Sunday, May 9, 2010

Should you be afraid of CRIME?

Fear of Crime sells - alarm systems, guns, newspapers, and TV shows.

Our society has a paranoid fear of crime. Think about it. What are more than half the drama shows on television about? Crime. Law and Order (all seventeen versions of it), CSI, Bones, you name it. And historically, this has been the case, ever since Perry Mason and Dragnet. Even the "best show ever" on television, The Sopranos, was about crime.

We are fascinated with crime and with criminals, and also fascinated with all the trappings of law enforcement and emergency personnel. Chances are you, or someone you know, has a "FDNY" hat in their closet, right?

Should you be afraid of crime and criminals? The short answer is NO and let me tell you why. Crime is very overstated in our society. Our awareness of crime is far higher than the actual incidence of crime. Study after study shows that people's perception of being at risk of crime is far higher than the actual incidence statistics show - in fact by a factor of 2 or 3.

And if you can skew someone's perception of a market, it is very easy to take advantage of them. If you can convince someone their greatest risk in life is losing the shiny sheetmetal parked in their driveway, chances are, you can sell them more insurance than they need.

But crime as a market? I can't be serious, can I? Well, it is a market and a market force. Taking aside the market dynamics of criminal activity (risk assessment if ever there was one) there is the marketing to potential "victims" of crime of all sorts of crime-prevention measures.

As I noted in my "The Gun Trap" the fear of crime, along with the fear of a gun "shortage" (due to the new President being elected) has been good for the gun business. The theory is, since you are at risk of being assaulted at any given moment, you should carry a gun. And then, at the moment of truth, you can go all Dirty Harry on your assailant and blow them to kingdom come.

It is a nice fantasy, and who wouldn't want to shoot a criminal? But the sad fact is, very few of us will be assaulted by criminals in our lifetimes. So buying a gun for "home protection" is often just an unnecessary expense.

Note that I am not anti-gun. They have uses, for hunting, law enforcement, and dispatching the occasional rabid raccoon. But from an economic perspective, owning a gun for protection against crime simply doesn't pass the "do the numbers" test. And the idea that you need to own a dozen or more, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition, is simply preposterous. If that is your hobby, great. But don't delude yourself you are making yourself safer, because chances are you were not at any risk to begin with.

Crime sells in other ways as well. Alarm system companies use the fear of crime to sell systems - you've all see the ads, a woman home alone, dispatches the "evil intruder" by pressing an alarm button. Nice fantasy. But the real stalkers know to disconnect the alarm system at the telco box with a pair of wire cutters, first.

And yes, alarm companies or their salesmen, have been known in the past to actually burglarize homes (or have someone burglarize homes) in a neighborhood, in order to sell alarm systems. It is a neat way of "priming the pump" of fear, if the neighborhood is not fearful enough already.

Statistics show time and time again that if you are going to be a victim of crime, chances are you won't be there. Someone will steal something from your car or home when you are away. You can't shoot someone when you aren't there. And chances are, the person stealing things might be someone in your own neighborhood. In most suburban neighborhoods, the culprits may be the neighborhood kids. Your kids friends, stealing your stuff. Still sure you want to "go ahead and make my day" on some 15-year-old? Be my guest.

But all that being said, chances are, in your lifetime, the amount of stuff stolen from you will be minimal. Most crimes are crimes of opportunity. You leave something expensive on the seat of your car, and someone breaks in and takes it. Most of such crimes can be easily thwarted by not presenting opportunities.

In the 50 years I have been on this planet, I have been assaulted only twice. In both cases, I probably was not at real risk of injury, and in both cases, I could have avoided the assault by not being the neighborhood (delivering pizza has its risks!). And in both cases, I avoided the assault by running like hell. But since those 20-something days, crime has not been a major issue.

Maybe I've had some minor things swiped on occasion. Nothing that comes to mind as significant. Certainly nothing that justifies a $2500 alarm system and $25 a month to monitor. Nothing than justifies a $500 handgun. (and again, Handguns are one of the most popular things to steal).

In fact, looking back, more things were swiped from me when I was younger, and diminished as I got older. Kids steal from each other, it happens. But as you get older, the risk of theft drops off. So you see a 20-something paranoid about someone stealing his car, his stereo or whatever, because he hangs with other 20-somethings and knows all too well their inclinations.

Also, as you get older, you tend to buy less shiny, easily fencible consumer goods that thieves like. Want to steal my cell phone? Go ahead, it is an old Motorola worth maybe $5. A computer? Maybe worth $50 stolen, and a PITA to carry far. The list goes on and on. As you get older you put your money into stocks, bonds, and investments, which only professional Wall Street folks can successfully steal from you.

Getting back to the beginning of this blog entry, the one reason why many folks are paranoid about crime is television. I hate to harp on this, but television is about the worst place in the world to get your social cues. And after watching hour after hour of murder, mayhem, crime, and criminals, it is no surprise you'd come away with the impression that the USA is just chock full 'o criminals and that being the victim of some grisly crime is only a matter of time.

That's television - skewed perception. And that's the news, too. The news shows and the local paper report crime because crime is interesting. No one wants to read about the millions of people who were NOT assaulted today or not robbed or burgled. But a juicy crime story - that sells newspaper.

It is human nature - not a pretty part of human nature - but why people slow down at accident scenes to gawk (I honk at such people and flip them the bird). People are fascinated by death, by distress, and they are fascinated by the criminal element in society.

Once you stop watching television, your perceptions become more normalized. You start to fear less and trust more. It does take some time, but it does reduce your blood pressure.

Now, of course, if you live in a horribly bad neighborhood that is riddled with drug dealers, shootings, and junkies, yes, you should be afraid of crime. You should also be asking yourself why you are living there. As I have noted before in other entries, there are some folks who try to save money by living in bad neighborhoods, so they can have more consumer goods. But in the long run, you are better off living in a smaller house our apartment in a more expensive, safer neighborhood. There is no point in having a lot of consumer goods if they are constantly being stolen.

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