Possible Insight

Two Sociology Books You Should Read

with one comment

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I prefer to base decisions on statistically significant evidence.  However, in order to gather such evidence, you must have hypotheses in the form of testable models.  If the models you try to test are divorced from reality on the ground, your results will be useless no matter how statistically significant.

Therefore, if you’re interested in issues of poverty and race in the US, here are two ethnographies you should read.  Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh and Cop in the Hood by Peter Moskos.  As sociology PhD candidates, both went out and actually became actors in poor black neighborhoods.  Venkatesh hung out with a crack gang in a Chicago housing project and Moskos became a police officer in Baltimore’s roughest neighborhood.

It’s really hard for me to oversell these books.  The subject matter is compelling.  The writing is good.  The conclusions are insightful.  Moreover, from a meta point of view, there are several key take home points.

First, poverty is complex. It may even be an emergent phenomenon.  So simplistic solutions are unlikely to work. Second, there doesn’t appear to be any fundamental difference between the poor and the wealthy. Their social institutions are every bit as rich and textured.  They’re just responses to a different set of external constraints.  Third, humans seem to be wired for politics and economics. No matter what sort of top-down constraints you employ, you cannot force a community to fundamentally act against their political and economic interest.  They will spawn informal political and economic institutions to achieve their ends.

I think the authors argue persuasively (either implicitly or explicitly) for two policy changes.  First and most obvious, the fact that drugs are illegal is a big driver of what happens in poor neighborhoods.  I don’t think you can increase the transaction cost of the illegal drug trade to the point where it reduces the supply by much more than a factor of 2.  Humans are just too clever at adapting their institutions in the face of an enormous economic incentive.  Second and most unobvious, having police officers patrol urban neighborhoods in vehicles quite likely serves as a tipping point from good to bad equilibria along a number of dimensions. It changes the dynamic from preventing crime and defusing disputes to simply appearing to respond in a timely manner.

So legalize drugs in some fashion and bring back beat cops on foot patrol.


Written by Kevin

March 10, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Posted in Government, Society

Tagged with ,

One Response

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  1. I can corroborate humans being wired for economics. I was in Argentina after their currency crashed and there were actually 7 (or more) different official issuers of cash notes (federal, state and municipal governments). Not all 100 peso notes were worth the same on the open market though since there was such little faith in the solvency of the issuing bodies. Inflation and foreign currency fluctuation also played into the mix. And yet everyone there intuitively and immediately understood how to get by in the complex economy even though their country had never experienced anything like it before. I remember thinking that the average cab driver in Buenos Aires knew more about economics than 90% of those studying economics in institutes of higher learning in the U.S.

    So, in addition to legalizing drugs and bringing back beat cops, I think it should be mandatory for economists to spend a year running a business in the developing world before they are eligible for tenure or a Nobel 🙂


    March 14, 2009 at 11:33 am

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