The economics of murder: how much does it cost?

In the US, a murder costs a  little over 17 million dollars.

A group of researchers crunched data for over 650 murders in eight states and used a formula with parameters for lost murderer productivity costs, judicial expenses, and victim losses to come up with that number as an “average per murder”. And because each murderer typically commits around 1.4 known murders, using the formula you get around 24 million dollars per criminal.

So, if you really need an economic reason why these heinous crimes are a burden on society, now you’ve got a pretty big number based on some hard-to-explain models.

I also understand that legally, and perhaps morally, the idea that the “value” of every human life should be the same is a valid concept. But economically?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go ahead and a make a distasteful point: the cost incurred from the murder of a highly-paid CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a high-premium life insurance is not the same as that of a hobo with an incurable ailment, no insurance, and no next-of-kin.

And since I’m going to be offensive, why not go the whole hog?

Consider this scenario: A group of five sophisticated thieves rob a bank for 40 million dollars. The heist gets botched  and they end up shooting a young security guard who had thirty years of work left before retirement. They also kill a widower who had been drawing a steady pension and would have otherwise lived for another twenty years. A college student is shot and maimed for life but doesn’t die: he becomes a financial strain on his unmarried sister. The thieves then escape to Mexico in a stolen Mercedes and spend 30 million of the loot. The government spends millions of dollars trying to track these fugitives in order to bring them to justice. After twenty years, three of the five get caught and are brought back into the country. One gets the death penalty while others serve life sentences in jail.

Add. Subtract. Multiply. Divide. And get back to me when you’ve figured out the real cost of this simple crime.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

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A desi rasta tour

 

Charlotte Amalie

 

Dronningens Gade, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Leisurely stroll through Dronningens Gade, or Main Street in Charlotte Amalie on a day when there are no Caribbean cruise ships docked in the harbor. You’ll see a lot of shuttered shops. You might think you’re in a quaint town in the quiet Virgin Islands… I don’t blame you.

Let us go back a few centuries to when it all began. In 1493, on his second voyage, Christopher Columbus passed by the island of St. John and skirmished with the Carib inhabitants of St. Croix. That is how he discovered the Virgin Islands.

Now, as a child, I was taught – as I’m sure many of you were – that Columbus discovered America.  Of course, it isn’t a secret that Columbus wasn’t a genius at navigation: as any of the native peoples of North and South America, unfortunately lumped together as “Indians” will tell you, Columbus was looking for the real Indies. There is also the minor point of how exactly he discovered continents when people had already been living there for centuries. And even by Eurocentric standards, Columbus flops: he wasn’t even the first European to set foot in the New World.

But back to Columbus in 1493. On seeing what are now called the Virgin Islands, he named them –  Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgines after the legend of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins. I don’t know much about Saint Ursula, but I am pretty sure Columbus wasn’t talking about Ursula Andress. In any case, his catholic act of discovery set the stage for the subsequent enslavement and decimation of the local Arawak tribes on St. Thomas, and the total deforestation of the island.

A few centuries later the Danes decide they want a piece of the pie. Now, I don’t know about you, but normally, I don’t think of the Danes as colonialists capable of atrocities on the same level as the imperial British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, or Belgians. Sorry, Denmark. My mistake. I recently found out that it wasn’t really for any lack of effort.

Interested in the West Indies, the Danes build colossal sugarcane plantations on St. Croix, but failed to grow the crop successfully on St. Thomas because of the hilly terrain. Instead, in 1673 with the arrival of the first ship carrying slaves, Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas becomes the slave capital of the world; and by certain estimates, from 1733-1782, over 123,000 slaves were brought over from West Africa and sold on the island.

In the late 1700s, Charlotte Amalie was “declared a free port for intercolonial trade”. Chew on that statement for a bit. And when you’re done, we will continue.

Back to the street in Charlotte Amalie which the Danes called Dronningens Gade. We are near Market Square on the west end.  Here under the shade of the portico, on days when there are no ships in the harbor, it is pretty quiet. You may meet a dreadlocked Antiguan Rastafarian selling sugarcane juice. Other migrants from islands such Granada or Barbados may be playing dominoes or cards. As part of the American Virgin Islands, with its relatively strong economy, St. Thomas attracts immigrants from all over the Caribbean. And Market Square today is certainly a quiet peaceful setting. Nothing unusual about ragamuffins sitting around. But a few centuries ago at the same spot was the largest slave market in the Caribbean. Thousands of tourists pass through without knowing.

Walking east on Dronningens Gade, you’ll find numerous shops selling electronics, cheap liquor, and jewelry. This is the heart of the town and the reason why most tourists visit the city. St Thomas has no sales tax and  these shops are also packed when cruise ships are in port.

It is all just a matter of numbers. The island houses approximately 52,000 all-season inhabitants. When cruise ships are in town, the total number of people on the island can swell by a whopping 10,000.

The local economy on the island relies on these tourists. The islands also rely on the sale of the rum, Cruzan, which is made on St Croix. Consequently, a 375 mL bottle of the booze costs less than a gallon of milk. Oh and by the way, the milk is recombined from skim milk powder, butter, and water because apparently there isn’t a single dairy cow on the island.

If you visit the island, you’ll also learn about “island time”. I’ve heard all the jokes about Indian Standard Time. But let me give you an example of “island time”. The first permanent establishment of the Danish West Indies presence is Fort Christian just off of Dronningens Gade. There is a sign saying that it is temporarily closed for restoration until Summer 2006. The building is fenced off. No one has taken down or changed the sign. It is there in 2010.

In any case, as a desi, I found myself smiling when I noticed that almost all the jewelry shops on Dronningens Gade were run by diasporic desis. From what I could tell, some of these shopkeepers were Trinidadians, but many others came from India via the continental United States.  (St. Thomas is, after all, a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands and has been since 1917 when along with St. John, and St. Croix it passed from Danish into American hands for the princely sum of 25 million dollars).

Back on Dronningens Gade, you’ll also notice many alleyways heading towards the harbor. Most of the buildings in the alleyways running perpendicular to the main street are over a hundred years. Some of these used to be warehouses of pirates.

Now, look around at the peaceful settings. In the same buildings where pirates hoarded stolen loot, desi shopkeepers sell fashionable wristwatches. Where slave-traders used to walk and sell human cargo, predominantly white credit-card carrying day-trippers buy tee-shirts from black vendors.

Somewhere Bob Marley is having the last laugh.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Paper still beats the Kindle in my book.

I stopped when I saw the title of the book – Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles. On the cover was the picture of a cow with long eyelashes and silver udders. But what finally sold me on it was the turban the cow was wearing. I quickly paid the two dollars penciled on the first page at the counter. I haven’t read the entire book yet, but the first page is pretty spicy.

Some of the other books I just picked up include George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops, David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, a paperback edition of the classic “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”, and Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions. I would have found them in digital format too. But some of the other out-of-print books that I had never even heard of I would not have picked up had I not gone to the used-book sale.

And that is why I still love print. I’m constantly reminded that general interest in printed books, journal, and magazines is eroding. I’ve seen the signs and I know it is true. Research libraries don’t buy scholarly journals in print anymore. Established newspapers and magazines struggle to stay afloat and those that do have to burn through cash to do so. This year Amazon sold more books on the Kindle than “real books” that it shipped out. Books cost money to produce, space to stock, and are heavy to carry around. But next time you have to power down your e-book reader on your flight, I’ll cozily turn the page on a cliffhanger in the seat across the aisle.

Used books have history. They have character. Even as a non-smoker I can appreciate the smokiness of the exquisitely-bound first edition of The Gentle Art of Smoking by Alfred H. Dunhill published in 1954 which I have on my shelf. I can flip the cover and read the short note penned with a flourish in cursive by Julie to “My Dearest John”.

These books have been places. Some of them give me as remarkable insight into the people who owned them before I did. Take for example this note which I found scribbled inside a used fifty-cent paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Michelle,

I am really sorry for my evil ways. When I knew you I was an ass. When I didn’t know you, I was even more of an ass. You were always remarkable. Perhaps I could write that I am sorry that we met when we met. I just did. Okay.

Nevertheless, this book is great fun. Enjoy it !!

Inexplicably,

James.

James was such a cad! I hope he got what he deserved. And Michelle, I hope that you learned from your mistake.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

The Hariome Project

Biologists can be pretty annoying when they’re trying hard to come up with cutesy names. I mean did you guys really have to name a gene required for mammalian development sonic hedgehog after the Sega icon? I mean what comes next? A gene influencing cranial tensile strength named after a pudgy Nintendo chap?

But you know what really bugs me? It is this lame idea that you can stick the suffix -ome to any and every collection of biological objects to create a new field of study which you can tout as the corresponding –omics. I’ve got no beef with the common ones like genomics, which is the total of genes in a particular set or proteomics, which is the sum of all the proteins in a given set. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are just so many –omic neologisms created each month that to compile the complete set of all these fields, an omeome (if you will), would be a daunting task. It would also be pointless, but that is not my point.

You know what would be useful? A collection of all the names of each of the Hindu deities complied into a universally-accessible database.

Confused? Hear me out for a bit.

This is what I envisage as the Hariome Project – an online database which would provide an easy way check the different names and relationships of various mythological entities.

For example, in the hariome, I’d be able to find out more about the original Hari through a search-engine which would direct me to the Vishnu portal. I’d be able to navigate through nodes for each of the ten avatars of Vishnu. If I clicked on the Krishna node on this portal, I’d get to see a network map with all 108 popular names.  If I clicked on the Buddha node, another incarnation of Vishnu, I’d be able surf through all of his incarnations from the Jataka tales and other sources.

This type of tool would be useful, because it really can get pretty confusing. Durga is an incarnation of the mother goddess, but according to some sources so are her daughters Saraswati and Lakshmi. What we need is a comprehensive set of ontologies.

Of course there will be versioning issues and regional disputes (Ma Sherawali v. Debi Durga immediately comes to mind). And you’ll need some serious computing muscle to create a seamless database with the 330 million gods with their various manifestations.

But implementation isn’t my concern. I only come up with ideas.

© Text: Anirban