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Digested Read – Spirit Level 3: Trust & Crime

Written By: - Date published: 12:30 pm, September 24th, 2010 - 36 comments
Categories: equality - Tags:

Digested Read Digested – Equality breeds trust; inequality breeds crime. (Or: Do you want to be a bonobo or a chimp?).

In Sweden 66% of people trust strangers; in Portugal it’s just 10%.  Anecdotally we see in Norway blankets left outside cafes in case people are chilly, with no worries about theft; in the US we saw black people too scared of crime to leave their houses ahead of Hurricane Katrina and subsequently losing their lives.  But why this marked contrast between wealthy western societies?

Inequality is a powerful social divider – we tend to use living standards as markers of status.  Then we tend to make friends from our near equals, and have little to do with those richer and poorer than us.  Before long we’re justifying discrimination against various groups because ‘they just don’t live like us’.  Noticeably less equal countries also buy more SUVs and give less foreign aid – we have less empathy with those we don’t see as equals, and material wealth has divided us socially.

The US saw a marked decrease in trust over the 1960s to the 1990s, in a close correlation to its increase in inequality over those decades.  Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, statistically shows the causality between the two is that inequality affects trust – ‘trust cannot thrive in an unequal world’.

And trust matters.  Those with higher levels of trust are optimists who live longer healthier lives, with less mental illness.  Areas with low levels of trust are associated with higher levels of crime.

There is unfortunately only one crime that is truly comparable between countries, with their different laws, different reporting rates and different legal systems.  And homicide quite clearly shows a strong link with inequality, with the USA having a murder rate of more than 12 times that of Japan.

Rates of conflict experienced by children from their peers also have a strong correlation to inequality.  But why is violence so closely linked?

It comes back to status.  In unequal societies status matters far more as the stakes are higher.  There is a sexual element to this too – for women looks are important, but for men status, particularly financial, is valued.  And young men near the bottom of the heap have very little status to defend – if they lose their job, their girlfriend, or are slighted in any way outbursts of violence are often their only to try and keep what status they can.

In the US the homicide rate peaked in the early 1990s (along with the teenage pregnancy rate), declined markedly until 2005 (along with the teenage pregnancy rate), and it has since been rising steadily (along with the teenage pregnancy rate).  There have been various hypotheses about policing methods, gun control or a ‘missing cohort’ of young men given as explanations.  In fact there was a steady rise in inequality until the early 1990s, it plateaued until 2001 and has since been rising again.  During the 1990s the rich continued to pull away from the rest, but the poor (those most affected by inequality) were catching up with the middle.  This provides another strong link between violence and inequality (I’ll get onto the teen pregnancy rate next blog).

The US in 1978 had 450,000 prisoners; in 2005 there were over 2 million.  In the UK the prison population has more than doubled since 1990.  At the same time the number in prison has been stable in Sweden and declined in Finland, Ireland, Austria, France and Germany.

There is little correlation to the change in crime rate to the change in prison population, so clearly some societies are getting more punitive than others.  Specifically the US prisoner increase is 12% due to increasing (largely drug-related) crime, 88% is from harsher sentencing.  In California due to 3-strikes legislation 360 people are serving life sentences for shop-lifting.  In the UK 40 prison sentences for shop-lifting are handed out each day as the imprisonment rate moves in the opposite direction to the crime rate.

The US has 576 in prison for every 100,000 of their citizens; in Japan they have just 40.  The rate is far worse for black people in the US who are 6 times more likely to be jailed (over 13 times in New Jersey) – despite only a slightly higher violent crime rate, a similar property crime rate and a lower drug crime rate.  White people are far more likely to be offered diversion and black people more likely to get heavier sentences.  With over 50% of our prison population Maori, one wonders if there’s a similar story here.

I’ve blogged more about imprisonment here.

This has got too long to talk about bonobos and chimps and our social inheritance, so you’ll have to read the book (but I’d choose the sex and compromise of the bonobo over the violence and hierarchy of the chimp any day – and fortunately the vital bit of our brain agrees).  There are interesting bits about brain chemicals linked to trust and fairness and neurons which mirror what we see, giving us empathy but also the ability to learn violence as well as love.

Next up: Other social problems.

For more detail: Read the bookBuy it and/or support the Trust.

Right-wing trolls: r0b had a recent post with links refuting the arguments you’re about to make…

36 comments on “Digested Read – Spirit Level 3: Trust & Crime ”

  1. ianmac 1

    Literature often points to those whose status depends on the wealth and symbols of wealth. When the crash happens, these often find that their “friends” disappear, and the charming reception from retailers become frigid. Those of us who have little depend on our goodwill not our wealth. (I wonder if a beautiful woman has as much depth to her character, as the plain woman who must shine by her character?)
    Picture a very wealthy man and imagine his loss of wealth.

  2. RedLogix 2

    Waiting for some one to try and tell us that the last graph showing the relationship between income inequality and imprisonment rate ‘dissapears if you remove all the outliers’.

    But even after reading the book several times, I’d forgotten just how outrageous the US homicde rate when compared globally. It’s just as stark when the comparison is made within the 50 US states…and clearly shakes out as the racist issue defining that nation.

  3. tsmithfield 3

    Reversing the correlation in the first graph, there is likely to be more income equality where people can be trusted. It is preferable to have dealings with trustworthy people, and trustworthy people are also likely to get better jobs. Makes more sense than suggesting that people trust each other more as societies become more equal, as the chart suggests.

    “Waiting for some one to try and tell us that the last graph showing the relationship between income inequality and imprisonment rate ‘dissapears if you remove all the outliers’.”

    I actually have no problem with the outliers in the graph you mention. This is because it appears a median based regression type method has been used on this occasion rather than a mean based one, so the outlier doesn’t appear to distort the trend. Pity they hadn’t done the same in a few of their other graphs.

    • RedLogix 3.1

      It is preferable to have dealings with trustworthy people, and trustworthy people are also likely to get better jobs.

      You’ve missed the essence of the question which was ‘do you trust strangers?’

      If you are talking about family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers and the like… then the statement you make above about ‘trustworthiness’ is certainly true. An essential part of knowing someone is that you have the information (based on their track record) to form a judgement about their trustworthiness. No problem here.

      But the virtual definition of ‘stranger’ is someone who you don’t have enough hard information about to form a specific judgement about whether they can be trusted or not. This is a much harder question to answer and people base their perceptions about whether ‘strangers can be trusted’ on a much softer, indirect set of inferences.

      What W&P are showing is that income inequality is a strongly correlated with at least of one of the factors that people use when making those inferences.

    • Bunji 3.2

      The book actually goes into some length looking at (statistical and other) studies that show it is inequality that’s the driver of trust rather than vice versa – you cannot trust (strangers) in an unequal society. “Others” are too different (in status, income) from you, so you no longer empathise with them.

      I believe they used the same techniques for all their graphs to produce a set of graphs that were consistent and easy to read TS.

      They readily admit the life expectancy one you’ve complained about is one of the weakest correlations. That makes sense as if inequality disappeared today, the wear on your body, physically & mentally, would still have been done – it’ll be average inequality over a lifetime that matters. But there are lots of studies that show the link nonetheless.
      They show studies that are longitudinal – looking at life expectancy over time vs inequality, which make some interesting correlations too.
      And it’s inequality in society whilst you’re in the womb that really f*cks you up. Sets those brain and body pathways all down the wrong path – particularly for things like obesity & teenage pregnancy.

    • Vicky32 3.3

      “and trustworthy people are also likely to get better jobs. ”
      Oh, that’s an interesting point of view! After 20 months of unemployment, I have been wondering exactly what it takes to get a job – my working hypothesis is unlined skin, and a 38DD chest…
      Yet, I also favour what one employer told me when turning me down for a truly sh*t job, one I would not have considered if I wasn’t desperate.. “Oh, it’s really all pure chance, that’s what I think”.. (I theorised in that case that he had wanted me but had been over-ruled by the other guys on the panel.)
      So, how am I supposed to show I am “trustworthy”, when employers don’t give a toss that I have qualifications, skills and experience… and yet employers say “Uts all a metter of fut”. Whatever that means. You’re talking bollices here.
      Deb

  4. tsmithfield 4

    RL “You’ve missed the essence of the question which was ‘do you trust strangers?’”

    Fair point.

    However, I still say my interpretation is open even with your clarification. For instance, self employed trades people are likely to get jobs much more easily in an environment where people are trusting compared to where they are not. Also, an environment where people are more likely to trust strangers might also be one where people are more likely to trust friends and family. In that case, what I have said in previous post would still apply.

    • mcflock 4.1

      So TS, just to clarify, your only problem with the post this time is a single minor speculation about correlation / causation in a single graph?

      You’re gradually turning into a leftie 🙂

      • tsmithfield 4.1.1

        Don’t know about that. I could probably be more picky if I wanted. But its Friday so WTF.

        • mcflock 4.1.1.1

          “the quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”

        • Armchair Critic 4.1.1.2

          No, seriously ts, you are turning into a leftie. Just a little bit. So is jcuknz. Don’t worry, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Maybe you are just spending too much time here.

  5. Rex Widerstrom 5

    First off, thanks for this series Bunji. First comment (on the series), regular reader, as they say.

    Second, while there’s no doubt a correlation between inequality and crime, I wonder just how strongly.

    In other words, if tomorrow we were to wave a wand and introduce equality (in legal and economic terms) to the citizens of all those countries, would we still be able to plot a similar graph?

    I suspect the answer is “yes”. There are vast difference is the individual psychology and national sociology of countries. For instance the Japanese may well be more “equal” but they’re also raised to conform, to be polite, to subjugate their own personalities to a great degree. Americans (with all due respect to the many wonderful American I know) tend to have a sense of entitlement and to not be shy about expressing it.

    Then there’s the question of Americans’ belief that the Second Amendment was handed down by God (to Charlton Heston playing Moses) and to suggest moderating it in any way is akin to sacrilege. If there’s a gun lying loaded on the seat beside you, the chances of you shooting the guy who just cut in front of you are significantly increased no matter what your level of inequality.

    As I said, I’m not doubting the effect of inequality as a driver of crime – I see it every day. But there are powerful internalised attitudinal forces at play here and if they’re influenced by inequality I have yet to see evidence of it.

    So I guess what I’m saying is, it’d be a mistake to see lessening inequality as some sort of “magic bullet” in reducing crime. It’s a commendable pursuit in its own right, but I feel the authors are expecting it to carry a lot of weight on its shoulders.

    • tsmithfield 5.1

      I would agree with you Rex.

      The other thing is that crime may to some extent cause inequality. If people tend to get their things nicked, they are going to be less equal than those who don’t. 🙂

      • tsmithfield 5.1.1

        Actually I might be wrong with my last comment. Where everyone nicks each others things, people will gradually become more equal. Sort of an informal version of socialism really. 🙂

        • Bored 5.1.1.1

          You are a sick man TS. The real issue you miss is that the biggest robbers already have the cash, they are the top 1% of ludicrously wealthy extorters of other peoples money and sweat.

        • lprent 5.1.1.2

          Where everyone nicks each others things, people will gradually become more equal.

          Except that some will be better at it than others. Using their ill-gotten gains, they will get better security and teach their children how to be better thieves (thereby overriding their kids natural abilities)…

          Sort of an informal version of a free market / aristocracy really…

          (in other words your statement was quite pathetic… )

          • tsmithfield 5.1.1.2.1

            Lighten up 1prent. Its Friday for God’s sake.

          • Loota 5.1.1.2.2

            Just wondering, how many $50 thefts will be required to thieve back some rich prick’s $2.5M Queenstown holiday home?

            Does TS really think this is how things work?

            But of course, the real thieves of any significance from society, as already pointed out, are certain highly educated, highly organised, financially adept, self appointed elites.

      • RedLogix 5.1.2

        That would only be true if theft and burglary were mostly committed by wealthy people breaking into the homes of poor people. In other words you are trying to explain why countries like the USA which have seen the most of their increase in national wealth over the recent decades finish up in the pockets of just the top 1% of the population… on the rich being criminals.

        Oh wait….

    • RedLogix 5.2

      Fair comments Rex, but if you read what W&P are saying, they explicitly rebutt the idea that what they are saying is some kind of ‘theory of everything’.

      Or to put it another way, if inequality was the sole driver of all social dysfunction then the graphs they plot would see the points all sit firmly on the trend line. But they don’t. The graphs are equally interesting from the point of view of asking about the ‘outlier’ cases as much as anything. For instance the last graph relating to imprisonment rates… you really have to ask why Greece has imprisonment rates so very much lower than every other nation plotted. What’s going on there?

      You are correct that there are other forces in play which should not be neglected, but ultimately income inequality falls out as at least one of the ‘primary drivers’ in how any given society functions… and cannot be ignored or minimised.

      • comedy 5.2.1

        “….you really have to ask why Greece has imprisonment rates so very much lower than every other nation plotted. What’s going on there?”

        http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+Correctional+System+of+Greece+Part+1%3A+Background+and+Sanctions-a065014267

        * Community service for inmates who were sentenced to short-term incarceration that was converted into a pecuniary sentence (many continue to serve their sentences in prison because they cannot or do not want to pay the required amount of the “conversion”). A second category of offenders eligible for community service are those who, at the sentencing stage before entering prison, were given short-term sentences that could be converted to pecuniary sentences and subsequently to community service.

        Probation was placed into law in Greece in 1991, but as of now, it is not used and no probation officers have been hired for adults. Community service has been in effect for adults only since 1996 and is not applied regularly. Community service is granted on the condition that the person convicted requests or accepts the conversion of his or her sentence. Juveniles, however, often are sentenced to community service within the frame of educational measures and the wide discretionary powers of the juvenile court.

        Pecuniary penalties are of two kinds: pecuniary penalties proper and fines. The most commonly used penalty is conversion of custodial sentences into pecuniary ones. In fact, the law states that “all custodial penalties not exceeding one year shall be converted into pecuniary penalties.” The court also may order the conversion of penalties up to three years, unless the defendant is a recidivist and the court is of the opinion that his or her incarceration is necessary for deterrence purposes. The conversion is enacted by the court according to the financial situation of the person convicted. In this way, the conversion functions as a system of punishment having much in common with the institution of day fines. In most cases, the courts apply the “conversion” so that only 3 percent of custodial sentences are served in prisons.

        Security measures are imposed in order to protect public order, either as substitutes for main penalties for persons who are not criminally responsible for their actions due to age or mental competence, or for persons criminally responsible in addition to penalties. The Greek Penal Code, in other words, provides for a bifurcated system of penalties and security measures as sanctions. The latter include:

        * Custody of offenders in a state therapeutic institution. This measure is applied to offenders who, due to mental illness, deafness or muteness, cannot be punished for criminal offenses they have committed but who are a threat to public safety.

        * Commitment of those addicted to alcohol and drugs to a therapeutic institution.

        * Referral to a workhouse of offenders whose acts may be attributed to laziness or to a tendency toward vagrancy and not behaving according to societal norms. This provision is not applied in practice.

        Other measures may include the prohibition of residence in certain areas, the expulsion of alien offenders upon their release from prison or the confiscation of objects that are considered dangerous to the public order.

        • Rex Widerstrom 5.2.1.1

          That’s interesting comedy, thanks. In Western Australia a law was passed that abolished sentences of six months or less and insisted that “pecuniary penalties” be applied instead, plus it has laws that deport alien offenders upon their release from prison and for the confiscation of objects that are considered dangerous, so to some degree I’m working in a system which mirrors the first of those initiatives. Yet the prisons are full to bursting.

          I wonder, therefore, how much Greece’s lower imprisonment is due to the other factors you’ve identified:

          – Sending those with mental illness to a proper therapeutic facility, which Western nations have stopped doing other than in the most extreme of cases.

          – Sending those addicted to alcohol and drugs to other therapeutic institutions, which we simply do not do as part of a sentence and indeed seem to see doing so as somehow “rewarding” the addict, instead of punishing them.

          But I’d suggest another factor at play, more responsible than any of the above… Greeces is not an uptight, anal retentive Western society with prohibitions on anything and everything imposed to satisfy the purse-lipped wowsers who seem to have the upper hand at present.

          In WA, the most popular, iconic beach is Cottesloe. Every summer it’s packed with locals and tourists. Rarely (except perhaps on NYE) is there ever any trouble beyond a yobbo revving their car as they leave. But here’s some the rules that will apply from this summer if you’re using the beach:

          – No sun umbrellas or shelters bigger than 3 sq m.
          – No flying kites.
          – No toy vehicles.
          – No digging big holes.
          – No sitting or loitering on steps or pathways.
          – No diving from the groyne or pylon.
          – No public speaking or entertainment for more than 10 people (even with a permit. No permit, no entertainment at all)
          – No child over the age of four to enter the toilet of the opposite sex (sorry mum, if the little one is busting and the older one is 6, just leave them alone on the beach while you take the youngest to the toilet).
          – Anyone over the age of five has to be “properly and adequately clad”.

          Of course whether you’re loitering or just stopping for breath as you climb the steps, or whether you’re “properly clad” will create jobs for a raft of new inspectors, which is why rates in some parts of Perth have risen by 25% this year.

          Inequality should be addressed for inequality’s sake. And I accept what BLiP says about the authors not peddling this as “the theory of everything”… though some are using it as such.

          But IMO what I call “the McVicar mindset”, typified by the sort of petty laws noted above, is the primary cause for high imprisonment in Western socieities and needs to be tackled separately, and urgently.

          Just don’t ask me how, exactly… 🙁

          • Olwyn 5.2.1.1.1

            I think it may be in part because Greece has long term stable communities, so that people are constrained by custom rather than law, and when I say constrained, I do not mean in the puritanical way you are talking about – I mean that people largely manage to negotiate their way around each other without either acting like dickheads or or calling each other to account over petty things. Even those free-ranging dogs in Athens seem to just get on with their lives without going feral.

        • RedLogix 5.2.1.2

          @comedy

          Hey that’s really interesting. Based on just that quote, it certainly feels like Greece has headed down a different path to the punative one we are on.

          In most cases, the courts apply the “conversion” so that only 3 percent of custodial sentences are served in prisons.

          Imagine trying to sell that here!!

    • Bored 5.3

      If there’s a gun lying loaded on the seat beside you ..you might just ask how this also relates to the TV programs we get from the good old USof A. Just compare a US and a local (or UK) crime series. In the US version everybody bar none are at risk of being blown away by the baddies, and just as likely when apprehended the baddies will be dead, courtesy of \”the law\”. In our equivalent (and UK) the cops are at low risk as are the rest of us, and the baddies end up in court alive.

      So what kind of message does that send re US society? Or does it send about how US citizens see the world, deport and arm themselves, see the law and justice etc? Is it a true reflection of their society? I suspect their \”outlier\” status is as much cultural as economic. Sick puppies methinks.

      • Vicky32 5.3.1

        Exactly right, Bored! Another thing that gets up my goat (to paraphrase Kath & Kim) is that lying by the police, even beating suspects, is considered fair dealing in American cop shows! Yet, for pointing that out on an American forum, saying pretty much what you have just said, I was threatened with a ban for anti-Americanism!
        😀
        Deb

    • Bunji 5.4

      Indeed there are other drivers at play. Makes the outliers fascinating.

      Other than the US, Finland and Singapore are a long way from the line. Finland (despite generally low crime & low imprisonment rates) is way higher on homicide than it “should” be… and has nearly the highest gun ownership in the west. Singapore on the other hand is way low… and has the lowest gun ownership. Coincidence? Hardly.

    • Puddleglum 5.5

      “Then there’s the question of Americans’ belief that the Second Amendment was handed down by God (to Charlton Heston playing Moses) and to suggest moderating it in any way is akin to sacrilege.”

      To use one of TS’ arguments on this thread, I’m not sure that “belief that the Second Amendment was handed down by God” is a cause so much as an effect. In a society characterised by low trust you’d expect people to have the paranoia that leads them to defend unrestricted gun ownership. Lack of trust might create that mindset. Lack of trust is, in turn, a consequence of inequality. That’s how I’d see it.

  6. Ten Miles Over 6

    I’ve been thinking lately about Maori being over represented in the wrong stats. I did a bit of searching around on it and realised there is big big inequality within Maoridom itself.
    I don’t know how reasonable it is to expect rich Maori to help out poor Maori, but I wonder if some of the actions we take through post-colonial guilt are somewhat misguided.

    • RedLogix 6.1

      Yes thats a theme was first mentioned to me many, many years ago by a man who cheerfully described himself as ‘an upper class brown’. As he put it to me, at least one of the main effects of knowing your exact whakapapa, and being able to recite it formally on the correct occasions, is to precisely place yourself in a very strict pecking order.

      I realise that whakapapa is not exactly the same as what us white folk call ‘class’. For a start it’s far more finely gradated, for another it is the essential linkage to ones iwi ancestors which carries so much weight in Polynesian cultures. And for another, the essential markers of whakapapa are not wealth and status markers like flash houses, expensive clothing and general big noting… but arguably more vital attributes such as leadership, oratory skill and something rather hard to define…mana. (The nearest we have in English is ‘gravitas or charisma’ but even they are not an exact equivalents.)

      But a social gradient it is nonetheless, and rather more steep than most non-Maori realise. And as it was explained to me, “Ask any provincial cop which Maori families repeatedly generate much of his work, whose children are destined from birth onwards to finish up in prison, and he will give you a handful of whanau names. We know them too….as descendants of our former commoners and slaves.”

      And remarkable too how many Maori who migrate to Sydney do very well for themselves, removed from a dual burden not just the petty snobbery of white New Zealanders, but of the low expectations heaped on them by their own people.

  7. Rex Widerstrom 7

    Appropriate that this appears today as Viginia executes the first woman since 1912. One with an IQ of 70. She allegedly conspired with two gunmen (one of whom was her lover) to kill her husband and stepson for the insurance.

    The gunmen got life, she got death.

    All of which, I’m sorry to say, sees me in agreement with none other than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who noted the hypocrisy in Americans’ lack of opposition to her impending execution to the sanctimony over the woman sentenced to be stoned in Iran.

    • Vicky32 7.1

      I am in agreement with Ahmadinejad on this as well!
      Deb

    • Loota 7.2

      Bleeding heart liberals, don’t you know if it happens in the US it is democratic justice, and anyways, the US has far more humane ways of putting someone down, its not even comparable 🙄

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