If you have the green stuff, and sometimes even when you don’t, you can get an “expert” to justify just about anything. Even if it’s something as horrific as destroying a neighborhood with rioting. It’s no joke. I was sent an article written by Matt Bruenig which was published on gawker.com that attempts to do just that. It measures the economic benefits of riots due to police brutality based on the value of a human life to show how much we money we can save if rioting is the result of excessive use of force.

I’d submit, an even more straightforward case for rioting: at the right levels, rioting is economically efficient.

One need look no further than famous economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker to see how this is true. According to Becker, punishing bad behavior increases the costs of engaging in such behavior and thereby reduces the amount of it. This is the underlying theory of most criminal justice schemes. Rioting that occurs in response to gross police misconduct and criminal system abuses imposes costs on doing those things. It signals to police authorities that they risk this sort of destructive mayhem if they continue on like this. All else equal, this should reduce the amount of police misconduct as criminal justice authorities take precautions to prevent the next Ferguson.

Although rioting, through its imposition of costs, can theoretically deliver huge benefits by dissuading bad behavior, that doesn’t mean it makes sense to riot all the time and at any level of intensity. Just like enforcing and imposing criminal sanctions is costly, sanctioning via rioting is costly. Economic wealth is destroyed and economic activity is temporarily interrupted. For rioting to be economically efficient, it has to be the case that the costs of rioting (measured in terms of how much stuff is destroyed) are lower than the benefits of curbing bad police behavior.

Of course, chilling police authorities has other impacts beyond saved lives. If we can scare police departments away from being so needlessly aggressive towards blacks, we can reduce incarceration, which commands enormous amounts of economic resources. And that is not even to mention the hedonic value that blacks, and people of color more generally, would get out of not being constantly in fear of police oppression. That value is hard to quantify, but surely sums up to a rather enormous economic loss.

Thus far, the rioting question has been focused on whether it’s good or bad, as if those are the only two answers. From an economic perspective, surely the question is whether the level of rioting is optimal: Do the potential benefits of Ferguson rioting as a police sanctioning tool outweigh its immediate wealth destruction? I suspect it does and, in fact, that the current rioting level is likely economically suboptimal.

I’m not saying that Mr. Bruenig is wrong. I am skeptical, however, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is Bruenig appears to be rather glib on using the Ferguson riot as a “model”:

Conducting such a cost-benefit analysis on the Ferguson riots, though necessarily speculative, is not impossible. It’s estimated that white officers kill black suspects 96 times a year. Cost-benefit analyses conducted by safety regulators peg the value of a human life at $9.2 million. This means the economic cost of white cops killing blacks is around $883 million per year. If the jolt caused by Ferguson’s rioting can chill police authorities and cause adjustments that save just 3 black lives per year, that’s an economic savings of $27.6 million. It’s hard to tell now how much damage rioting in Ferguson has caused, but I’d doubt it’s anywhere near that figure.

But that’s just the trouble with riots. Nobody knows just how bad they will get or what might happen next – by their very nature of lawlessness, they are quite out of control.

About the riot in Los Angeles in 1992 (Wikipedia):

Widespread looting, assault, arson and murder occurred during the riots, and estimates of property damage was over $1 Billion. The rioting ended after soldiers from the California Army National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division, and Marines from 1st Marine Division were called in to stop the rioting when the local police could not handle the situation. In total, 53 people were killed during the riots and over 2,000 people were injured.

After three days of arson and looting, 3,767 buildings were burned with over $1 billion in property damage. Donations were given to help with food and medicine and the office of State Senator Diane E. Watson provided shovels and brooms as racially mixed volunteers from all over the community helped clean. 13,000 police and troops patrolled the area protecting gas stations and food stores that were not affected by the looting, which were able to reopen along with other areas such as the Universal Studios tour, dance halls, and bars. Many organizations stepped forward to rebuild Los Angeles; South Central’s Operation Hope and Koreatown’s Saigu and KCCD (Korean Churches for Community Development), all raised millions to repair destruction and improve economic development. President George H.W. Bush signed a declaration of disaster; it activated Federal relief efforts for the victims of the looting and arson which included grants and low-cost loans to cover their property losses, the Rebuild LA program promised $6 billion in private investment to create 74,000 jobs.

The majority of the local stores were never rebuilt because, even though store owners had great desire to rebuild, they had trouble getting loans; myths about the area arose discouraging investment in the area and preventing growth of employment. Few of the rebuilding plans came to be because business investors as well as the community members rejected South L.A.

Restating Bruenig’s theory in the context of the 1992 L.A. riot, it’s economically efficient for an angry crowd to kill 53 people if it saves 3 black lives a year from overzealous cops. In the case of the Los Angeles riot in 1992, by Bruenig’s numbers, $9.2M for each human being, that riot would become economically efficient just in terms of lives after 18 years (assuming all non-black lives are lost in the riot). If counting also the property damage, it would take 22 years.

It certainly appears to be fair to add the cost of the current economic wasteland that used to be South Central L.A. considering this theory is entirely about opportunity cost. As of this year, 2014, the 1992 L.A. riot has yet to pay for itself, assuming there was any chilling effect on law enforcement agencies at all. Though, one might be amazed at the reasons for and the effects of the invention of dash-cams.

This comparison alone should be enough to expose Bruenig’s claims as problematic. There are certainly more counter-factuals to be brought to light, such as the cost to society in degrees of lawlessness from a light-touch law enforcement approach from fear of any mishaps being misconstrued (negating Becker’s original argument), to the additional expense of maintaining police forces that are expected to be punching bags, and perhaps, what might be the cost in lives of allowing those who believe resorting to violence is the way to deal with annoying or aggravating circumstances encountered every day to overpower police officers in their cruisers. Add to that a very obvious and basic point that everyone in the Ferguson community is entitled to vote; and it’s much cheaper and far more civil to deal with such problems at the ballot box than trashing an entire neighborhood for a generation or more.

HT: Marcus Nunes


For a personal note on this topic, this post was one of the more difficult ones I’ve written. On the surface, some ideas are so obviously absurd as to be not deserving of notice let alone a response, and this article by Bruenig is at least a runner-up for the absurdity of the decade award. I had a lot of trouble writing this post, and nearly gave up after several drafts with most of them going into far more detail than necessary.

I didn’t write this post because I’m concerned about the formation of a general impression that rioting is a good idea or justifiable in any terms. I have much more faith in the decency of average people than to worry about that. This post was written as a personal challenge in detaching from the circumstances and exploring different points of view as emotionally and intellectually disagreeable as they may be. It’s very easy, too easy, to simply write off what appears as completely absurd without thinking about it. It is much more difficult to cast doubt on the matter in a non-passionate way.


My mother-in-law came to visit for the Thanksgiving holiday this year and she brought my Christmas present, a Keurig 2.0, with her. Having had an older Keurig machine, I had been eying the new ones because they have the ability to brew a wider selection of brew sizes from 4 oz. all the way up to 4-5 cups and a much larger water tank. Needless to say, I was very surprised and excited when she brought it into the house.

Going through the owner’s manual I find out that the Keurig 2.0 has DRM technology embedded that was intended to prevent the use of non-logo kcups from being used, including prohibiting the use of those little baskets that facilitate the use of regular ground coffee, and does other undesirable things such as limiting user choice in brew sizes and the amount of hot water that can be dispensed to either 4 or 6 oz while the older model has no such limitations.

With my old machine, I found that most brands of decaf coffee in kcups and some with caffeine in them give me an allergic reaction that is similar to having a severe cold. There are two decaf brands that I like and do not have trouble with. One of them comes in a non-logo kcup, and the other I have not been able to find anywhere for more than a month. Not being able to use my preferred brand of decaf, nor find the other that doesn’t make me completely miserable, naturally, my excitement at finally getting the new machine turned to quite a disappointment rather quickly – and without any practice in rational civil discourse, I might say something like: “Don’t waste your money on that heavy-handed trash heap.”

My mother-in-law offered to return it. But I really do like the idea of a 70 oz water tank (everyone in the family used the old machine and I was constantly filling it). So I decided to keep it and find a way around the DRM, which I did rather quickly with a trip to youtube, some clippings from used kcups, and some tape. My new brewer now brews any size serving I want of any kcup I want, and will dispense as much hot water as I want. No babysitting or being accepting of monopolistic behavior necessary.