The incompetence of thieves

I investigate self-reported theft data in the NLSY 1997 Cohort for the years 1997–2011. Several striking patterns emerge. First, individuals appear to be active thieves for extremely short periods – in most cases in only one year, and fewer than 5% of thieves for more than three years out of the 15 years of data. Second, self-reported earnings from theft are generally very low and there is little evidence of “successful” criminals or consistent earnings from theft. Third, measures that proxy impatience (smoking, for example) are highly correlated with theft. Fourthly, thieves and non-thieves have similar earnings during the years of peak theft activity, but thieves have lower earnings in their late 20s (after most have long since stopped committing theft). Attrition of survey respondents, underreporting and incapacitation effects do not appear to explain this. There may be “professional thieves” too rare to show up in even large samples such as the NLSY. Theft in the United States thus appears to be substantially a phenomenon of individuals entering a temporary period of intensified risk-taking in adolescence.

That is from a new Geoffrey Fain Williams paper in JEBO, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Kevin also links to new evidence that concealed carry laws are orthogonal to crime rates.


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