Monday, March 12, 2018

Why Death Penalty for Drug Dealers is Moronic

If you make the penalty for dealing drugs, death, it incentivizes drug dealers to kill people, including cops.

One of the more asinine things to come out of Donald Trump's mouth was this blustery blowhard idea of imposing the death penalty for drug dealers.   It sounds like something that Rodrigo Duterte would say.   In this case, it is just Trump trying to sound macho and tough, because we all know he is a real pussy-boy who likes to be pissed on by Russian hookers.   Duterte, on the other hand, means it - and often carries out the sentence in person.

Does killing drug dealers make sense?  As I noted in an earlier posting, criminals often make complex economic calculations when committing crimes.   And when it comes to killing people, often this is seen as an economic proposition.  If you are facing the death penalty if you get caught - or long jail terms - it makes "sense" to murder the "snitch" who is going to testify against you, or the cop who has pulled you over with a load of drugs in your trunk.   If you get away with the murder, you end up not being prosecuted for the underlying crime.

And if you've watched enough Martin Scorsese movies, you know this is true.   Jimmy "the snitch" Ratzenburger, who was going to testify against the crime boss, is found shot dead in an alley with a rat stuffed in his mouth - a message to others who might think about snitching in the future.  Economically, it makes sense in two ways - committing this murder may prevent you from being prosecuted for other murders.  And by sending a "message" to other members of the crime family - and the general public - you also yield an intimidation factor, which consolidates your power even further.  Good 'ol Jimmy - he served his purpose!

It seems like a natural reaction by politicians, though.   Crime gets out of hand, so you increase penalties for crimes until they become ridiculous.  Surely long prison sentences will deter drug dealing, right?   Well, it put a lot of people in jail for the better part of their lives, but it hasn't really deterred drug dealers.   And today, the biggest drug dealers in the county are "Big Pharma" and their prescription opioids.  Is Trump going to execute the very executives who contributed to his campaign, or the "Dr. Feelgoods" in every town who run their "sports medicine" and "back pain" franchises?  Of course not, those are legitimate businesses and donchuforgetit!

But I digress.

The idea of extreme punishments for crime is an old one, dating back to the dawn of our civilization.  Christianity was founded on one such execution.  Romans bought into  the idea that gruesome methods of execution for petty crimes would somehow deter crime.  Nothing tamps down rebellion like a good crucifixion!   Or maybe 6,000 of them.  Or maybe a beheading or amputation as in Islam.  Or maybe a drawing and quartering in Merrie Olde England.  It didn't work back then, it doesn't work today.   Crime still took place.  The difference is, today, criminals have guns and can fight back.

And that is why Trump's idea is so lame - it will put policemen's lives at risk.   You pull over a car on I-95 on a dark night.   It could be some sleepy Canadian just speeding his way back to Ottawa.   Or it could be a "drug mule" with a load of cocaine, heading from Miami to New York.   If the latter, you are in a world of trouble.   Because if the penalty for being a "drug dealer" is the same penalty as shooting a cop, the mule has no incentive to not shoot you.   He might get away with it, and avoid all punishment.   Whereas if he lets you search his trunk, he ends up on a gurney getting a lethal injection.

It is a basic four-box decision matrix.  And the optimal outcome is to shoot the cop:

Get Caught
Get Away
Shoot Cop
Not Possible - Death

Your best bet, from game theory, is to shoot the cop and hope to get away.  Otherwise, death is certain.  And the same is true with witnesses against you.  If you shoot them and get away with it, you avoid the death penalty.   All other outcomes result in death.

Now note, that the same is true for removing the death penalty for capital murder.   If a drug dealer is facing a 20-year sentence for dealing drugs, and the average penalty for shooting a cop in the face is 15 years, you have incentivized him into shooting the cop in the face.   And this is why drug dealing has become more violent in recent years, with the "war on drugs" and mandatory minimum sentencing.

Granted, it is true that drugs cause a lot of grief in people's lives.   So does the IRS, but then again, we don't talk about abolishing that - well, rational people don't.   There are other ways to fix things.  And of course, one way to avoid problems with the IRS is to stop trying to cheat on your taxes.

Similarly, one way to avoid trouble with drugs is to not do them.   And I think this idea that people are sheep that are induced to do drugs by your friendly neighborhood drug dealer (as in the anti-drug ads from the 1970's shown at the top of the page).  Drug dealers don't show up on the playground offering "aeroplane glue" to children.  They are often your friends and acquaintances from high school and college - or at least that was the way it was back then.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's that did change.  Suburban white teens would drive into the ghetto looking for drugs - assuming that all black people were basically dealers.  And in no time, certain neighborhoods became notorious as drug dealing hangouts.  Drug dealing became a big business - like Wal-Mart, complete with its underpaid minimum-wage employees.

But getting back to the users, how did those suburban teens end up on drugs in the first place?

They chose to do it.   And that right there is the key.

When I was 13, my sister decided to get me and my brother "high" in order to mellow us out.  Marijuana is like that - people take it and think it is a religion, and they have to "spread the word" to others - including their classmates, younger people, their children, even their pets.  But it is a conscious decision for the recipient (except perhaps pets) to take the drugs, and a continuous conscious decision to keep taking it.   If there is damage inflicted on individuals by drug use, is it self-inflicted damage.  And outlawing drug use is indeed like outlawing suicide - which is why using drugs is usually not illegal, but possessing them is.

In a way, it is like economic thinking.   I can write all day long that payday loans are a shitty idea, and that leasing a car is stupid.   And like clockwork, I will get an e-mail from someone who will try to tell me that leasing a car is a smart idea because it "frees up your cash-flow!" or that payday loans help poor people "tide themselves over" until next week.   It is no different than SNL writers saying that cocaine "makes them more creative!" (too bad they stopped!) or that marijuana relaxes you.   We all make excuses for our bad behavior - yes, that includes even me.

I got off the drug bandwagon by making different choices.   And that is the key.   I think this idea that people are sheep and unable to control their urges is a little overstated.  And I think this whole "addiction" thing is along the similar lines.  It is just an excuse to let people get away with weak thinking and also allow them to play the victim.  "I can't help it!  I'm an addict!"

Killing their drug dealers isn't going to solve that problem - odds are they will find the drugs from somewhere else, and we've escalated the violence even further in this futile "war on drugs" which has been raging longer than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan put together - with no sign of winning any of them.

But what is really stupid to me is to even suggest the death penalty for drug dealing.  Because you know this will go nowhere and just make you look stupid by saying it.  Then again, if you are Donald Trump, you never have to worry about sounding stupid - because that bridge was crossed and burned a long, long time ago!