Category Archives: crime



image taken from’s latest t-shirt

Before we get to this message’s main event, I’ll throw another brief shoutout to Pope Francis. Sure, he leads one of the world’s socially most regressive organizations, but he seems to be pulling in the right direction, and ultimately, he’s not in fact that powerful — his level of authority is more Barack Obama than Stephen Harper, let alone Kim Jong-Il.

While there’s general awareness of the doctrine of Papal infallibility, it was only formalized in the 19th century, and has only ever been invoked twice. So it’s one of many late-arriving concepts we secular moderns commonly think has always been part the world’s most populous religion. A couple others include:
– having a personal relationship with Jesus (famously invented by German Pietists in the 17th century, and infamously rejected in the 19th century by their very own Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader: Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche), and
– original sin (5th century, and a Western Christian exclusive; Eastern Orthodox Christians scratch their heads at it…)
It was pretty cool that Francis gave a shoutout to Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his speeches, too; Catholics and Protestants don’t always get along, and it’s a sign of openness when one can refer to the brilliance of one’s competitors in the marketplace of ideas. My favourite-ever inter-religious example comes from the Christian “Acts” (“of the Apostles”), in chapter 26. We’re told how Saul [also the name of a Jewish king] was travelling on the road to Damascus after having persecuted the followers of Christ, where he’s confronted by the voice of God. In this dramatic, climactic moment, Jesus … quotes a line from a 500-year old Greek theatre play. Boom!! Mic drop!

Jesus says, “why do you kick at the goads?”, which is from a contextually-identical scene in Euripides’ The Bacchae, where a king [Pentheus] who is persecuting the followers of a God [Dionysus] is confronted by that God. It’s awesome stuff. (Adherents can take comfort that since this is already the third time (!) the author has told this story in his chronicle, he can probably be forgiven for adding a dramatic flourish, if only to avoid boring his audience.)

But enough sideshow, on to the main event!

Continue reading

The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

The 1-2-3’s of EV market share in the US

My article on the 1-2-3’s of electric vehicle adoption in the U.S. went up on GreenCarReports on the weekend. The commentary went through a title change – a procedure familiar to many famous writers, and many more of us unknown mediocrities. :)

About fifteen years after a publisher’s first impression of Jane Austen’s First Impressions was as negative as its heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s first impression of Mr. Darcy, she rewrote the title (and, oh yeah, parts of the book) in the trochaic verse style, giving us Pride and Prejudice. Which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled literary masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  :)

The article involved breaking U.S. vehicle sales in 2013 by make and model, done by Tim Cain at, then looking up manufacturer’s suggested retail price for each and every one – done by me. After that, it was a straight-forward (albeit time-consuming) matter of making macros to do my bidding – in this case, slicing up the sales statistics by price point and vehicle type.

The 1-2-3 in my original title referred to the fact that, if one excluded trucks and crossovers/SUV’s (since the Toyota RAV4 EV is the only electric vehicle offered in those categories, and then only in California) then electric vehicle market share turned out to be:

– about 1% of passenger cars (again, excluding trucks and x-overs/SUV’s)

– about 2% of passenger cars with a base MSRP of $20,000 or more

– about 3% of passenger cars with a base MSRP of $25,000 or more

And way up in the nosebleed section of the luxury car market – where “high” might not just refer to the prices* – Tesla got about 17% of the passenger car market among vehicles costing $62,400 and up. (Tesla’s Model S costs $62,400 after U.S. federal incentives.)

Name-dropping Edwards Deming

One fun aspect of the article was that I was able to weave in references to W. Edwards Deming, the Godfather of statistical quality control. It’s the latest addition to my list of occasionally-Canadian cross-references, including:

– the Innovator’s Dilemma and Kleiber’s Law (both from this article)

– GM’s old philosophy of “a car for every purse and purpose” (here)

– Canada’s on-again/off-again aspirations to annex Turks and Caicos (here)

– and Wayne Gretzky getting traded to the Los Angeles Kings (here)

And the writer’s cut

Verbose babbler that I am – Scrabble players and spelling bee champions alike might say I verge on “logorrhea” — I came in a couple hundred words over target. Or, as I like to think of it, “overachieved”. :)

As a result, the following was originally present just before the Slimming Down U.S. Sales heading.

– – – – – –

As is so often the case for plug-ins, hybrid vehicles offer an apt comparison. In 2012, hybrids claimed about 3.1 percent of the U.S. auto market, and 1.5 percent of the worldwide auto market. (1.2 million of 81.8 million vehicles.)

On the surface, this looks grim – fifteen years after the Prius premiered, hybrids remain in the low single-digit percentages. But better context comes when we focus on Toyota: in 2012, their third-generation hybrid technology was in a full 16 percent of their sales – almost one in every six cars they sold!

This added context helps us understand that bureaucracy, not technology, kept hybrid vehicles marginal: if corporate priorities had been different, there’d be far more hybrids on the roads today.

– – – – –

Fortunately, content is highly recyclable (as many a plagiarist and plagiarism victim is aware) so hopefully I’ll have a chance to deploy the above when I wind up 122 or so words short on an article. :)

– – – – – –

* being a lefty, I’m predictably happy about the fact that the U.S. seems to be easing up on its War on Drugs, which as Matt Taibbi recently noted, is a war waged mainly against the non-wealthy and the non-white.

But it was probably predictable that this would happen, because the winners of the past four Presidential elections were the candidates who’d done cocaine in their youth. (Obama wrote about it in his autobiography, and GWB has avoided making outright denials and was allegedly arrested for possession in 1972.)

The last time someone who’d never used the drug was elected President, Microsoft was king of the world, and Apple was almost bankrupt. Oh, how things change…

If Republicans and Democrats alike have been willing to fund-raise, campaign and vote for candidates who’d done hard drugs, it’s hard to imagine their attitudes towards drugs and drug users wouldn’t soften. And maybe, just maybe, that can lead to legal priorities more focused on prevention/rehabilitation, than on punishment.

Heck, if the U.S. can close enough jails currently crowded with non-violent drug offenders, that might give them a good excuse for that perennially popular bipartisan American activity, lowering taxes! :)

The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder

Reaching into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”…. in our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

First, a short medical analogy.

Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune disorders (Wikipedia prefers autoimmune diseases) occur when the body’s defenses — antibodies — no longer distinguish between healthy tissue and harmful cells. Instead of focusing on the dangerous antigens, they attack the body itself.

Type 1 diabetes is an example, where the patient’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing regions of the pancreas. Blood insulin levels drop, making it more difficult for cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, leaving elevated blood glucose levels, and all the associated problems of diabetes.

Multiple sclerosis is another example, where the patient’s immune system attacks their nervous system. Localized physical inflammation occurs, which causes nerve damage, which impairs sufferers’ quality-of-life.

These autoimmune disorders occur on the individual level.

The hygiene hypothesis

In medicine, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that allergies could be thought of as a sort of autoimmune disorder, brought about by excessive cleanliness (!).

The general idea is that our immune systems developed over millions of years in the, um, virulent and filthy conditions that characterized most of human existence until the arrival of modern sanitation. Given this, our immune systems have evolved to be hyper-vigilant.  After all, until recently, even minor flesh wounds could be fatal, if they got infected.

One theory posits that if our immune systems aren’t kept busy fending off microbial, bacterial and viral attacks when we’re young, they overreact when they encounter benign intruders (e.g. pollen), or even healthy human cells, mistaking these for existential threats. It’s the medical profession’s equivalent of the “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” argument…!

The generally agreed-upon workaround is to make sure kids wash their hands before eating and after using the washroom, but to otherwise roll around in dirt, play with animals and so forth. The former steps help keep children safe from more dangerous microbes, while the latter keeps their immune systems busy.

Stranger still, medical researchers are exploring the treatment of autoimmune diseases by deliberately infecting patients with parasites!  Reasonably benign parasitic worms which co-evolved with humans and co-existed with us until the advent of modern hygiene, are introduced to the body.  Improvement comes when the immune system stops attacking healthy body tissue, to focus on beating back the parasites.

Unfortunately, the immune system sometimes resumes attacking the body after it beats back the parasites, meaning that periodic reinfection may be necessary. In helminthic therapy, you don’t take vitamin supplements, you take parasite supplements!

Societal-level autoimmune disorders

I think the recently-revealed excesses of NSA / PRISM / surveillance state can be best thought of as a societal-level autoimmune disorder. Human society has almost certainly become dramatically less violent over time, and that’s a very good thing. Especially for those of us who’re members of ethnic groups who’ve historically been the victims!

Meanwhile, for a roughly fifty-year period in the 20th century, an enormous American security apparatus evolved, to address the perceived existential threat from Soviet Communism — and, uh, stamp out any less-than-solidly-pro-American governments in Latin America and other strategic parts of the world. (We should try to be objective, eh?)

With the threat of Communism now gone, the vast resources of American society’s “immune system” have become focused on terrorists — individuals who can cause damage and suffering, but who cannot and could never pose the kind of existential threat of an invading army. This is a good thing: we want to be safe from those who cause us harm.

But like a white blood cell which indiscriminately attacks other cells in the body — not just the harmful antigens — the NSA has effectively wiretapped everyone in the world. Given that in the normal course of law, courts must be convinced of reasonably-probable wrongdoing for wiretaps to be granted, the NSA is essentially treating everyone as a suspect.

In this sense, its behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.

The price of freedom…

If autoimmune disorders can be prevented and/or treated by allowing the body to be exposed to lesser pathogens, this might hint at the path out of the surveillance state. If citizens accept that to maintain their major freedoms, they must accept that minor acts of violence might succeed, the recently-revealed excesses of the NSA could be curbed. A government which tracks its people’s communications, by the very act of doing so, subtly impairs their freedoms of conscience and expression.

The above is a bit abstract, so I’ll close with a couple closer-to-home examples.

1) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush made the comment to the effect that “[terrorists] hate us for our freedoms”. In doing so, he both oversimplified and mischaracterized the motives of such attackers, which relate more to the various humiliations of Western colonization, and the despair of resolving or overcoming the injustices they perceive.

But if Osama bin Laden hated us for our freedoms, then restricting those freedoms through the surveillance state gives him exactly what he would have wanted! (Political violence — such as terrorism — is successful when it causes the victimized government to bend its policies in the desired direction.) If for no other reason than thwarting bin Laden, it will be important for us to rein in the surveillance state.

2) brings us back to the “pull quote” at the start of the post.

Reaching deeply into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. It’s been misattributed to many Great Men in American history, among them Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, though it seems to’ve been a British actor who first formulated the phrase.

In our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

[July 25 – light editing to summarize the conclusion at the outset. – Thx for the tip, Bob!]

Of whales and wind turbines

(originally written June 20, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)


So I was reading up on my Ray Kurzweil last night, because it’s good to read people you disagree with once in a while — but preferably no more often than that.  ;)

– – – – –


Ray Kurzweil is a futurist who believes we’re heading into a singularity where, in this century, life will transcend biology and we’ll reach some sort of a higher condition of life.  His ideas could probably be summed up as:

– it took billions of years to go from single-celled creatures to multi-celled ones

– then hundreds of millions of years to get to human-like creatures

– then hundreds of thousands of years for homo sapiens to create cities

– then thousands of years for us to start making upgrades (artificial hips, pacemakers and the like)

– and in a short span of time, we’ll transition from a biological-molecule-based form of consciousness to a silicon-based one


His ideas are pretty much distilled in this decade-old article/manifesto, which he wrote during the heady days of the dot-com bubble.  As such, though the trends in computing power have probably continued, economic progress… has not.

He made surprising choices in some graphs (e.g. patents issued over time) in that he didn’t factor in the huge effect of a rising population.  It looks like the number of patents issued per year went up tenfold from 1900 to 2000, but the US population also increased four-fold from roughly 70 million to 280 million.  So patents per person “only” went up 2.5x in a century.

There’s a big wrinkle though, which is that the US urban population went from about 40% to 80% in the century of 1900 to 2000, so the urban population probably rose about 8x [28 million to 200 million] in that century.  So in the past century, patents-per-urban-person might only have gone up… twenty percent?  A bigger wrinkle is the fact that half of US patents nowadays go to foreigners, and the biggest wrinkle is probably that patents aren’t a great way of measuring innovation.  They might be the best available measuring-stick, but that doesn’t mean they’re all that accurate…


Cities and Whales

The urban-population factor is important because recent research purports to show that as metropolitan areas get bigger, they tend to “speed up” — since Metro Vancouver has twice the population of Metro Calgary, one would expect Vancouver to have 15% higher per-capita mean income and patenting rates.  Of course, local factors like the tar sands mean that these general trends come with massive, massive margins of error.  :)

The reason for this trend might be that as cities get bigger, people can become more and more specialized, and nudge the boundaries of human knowledge just a bit further in one tiny area.  And with so many people around them, there’s a better chance they’ll run into someone who can make use of that knowledge.  And there is a symmetric downside: apparently per-capita crime and other social ills also tend to increase about 15% with each doubling in city size.


This “speeding up” with bigger size is the opposite of what happens in publicly-traded companies, which tend to “slow down” as they get bigger — fewer patents per person, lower per-person revenues, etc.  (The trend surely holds true for privately-held companies too, but since public companies release quarterly financial statements it’s waay easier to crunch public company data than private companies’.)  This phenomenon could elegantly, partially explain why public-sector bureaucracies often seem worse than private-sector ones: few private companies ever reach the size of governments!

A similar “slowing down” with size occurs in biology, a phenomenon known as Kleiber’s Law.  (Not to be confused with George Clooney’s girlfriend Stacy “Keibler”, or the cookie-making “Keebler” elves.)


In the critter world, when animals double in size, their metabolic (food) requirements tend to only increase by 70-ish percent.  To use math terms, the exponent describing the relationship between metabolic rate and mass, is between 2/3 and 3/4.  And before you ask, yes indeed, there is the usual academic bun fight over what exactly that exponent is!  :)  To use a better example than the one offered in Wikipedia, if we were to compare a 200 tonne blue whale with a 20 gram mouse, the whale weighs 10,000,000x more, but only requires about 10,000,000^0.7 = 80,000x as much food.

Another example of how life seems to “slow down” for big creatures is the reasonably-accurate factoid that many mammals, big and small, have a lifespan of about one to one-and-a-half billion heartbeats.  And indeed, whales live a lot longer than mice — in the absence of whalers.  And cats.  :)  I could imagine that for our earliest mammalian ancestors, this might have represented a good balance between “durable enough to have offspring” and “not so resource-intensive as to starve other important bodily functions of nutrients”, but then I imagine a lot of plausible-sounding, completely-inaccurate explanations.  :)

Rambling aside, as animals get bigger, they get more efficient with their food inputs.  Which brings us to wind turbines!


…and wind turbines

One of the few things I remember from my chemical engineering economics course is that the cost of components in a chemical plant increases more slowly than size, with the exponents generally in the 0.5-0.8 range.  We could think of this as a rough industrial analogue, or maybe even an extension, of Kleiber’s Law.

This trend applies to wind turbines, because if you scaled up a turbine so its blades and everything else were twice as big, you’d need more than twice the material, but you could probably extract quadruple the energy.  (Taller turbines can access stronger winds, and the blades would rotate through 4x the cross-sectional area, but various losses would eat away at that.)  The net effect is that bigger wind turbines are more efficient per-tonne-of-construction-material.  Not unlike that whale.  :)


And back to Kurzweil

Before setting sail on that cetacean tangent (ie. talking about whales) we were examining how a lot of the technological progress feeding Ray Kurzweil’s optimism might not have come from exponentially-improving calculation power, but from a one-time migration of people from the countryside to the cities.

If population growth and urbanization were big drivers for the extraordinary progress we made in the 20th century, it stands to reason that we might see a slowing-down of things in the 21st century, as world population (and world urban population) level off and start falling.  This would be a bit of a downer for techno-optimists’ utopian visions, but would fit the more pessimistic notion that the human condition is a cycle between harsher and milder dystopias.

As an admirer of the great Greek tragedies, I’m in the latter camp.  And while I’m as overconfident in my opinions as most men, I have an ace up my sleeve: as per page 3 of the TIME magazine article, people with mild depression are more accurate at predicting future events!  Nice of the universe to finally throw us folks a bone…!  ;)

On Theft and Punishment

(originally written May 5, uploaded July 29)

Wal-Mart executives were recently accused of bribing foreign officials, a serious offence under US law. Fortunately for them, if history is any guide (and in a justice system which highly values past precedent, it so often is, isn’t it?) no one will go to jail. By and large, white-collar crime goes lightly punished, one of many possible reasons being that wealthy people in deep-pocketed organizations can muster all-star legal lineups in their defense. Perhaps we could call this the “law of the jingle”. ;)

In yet another example of how the world is different for the 99%, punishments for “blue-collar” crime tend to pick up the slack. More troublingly for our “equal before the law” ethos, many soon-to-be-prisoners are represented by overworked court-appointed lawyers, who can’t devote as much time to cases as privately-hired counterparts. One wonders how different things would be if we all shared public defenders, the way we share public healthcare…!


As they do in so many fields, our southern cousins seem to lead the way in judicial asymmetry. In an infamous case several years ago, a repeat offender tried twice to steal videotapes from Kmart — nine movies worth about $150. (Compare this to the expansive music and video collections your, ahem, cousin acquired through file-sharing.) These being his third and fourth offences, and California having a “three strikes” law, the thief got two consecutive twenty-five year prison sentences: a half-century in the slammer. While he had committed other offences in the past, this brings to mind how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean was jailed five years for stealing a loaf of bread!

Bearing in mind that it costs California about $50,000 to incarcerate someone for a year, one could say the state is “investing” $2.5 million to keep this fellow behind bars. Riffing on the economic theory that people always act in their self-interest, it would seem the criminal justice system thinks it would be even more expensive for society to leave him on the streets.

On the other end of the spectrum, executives at brokerage firm MF Global recently stole $1.6 billion from customer accounts, most of it in the “chaos” of the final days as the company went under. Because as you know, when it gets busy, banks only balance their books to the nearest billion. ;) (“Your honour, we were moving that money into so many different offshore tax-haven shell company accounts we honestly lost track of what went where. And what with all the shredding… wait, you’re not buying it?”) Unfortunately, since sentencing probably won’t happen for a few years, we’ll have to turn to older examples for comparative purposes.


About ten years ago, two top executives at Tyco stole $600 million from the company, eventually earning sentences of up to 25 years each. Pulling out ye olde calculator app, each Tyco exec got a maximum of 25 years for $300 million, or roughly one day’s jail time per $33,000. Grading on the curve for the failed Kmart thief, he would’ve gotten six and a half minutes, a bit less than the time it takes to sing “Hey Jude”.

Scaling the other way, each Tyco exec successfully stole two million times as much as the Kmart felon tried to, so in a parallel universe they both would’ve gotten one hundred million years in prison. By comparison, the dinosaurs only lasted a hundred and sixty. Forget watching paint dry, they could’ve watched oil form! (And if they had, no doubt they’d shake their heads at our tar sands extraction, muttering “what are they thinking? That junk needs to cook another million years at least!”)

It would be unfair to blame the justice system for these iniquities, because the root of the problem is probably more fundamental to our human nature. (Similarly, blaming religion for all the terrible things done in its name overlooks the fact that we’re really, really good at finding excuses to kill each other.) Many societies distinguish between higher-esteemed and lower-esteemed communities — you may recall from school that in feudal Europe, the aristocracy were called the nobles, and the serfs, villains. Nowadays we have respectable businessmen and impoverished ethnic minorities. And sentencing sure seems to depend on whether the accused is subconsciously classified as “one of us” or “The Other”.

We can see hints of this in the difficulties of the earliest Christians in the city of Rome. Europe having been the “home base” of Christianity for so long, it’s easy to forget that the first Christians arrived there from the East. Community leaders were darker-skinned folks, probably impoverished and illiterate, who didn’t speak Latin (though some might’ve known Greek). They had newfangled ideas that irritated the more respectable members of their own synagogues, like worshipping a man who’d been executed as a common criminal. And they were rumoured to’ve been cannibals.* They were such a perfect “Other” that Nero simply could not have found a better scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome, if he’d told his people to try. Heck, it wouldn’t be surprising if he did…!


It’s also plausible that the thought of retail theft (purse-snatchings, stick-ups) triggers a fight-or-flight response in us, and accordingly, demands for harsh punishment. In contrast, wholesale thefts (diddling the business books and similar corruptions) tend to be banal actions involving computers — hardly adrenaline-pumping stuff. This may also help explain why they’re treated less severely, despite involving much larger sums. A recent example of the latter is the “robo-signing” scandal in the US, where banks have been shown to’ve foreclosed on thousands of homes they did not in fact have title to, then tried to falsify documents after the fact, and now seem poised to escape with fines representing a small fraction of their winnings.

This explanation unfortunately turns into the logical pretzel that if a society punishes (theft of $100 + threat of violence) more severely than (theft of $1,000,000’s), when you balance the equations, the courts treat one threat of violence as the equivalent of millions of dollars. Which just seems odd; it almost comes across as incentive for wannabe white-collar crooks.


No doubt all these issues have been addressed with careful nuance and subtlety in the Conservative Canadian government’s recently-passed crime bill. It is an omnibus bill, after all. ;) It’s also encouraging that they’ve shown such restraint with their opponents, instead of caricaturing them as “hijacking radicals”. That would be a subtle attempt to link environmentalists with the 9/11 terrorists; to their credit, thus far they’ve kept “hijacking” and “radical” in separate sentences. ;)

To offer other credit where it’s due, much of the above was influenced by The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, a book I read at university. After getting mugged. While I was pretty much a cookie-cutter law-and-order type beforehand, it raised some formidable questions about why we choose to focus most of our crime-fighting on the bottom of the pyramid, instead of the top. (Admittedly, having the Avengers do a forensic audit of Conrad Black’s dealings, would make for a Very. Boring. Movie.)

The book’s now in its ninth edition, which means that even if the book it’s wrong, it’s pervasively wrong — not unlike today’s standard economic models. ;) The bottom line is that, because of it and other tomes, I’m one of the few people who ever got less conservative on crime, after being a victim of it! How’s that for unexpected? :)



* some Christian traditions hold that the communion bread and wine literally becomes Jesus’ body and blood when it is consumed; others treat this metaphorically. If even one Christian proselytizer were to explain this to a local Roman without proper context, you could see how claims of cannibalism would arise…