The other kind of organized criminal activity

It’s one of the biggest crime scandals you never heard of. In 2013 chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to falsifying crime lab tests involving up to 40,000 people from 2002 to 2011. For this crime she was sentenced to 3–5 years in prison. You read that right. In response to her intentionally fraudulent work that may have resulted in tens of thousands of years of jail time for people who did not deserve it, in addition to the economic disadvantage of having drug crimes (or more serious drugs crimes than actually committed) on the records of people sacrificed to the correctional system Moloch, the judge gave her 3–5. Prosecutors were well aware of her activities. One email published during the trial showed the prosecutor suggesting what he wanted the result to be, which, surprise, Dookhan found.

A system of criminal activity of this magnitude should have had a mighty hammer brought down on it. My gut reaction is that this case is obviously offensive to any useful theory of justice and merits punishment on those grounds alone, but gut reactions are not good foundations for rule making. A stronger argument, the law and economics argument, is that punishments should be an efficient deterrent for crimes that are serious and/or difficult to detect. This pattern of crime was obviously hard to detect, as Dookhan got away with daily violations for nine years, enabled by other employees at the lab and prosecutors. And it is serious: 40,000 cases involving thousands or tens of thousands of years of prison time. It should be known by all crime lab employees that this is a behavior to avoid at all costs.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court could not completely reverse the damage, but it did rule in the right direction last year:

Massachusetts’ top court ruled on Wednesday that the state shares blame for thousands of drug convictions tainted by crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who admitted to faking test results over nearly a decade.

The ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will make it easier for people convicted in drug cases linked to Dookhan to win new trials, by removing one of the standards for reversing a guilty plea.

“We must account for the due process rights of defendants,” said the ruling, written by Justice Francis Spina. “In the wake of government misconduct that has cast a shadow over the entire criminal justice system, it is most appropriate that the benefit of our remedy inure to defendants.”

The ruling said that in all cases in which Dookhan was the lead or secondary chemist, defendants were entitled to a presumption that there was egregious misconduct by the state – one of the standards for overturning a guilty plea.

This is very important. It is not only the individual lab workers who should feel the wrath of fraud. We apparently need to ensure that prosecutors, too, have greater incentives to favor honest lab work. To see their efforts undone en masse must have elicited a great wailing and gnashing of teeth except for what I imagine to be the tiny minority who were relieved that this miscarriage of justice had been reversed.

I bring this up now after seeing Radley Balko tweet about a crime lab scandal-in-the-making in Omaha. My concern over fraudulent lab results is not paranoid libertarian venting. Because crime labs are another arm of the same system that oversees police and prosecutors, they have incentives to falsify results. Taking it a step further, while there are no solid numbers on the victims in these situations it’s hard not to believe that they are disproportionately poor and/or racial minorities. This is an issue that should have people marching in the streets. Maybe when the next one comes to light.


Since last summer one of my favorite blogs has been Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander may be long-winded but his willingness to consider an idea honestly, apart from its expressive implications, is rare and refreshing. He recently reviewed David Friedman’s classic The Machinery of Freedom and highlighted this passage:

Under any institutions, there are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends: love, trade, and force.

By love I mean making my end your end. Those who love me wish me to get what I want (except for those who think I am very stupid about what is good for me). So they voluntarily, ‘unselfishly’, help me. Love is too narrow a word. You might also share my end not because it is my end but because in a particular respect we perceive the good in the same way. You might volunteer to work on my political campaign, not because you love me, but because you think that it would be good if I were elected. Of course, we might share the common ends for entirely different reasons. I might think I was just what the country needed, and you, that I was just what the country deserved.

Love—more generally, the sharing of a common end—works well, but only for a limited range of problems. It is difficult to know very many people well enough to love them. Love can provide cooperation on complicated things among very small groups of people, such as families. It also works among large numbers of people for very simple ends—ends so simple that many different people can completely agree on them. But for a complicated end involving a large number of people—producing this book, for instance—love will not work. I cannot expect all the people whose cooperation I need—typesetters, editors, bookstore owners, loggers, pulpmill workers, and a thousand more—to know and love me well enough to want to publish this book for my sake. Nor can I expect them all to agree with my political views closely enough to view the publication of this book as an end in itself. Nor can I expect them all to be people who want to read the book and who therefore are willing to help produce it. I fall back on the second method: trade.

I contribute the time and effort to produce the manuscript. I get, in exchange, a chance to spread my views, a satisfying boost to my ego, and a little money. The people who want to read the book get the book. In exchange, they give money. The publishing firm and its employees, the editors, give the time, effort, and skill necessary to coordinate the rest of us; they get money and reputation. Loggers, printers, and the like give their effort and skill and get money in return. Thousands of people, perhaps millions, cooperate in a single task, each seeking his own ends. So under private property the first method, love, is used where it is workable. Where it is not, trade is used instead.

The attack on private property as selfish contrasts the second method with the first. It implies that the alternative to ‘selfish’ trade is ‘unselfish’ love. But, under private property, love already functions where it can. Nobody is prevented from doing something for free if he wants to. Many people—parents helping their children, volunteer workers in hospitals, scoutmasters—do just that. If, for those things that people are not willing to do for free, trade is replaced by anything, it must be by force. Instead of people being selfish and doing things because they want to, they will be unselfish and do them at the point of a gun.

Is this accusation unfair? The alternative offered by those who deplore selfishness is always government. It is selfish to do something for money, so the slums should be cleaned up by a ‘youth corps’ staffed via ‘universal service’. Translated, that means the job should be done by people who will be put in jail if they do not do it.

Though Friedman says it better than I can one of the lessons I try to get my students to absorb is that however much they may dislike how markets work, there isn’t a better system in terms of resource allocation that can work on any policy-relevant scale. (Remember, economics is mostly not about policy but my course is.)

One of the great things about SSC is that its readership appears to be mainly people who (1) are very bright, (2) don’t grok economics, and therefore (3) are much more likely than not to be constructivists when it comes to social science. One of the major lessons we get in economics is that there are serious limits on what can be feasibly constructed in the social realm. Seeing this passage endorsed on a blog they frequent is all the good news I need for one day.

King Offa’s dinar

One of my favorite episodes from the Anglo-Saxon period of British history is this coin struck in the name of King Offa of Mercia (r. 757–796 C.E.):

Imitation dinar

Most literate Mercians could easily recognize the English/Latin phrase “OFFA REX” on one side but the rest would have been a mystery. The coin is an imitation of a 774 C.E. Abbasid dinar, including the (incorrectly-copied) phrase “There is no god but God”. The minter would almost certainly have had no idea what the text meant.

One of the implications of the coin is that despite their large cultural gap the commercial gap between the Christian and Islamic regions was much narrower. It’s very well known that Christian Europeans learned a lot, culturally, from Muslim trading partners. The classic example from a few centuries later is Arabic numerals (which likely ultimately originated in India). It is hypothesized that Offa intended this coin to be used in foreign trade rather than in England. Muslim traders were preeminent in the Mediterranean at this time and southern European merchants would have been very familiar with the dinar this coin mimicked.

One of the lessons I try to impart to my students is that commerce is a much bigger part of history than they’ve been taught before. Not only did it expose people to foreign material goods, but it enriched their cultures in the process. The average man on the street seems only to begrudgingly appreciate commerce, but to think of any culture as it stands today without recognizing its foreign antecedents transmitted because of commerce is a great historical misunderstanding.

UPDATE 2105/03/15: Via Twitter, there are more examples from other parts of Europe.