Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Power Players: Mark Kleiman

Photo Credit: Todd Cheney/UCLA
UCLA Professor of Public Policy Mark A.R. Kleiman has been hired by Washington state to assist with implementing its new marijuana legalization law, which is great news. Kleiman, who blogs at The Reality-Based Community, is one of the best thinkers and communicators on crime and crime policy currently out there. Crime is one of the most fascinating public policy areas in part because its study so multi-faceted. Rational-choice models and analytical tools from economics provide the main framework for thinking about crime: law-breakers are just regular people reacting to incentives; enforcement and punishment is a cost, not a benefit, etc. Psychology compliments this by providing explanations for "irrational" behavior: why do impulsive people commit crimes even when the expected payoff is negative; why is swift and certain punishment a better deterrent than high severity, etc. Political science helps us understand the anarchic conflict-resolution environment that exists for certain coalitions and markets for illegal goods that lack a neutral court system and why it leads to violence. Sociology has much to say about the cultural conditions of high-crime populations and their links to poverty and other social ills. Moral philosophy has long been concerned with crime: what should the boundaries of one's freedom be?; how can we encourage virtue?; the concept of just desert, etc. And unlike many social science fields, most regular people have a close personal relationship to the issue of crime and its effects.

With so much intellectual richness, it's a shame the topic of crime has become calcified in a boring equilibrium (likely due to the political incentives of fearful voters and powerful interest groups): Republicans and most Democrats generally support tons of enforcement and severe punishments, with any rhetorical deviation from the status quo treated as a "soft-on-crime" gaffe.

Mark Kleiman expertly manipulates the issue dimensions of crime to cut through its tired framing. By ignoring the culture war and emphasizing crime as simply another boring public policy field for technocratic evidence-based interventions, new political coalitions can form and novel arguments advanced. From Kleiman's excellent Washington Monthly article critiquing the current parole system:
"It would be hard to imagine a system that could combine more punishment with less effective social control. It’s no surprise that so many people wind up what we could call “doing life in prison on the installment plan.” A parent who acted the way the probation system acts—letting most misconduct go unpunished, and occasionally lashing out with ferocious punishments—would be called both neglectful and abusive."
Kleiman's book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, is brilliant in its comprehensiveness, creativity, and style, and is one of the best books I've read all year. Most nonfiction books are too long and larded up with useless anecdotes, vignettes, and framing devices. This book is short and nearly every sentence means something useful and interesting. Kleiman's writing also includes an unusually high degree of epistemic humility. The complexity of social phenomenon is not swept under the rug, with probability and uncertainty playing a large role in claims about the effects of policy interventions, evaluations of research findings, etc.

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