'd be smarter to walk into a police station barefoot than wearing crime-spree shoes. Enough said.
Lesson for Criminals: keep on doing this one. I'd prefer murderers continue getting convicted.

The Big Finish: some might think I'm writing this to help criminals get away with murder. They'd be wrong, and not just because most thugs don't spend much time reading economics blogs (I'm guessing). Capital- or felony-murder statutes are intended to have a deterrent effect from participating in serious crimes, but – based on the number who confess unintentionally – many criminals aren't aware of how those laws work, so any deterrence is lost. I want to increase public awareness that the getaway driver is just as guilty as the trigger-man, at least in the eyes of the law. The First 48 is a tragic show because too many young people are getting killed or throwing away their lives committing stupid crimes. If this blog saves a life in 2011, it'd be one of my prouder accomplishments. No, you don't have to thank me.

Final anecdote to illustrate how felony-murder laws work. A young man was found dead near an outdoor stand selling shoes and clothes. As police investigate, this story emerges. Some thugs had robbed this clothing stand repeatedly, so the owner started paying local kids to work as protection. When the next robbery went down, while the owner was being hustled, one of the young men he'd hired found a gun and shot one of the robbers to death (he told this to police). Detectives released the shooter, and went looking for the robber's partner. When the partner was found, he was charged with the murder, even though he hadn't fired a shot and it was his friend who'd been killed. In some states, shooting the perpetrator of a crime in progress is not only legal, but a good way to get their buddies locked up too. If more criminal accomplices considered this consequence then there might be less crime.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The printing presses have broken down; how will we inflate the currency now?

This just in. A recent printing run, in hundred dollar bills, has substantial defects that make many of the notes unusable. How big of a printing run? Just $110 billion worth. From CNBC:
At the time, officials announced the new bills would incorporate sophisticated high-tech security features, including a 3-D security strip and a color-shifting image of a bell designed to foil counterfeiters.
But the production process is so complex, it has instead foiled the government printers tasked with producing billions of the new notes.
An official familiar with the situation told CNBC that 1.1 billion of the new bills have been printed, but they are unusable because of a creasing problem in which paper folds over during production, revealing a blank unlinked portion of the bill face.
A second person familiar with the situation said that at the height of the problem, as many as 30 percent of the bills rolling off the printing press included the flaw, leading to the production shut down.
The total face value of the unusable bills, $110 billion, represents more than ten percent of the entire supply of US currency on the planet, which a government source said is $930 billion in banknotes. For now, the unusable bills are stored in the vaults in "cash packs" of four bundles of 4,000 each, with each pack containing 16,000 bills.
Officials don’t know exactly what caused the problem. "There is something drastically wrong here," a person familiar with the situation said. "The frustration level is off the charts."
Because officials don’t know how many of the 1.1 billion bills include the flaw, they have to hold them in the massive vaults until they are able to develop a mechanized system that can sort out the usable bills from the defects.
Sorting such a huge quantity of bills by hand, the officials estimate, could take between 20 and 30 years. Using a mechanized system, they think they could sort the massive pile of bills, each of which features the familiar image of Benjamin Franklin on the face, in about one year. [Emphasis added.]
The total cost of producing the bad bills was $120 million, excluding whatever it will take to sort the good from the bad. The unusable bills will have to be burned; frankly, it might be cheaper to just burn the entire print run, compared with sorting over 1.1 billion items of currency.

Apparently, during this print run of 1.1 billion, no one checked at the beginning/middle for quality control. A private firm that operated like this would be out of business. With almost a third of the prints unusable, I can't imagine many repeat customers... other than the federal government.

Kidding aside, this poses some tangible problems for the Federal Reserve, whose strategy has depended on getting currency flowing in the economy. With at least a year's delay before this money will actually be reaching consumers' hands, it complicates monetary policy. Facing an already Herculean task of managing market perceptions and signals, having this additional lag between action and effect could make the results of Fed decisions even more difficult to anticipate.