The Italian Job

by on May 29, 2017 at 7:37 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Each year there are more bank robberies in Italy (approximately 3,000) than in the rest of Europe combined, with a 10 percent chance of victimization on average.

…The average robbery lasts 4.27 minutes and leads to a haul of approximately 16,000 euros. Given that more than half of all bank robberies involve two or more perpetrators, the average haul per criminal is approximately equal to 8,700 euros.

…only about 40 percent of all bank robbers disguise themselves when robbing a bank.

Those are a few interesting facts from a bold new paper, Optimizing Criminal Behavior and the Disutility of Prison. The authors, Mastrobuoni and Rivers, use extensive data on bank robberies to model bank robbery as a second by second optimization problem:

The key insight of our model is that bank robbers face a trade-off when deciding how long to stay in the bank. By staying an extra minute, the robbers can collect more money, but they also run the risk of getting caught and sent to prison. The cost of being apprehended is a function of the disutility each individual places on going to prison. By equating the marginal benefit with the marginal cost of time spent in the bank, we can back out the unobserved disutility that robbers assign to prison.

The authors create a sophisticated model of optimizing behavior which they estimate using extensive data. In their conclusion, they focus attention on their finding that higher ability bank robbers have a higher disutility of prison. Thus higher ability offenders can be (especially) deterred by longer sentences. The authors focus attention on high-ability offenders because those are the offenders most likely to fit the assumptions of their rational-actor model. I think it’s actually better to focus on the contra-positive conclusion: its hard to deter idiots.

Moreover, there are plenty of idiots:

Not surprisingly, traveling to the robbery by foot and targeting a bank with a security guard are both consistent with lower ability offenders….

The existence of idiots, however, calls into question the optimizing assumptions of the model. As I argue in What was Gary Becker’s Biggest Mistake? the poorly-socialized-child theory of crime can suggest other approaches to combatting crime (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy):

Here’s a simple test for whether crime is in a person’s rational interest. In the economic theory if you give people more time to think carefully about their actions you will on average get no change in crime (sometimes careful thinking will cause people to do less crime but sometimes it will cause them to do more). In the criminal as poorly-socialized-child theory, in contrast, crime is often not in a person’s interest but instead is a spur of the moment mistake. Thus, even a small opportunity to reflect and consider will result in less crime.

The guy who robs a bank that has a security guard and then attempts to run away seems like a poor fit for a rational actor model. Perhaps more thinking would have led a better planned bank robbery but more plausibly it would have led to no robbery at all. Thus, I’d frame the author’s contributions in this path-breaking paper as telling us not just about rational bank robbery but about the limits and bounds of rational bank robbery.

1 rayward May 29, 2017 at 8:09 am

What are the “limits and bounds” of criminal activity? For some, crime does pay. Why do some criminals violate the law with impunity and others can’t get away with minor cheating on their income tax returns? Tabarrok suggests it’s the difference in the intelligence of the criminal. If that’s true, then Donald Trump must be a genius. Trump’s good fortune reminds me of the explanation why the Sun Never Sets on the British Empire: because the British can’t be trusted in the dark. Let the British pillage the colonies in the daylight so they don’t commit worse crimes at night. What crimes does Trump commit after the sun goes down? Maybe if we stationed high beam lights around the White House, the criminal activity inside would be reduced. It’s known that Trump doesn’t sleep much, likely because he’s so busy at night.

2 Milo Fan May 29, 2017 at 10:12 am

Not to mention all those aliens who get away with abducting all those people. And I can’t even smoke weed in the park. Unfair!

3 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 10:18 am

Ot is said they only succeed because the American regime signed a treaty with the Greys in exchange for the military technology it got. Most countries have no reports of abductions. I think the last reliable report of alien abduction in Brazil was in 1961.

4 msgkings May 29, 2017 at 11:30 am

“the last RELIABLE report of alien abduction”


5 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 11:49 am

Most recent reports are unreliable because they are the work of UFO cultist or people seeking fame and fortune.

6 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 7:36 pm

No, it does not.

7 camron May 29, 2017 at 11:04 pm

Hey ma, wassup, let’s slide, I smoke I drink me to well good. Key Biscane? You’s a baby right. Listens and takes advice. Plus I can play the pipe. Get in the car. Don’t touch nothing. Now we speeding up the left side,

damn, Marseilles

8 camron May 29, 2017 at 11:08 pm

okay okay, here comes the sun, the sun is a ball, but the ball the ball is the sea, and that’s such a happy fish that even grass is all right.

9 Reid May 29, 2017 at 10:20 am

::: “For some, crime does pay.”

… much more than “some”, if the measure is not getting caught/punished.

According to Pew Research (1 March 2017): “Most violent and property crimes in the U.S. go unsolved” …

“Only about half of the violent crimes and a third of the property crimes that occur in the United States each year are reported to police. And most of the crimes that are reported don’t result in the arrest, charging and prosecution of a suspect, according to government statistics.”

Those hordes of police-state cops & Orwellian surveillance sure don’t protect us much.

10 Jason Bayz May 29, 2017 at 10:45 am

The chance of getting caught when you commit one crime is low. But if you commit a hundred crimes…..

11 Axa May 29, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Indeed, if you commit one violent crime the probability of a police report being made is 0.5, two crimes 0.75, three crimes 0.875……….and so on.

12 tab May 29, 2017 at 1:26 pm

“probability of a police report”

yeah, those “police reports” from a crime victim really deter criminals (not)

odds of criminals actually being caught/convicted/punished are much lower

13 YD May 29, 2017 at 8:19 pm

I always believed that crime didn’t pay, it was the mentality my parents raised me with, I never questioned it until I became a criminal defense lawyer and saw the system from the inside. After having practiced for five years now, I say with confidence that, for a certain type of people, committing a certain type of crime, crime does pay. If you aspire to be a solid citizen, to work a job and move up the ladder career-wise, to achieve the “American dream,” crime certainly doesn’t pay. Even an arrest, without a conviction, can seriously harm someone’s career prospects, a conviction is cryptonite, even if the offender’s punishment never sends him to the inside of a prison. This is a life sentence, compounding the harm decades down the line. But if you are a member of the underclass who doesn’t want a job, that isn’t a big problem.

The people I’m thinking of commit a certain type of “petty” crime , shoplifting, burglarizing houses without a weapon, robbing cars, picking people’s pockets, stealing bikes, ect. These crimes don’t involve drugs, weapons, overt physical violence, or theft of property of significant value.(Over a certain dollar limit which varies by state, it goes from a misdemeanor to a felony.) When caught, often the guys aren’t prosecuted at all, if they are, they will usually not see prison. It is inhumane to send someone to prison for shoplifting a 45$ video game, they say. Except it’s probably not his first theft, the total value of all the property he’s stolen likely extends into the thousands of dollars range. He’ll spend a week or two in jail, he might have to work some community service,(which is usually much easier than actual work) and then he’s back on the street. There, he can tell his friends how toothless the criminal justice system is, criminals, always inclined toward wishful thinking, will tell themselves they won’t be caught and even if they will they won’t be seriously punished. This often goes on for years, and they can often get this lenient treatment on their second, third, and tenth offense. Eventually, the state may decide to throw the book at them, but it is hardly guaranteed.

But aren’t the rewards really bad even if you don’t get caught? Indeed, these guys might make as little as a few thousand a year, to you, the MR reader, this looks like pocket change. But consider that that money is almost all disposable income. None of it goes to the landlord, the taxman, the insurance company, the wife or the kids. These guys aren’t strictly homeless, they usually rely on housing provided by their family, friends, and girlfriends, cycling around as their hosts continually kick them out. If they have children, they don’t provide any support to them, though in a minority of cases the state goes after them.(I’ll note that the women in these situations are hardly blameless.) They can spend all their money on drugs, bling, toys, and fast food. They look at their peers who work at McDonald’s for minimum wage*, who are always worrying about if they are going to be late for this or that, who have their wages garnished for child support, and see an army of suckers, living a life far inferior to their life of carefree excitement.

*Those are their peers, not people who went to college and work in offices.

14 prior_test2 May 29, 2017 at 8:26 am

You sure this is not 10 years old?

‘Just as robbing banks loses its appeal among Europe’s criminal classes, Italy’s small-time crooks have proved the exception by attempting just over 3,000 robberies last year, 57% of the European total.

New figures released by the Italian banking union FIBA showed Lombardy in northern Italy was a favourite haunt of masked bandits, with 640 successful robberies compared to 274 in Sicily.

Nationwide, bank clerks now face a one in 10 chance of being held up every year, FIBA wrote in its staff magazine.

Overall, European robberies dropped from 5,685 in 2005 to around 5,400 last year, with the UK suffering just 122 hold-ups in 2005, of which only 30 were successful.’

15 Tom T. May 29, 2017 at 12:00 pm

It’s hard to analyze without knowing the potential costs to the robbers of being caught, but one has to imagine that the sentences and collateral consequences for bank robbery in Italy are not terribly stiff.

16 James Griffin May 31, 2017 at 8:12 am

Robbing a bank in Lombardy should be more frequent, easier and more lucrative than robbing one in Sicily. Lombardy has twice the population and about four times the wealth of Sicily.

17 Jack May 29, 2017 at 8:51 am

It is well known among law enforcement, at least in the US, that bank robbery is a low intelligence crime — very limited upside and a high likelihood of getting caught.

18 RustySynapses May 30, 2017 at 11:23 am

+1 Many years ago I clerked for a (US) Federal Judge. It was amazing to me that people would rob a bank (which is fairly easy to do – just hand them a note and they’ll give you money) – and get something like $1,500 – and it’s a federal crime and draws a tremendous amount of law enforcement attention, and there’s a high risk of getting caught. There are lots of things you could steal that are worth a lot more than $1,500 (a very old Toyota, etc.) that probably have a lot less risk. It shows that there isn’t a lot of consideration of alternatives going on…

19 Tom June 2, 2017 at 12:28 pm

Good point about alternatives. You could take out a credit card with a $5,000 limit and not pay it back. No jail risk at all. You ruin your credit, but that’s about it.

20 Veobaum May 29, 2017 at 8:55 am

Ha! Great post, paper and essay.

I laughed out loud and even read to my wife “.. can’t deter idiots…”

21 Reid May 29, 2017 at 10:28 am

… you seem easily amused. The original post was poorly written with no obvious point or bottom line.

22 Sam Haysom May 29, 2017 at 10:36 am

You are wasting your time Reid you can’t deter idiots from being easily amused either.

23 The Other Jim May 29, 2017 at 9:49 am

>this path-breaking paper

Dear Lord.

Do you think that if young adults were given more time to reflect, fewer of them would waste their lives by majoring in economics?

24 Sam Haysom May 29, 2017 at 10:37 am

You can’t deter idiots.

25 Tom T. May 29, 2017 at 11:58 am


26 Brian Boessenecker May 30, 2017 at 1:21 pm

Dude if you think the economics research papers have anything to do with why young people choose economics majors, you really have no grounds to express dismay over bad decision-making…

27 Dick the Butcher May 29, 2017 at 9:51 am

Apocryphal story about the notorious 1950’s NYC bank robber, Willie Sutton. After one arrest, a reporter asked, “Why do you rob banks?” Sutton answered, “That’s where the money is.” I cannot apocryphally decide who is the bigger idiot.

Sutton staged a robbery in my great aunt Evelyn’s (RIP) bank branch. Her response was, “I hope he didn’t get my money.” FYI She was joking.

Crime pays. Ask the government. Each year it gets away with stealing from approximately 67 million US households.

28 msgkings May 29, 2017 at 11:34 am

Ha! Taxes are theft! Oh man, that’s good. Wait ’til the State finds out you are on to them!

29 Sam Haysom May 29, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Can someone look at this bot? It is stuck on point and sputter.

30 msgkings May 29, 2017 at 7:03 pm

Typical leftist. Someone points out the theft by the State in the form of taxes and Sam drops by with some snark. Go back to Salon, commie.

31 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 9:52 am

Italians, the Argentinians of Europe…

32 msgkings May 29, 2017 at 11:34 am

Just like the Brazilians are the Uruguayans of South America.

33 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 11:48 am

The so-called Uruguays is in South America, too, it is Brazil’s Cisplatine.

34 Alex FG May 29, 2017 at 4:09 pm

Is this supposed to be a compliment to Italians? There are more Argentinian Restaurants in Europe than Brazilian ones. On a different note..

In each project I worked on where a company set up shop in Italy (unless they were already conducting business in China) they had to face unprecedented amounts of fraud, especially credit card fraud. Not as in 150% times the fraud in Germany but more like 4 out of 5 european cases of fraud happened in Bella Italia.

35 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 4:17 pm

The biggest meat exporter company the world haever seen happens to be Brazilian. Brazil ismone of the most important exporters of meat, soya and oranges. Brazil’s rice, cheese and bread are the world’s best. Brazilian cuisine is second to none, but you can not do it without Brazilian quality ingredients.

Argentina is a disaster pretending to be a country, they envy Brazil’s power and plotted to destroy Brazil’s when they were nominally our allies. I would rather a horde of Paraguayans before me than a single Argentinian behind me. We could have destroyed them when we defeated them in the 1850s, but we forgave them.

36 camron May 29, 2017 at 11:14 pm

Pantanal vs Everglades
Amazon as a football game in bloody Scotland
Rio Vs Hollywood
Farm Vs Fazenda
Logging Vs Othello

37 Denis Drew May 29, 2017 at 10:10 am

What I learned on the streets of the Bronx in the late ’70s:
The crux of juvenile delinquency seems to be that if kids at a certain age think nobody cares about them; they literally won’t care about themselves. Therefore no penalty can deter them. I call this “hysterical alienation.” My observation (not pro), boys are in the emotionally dependent stage until 18 1/2 — full strength all the way until the end — at which point it seems to switch off over a week’s time.

(Quick) cure? Five or six weeks of intensive attention (building a supportive relationship — amounts to adoption) during which span the crime will not slow down an iota. The first week or two you have to kiss the kid’s toes and tell him everything he wants to hear or he will run off “howling” — truly hysterical. Comes the “invasion of the body snatchers — a different kid (personality?) wakes up one day. Seen it more than once.

Giant drop in crime: unleaded gas? I’ve got my alternate theory. I think the rise of drug dealing street gangs (in our labor market that pays $10/hr when the consumer would pay $20/hr) co-opted these out-of-their-own-control boys: starting them out sub-min wage (“Five-O!”) with the promise of macho future (guns) — no need to practice their purse snatching skills or climb in your window for your costume jewelry.

38 Milo Fan May 29, 2017 at 10:20 am

The crime decline occured across all categories of crime, including the many crimes which do not have a financial motive.

39 Mike W May 29, 2017 at 10:38 am

“Disutility of prison”? OK, now you’re just making shit up.

40 mulp May 29, 2017 at 11:28 am

Free food, housing, flush toilets, showers, medical care, community are the ingredients of disability.

Free lunch economists see the highest utility in being homeless, hungry, sick, and dirty and smelly.

Clearly robbing a store or bank to get money to cease being homeless, hungry, and dirty and smelly is irrational because the ideal state, the maximum utility, is being homeless, hungry, dirty and smelly.

41 Mike W May 29, 2017 at 12:18 pm

So bank robbers are just the homeless stealing bread to stave off starvation? Now you’re making shit up.

42 Thor May 30, 2017 at 1:29 am

A new trend is theft from a moped (Jeremy Corbyn’s security detail just thwarted one such theft). Seniors are often targeted as are young people with their first cell phones.

Moped thieves are not stealing to acquire food. (Gas maybe, lol.)

43 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 11:22 am

I am sketching an idea about how raise educational attainment by paying small sums to students, giving the present-oriented ones the possibility to understand than school is a better option than vagrancy or petty crime.

44 spencer May 29, 2017 at 11:23 am

When I was a young man in Kentucky I knew some moonshiners.

They claimed that they expected to spend a few years in prison ,it just was a cost of doing business.

45 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 11:25 am

They thought that way because society denied them perspectives.

46 Rather Not Use My Name May 29, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Singapore executes anyone caught transporting illegal drugs in Singapore, no exceptions. One pound of pot suffices, for example.

According to the 2008 World Drug Report, 0.005 percent of Singaporeans use pot.

You don’t need sophisticated econometrics to conclude that capital punishment is an effective deterrent in this case.

Score one for Becker.

47 Thiago Ribeiro May 29, 2017 at 7:37 pm

Is it the only difference between America and Singapore? I do doubt.

48 camron May 29, 2017 at 11:16 pm

monocolurs or binocular vision?

49 john May 30, 2017 at 8:58 am

I think Nickleback had a great song on the the idiot bank robber theme.

50 C May 30, 2017 at 11:03 am

I’m curious about how the typical Italian bank robbery works. Is the perpetrator armed? I always imagined Italy as a place without ready access to weapons. How could you rob a bank without a gub though?

51 James Griffin May 31, 2017 at 8:20 am

Given that banks “rob” from Italian taxpayers in the form of bailouts granted by the government perhaps “getting back at them” is not as unreasonable as it might be seen at first glance.

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