I’m currently reading Freakonomics, a great book about all sorts of interesting things. There’s no single theme or thread to tie it all together, but each chapter takes a look at some weird question or other. Examples include “What do the Klu Klux Klan and estate agents have in common?”, “How can your name affect how well you do in life?” and “Why do crack dealers live with their mothers?”
I’ve just finished the chapter on crack, so I thought I’d put that up here for y’all to read. It’s quite long, but worth it:
The sudden, violent appearance of crack cocaine had police departments across the country scrapping for resources. They made it known that it wasn’t a fair fight: the drug dealers were armed with state-of-the-art weapons and a bottomless supply of cash. This emphasis on illicit cash proved to be a winning effort, for nothing infuriated the law-abiding populace more than the image of the millionaire crack dealer. The media eagerly glommed on to this story, portraying crack dealing as one of the most profitable jobs in America.
But if you were to have spent a little time around the housing projects where crack was so often sold, you might have noticed something strange: not only did most of the crack dealers still live in the projects, but most of them still lived at home with their moms. And then you may have scratched your head and said, “Why is that?”
The answer lies in finding the right data, and the secret to finding the right data usually means finding the right person—more easily said than done. Drug dealers are rarely trained in economics, and economists rarely hang out with crack dealers. So the answer to this question begins with finding someone who did walk among the drug dealers and managed to walk away with the secrets of their trade.
Sudhir Venkatesh—his boyhood friends called him Sid, but he has since reverted to Sudhir—was born in India, raised in the suburbs of upstate New York and southern California, and graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a degree in mathematics. III 1989 he began to pursue his PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago. He was interested in understanding how young people form their identities; to that end, he had just spent three months following the Grateful Dead around the country. What he was not interested in was the gruelling fieldwork that typifies sociology.
But his graduate advisor, the eminent poverty scholar William Julius Wilson, promptly sent Venkatesh into the field. His assignment: to visit Chicago’s poorest black neighborhoods with a clipboard and a seventy-question, multiple-choice survey. This was the first question on the survey:
How do you feel about being black and poor?
- Very bad
- Neither bad nor good
- Somewhat good
- Very good
One day Venkatesh walked twenty blocks from the university to a housing project on the shore of Lake Michigan to administer his survey. The project comprised three sixteen-story buildings made of yellow-gray brick. Venkatesh soon discovered that the names and addresses he had been given were badly outdated. These buildings were condemned, practically abandoned. Some families lived on the lower floors, pirating water and electricity, but the elevators didn’t work. Neither did the lights in the stairwell. It was late afternoon in early winter, nearly dark outside.
Venkatesh, who is a thoughtful, handsome, and well built but not aberrationally brave person, had made his way up to the sixth floor, frying to find someone willing to take his survey. Suddenly, on the stairwell landing, he startled a group of teenagers shooting dice. They turned out to be a gang of junior-level crack dealers who operated out of the building, and they were not happy to see him.
“I’m a student at the University of Chicago,” Venkatesh sputtered, sticking to his survey script, “and I am administering—”
“Fuck you, nigger, what are you doing in our stairwell?”
There was an ongoing gang war in Chicago. Things had been violent lately, with shootings nearly every day. This gang, a branch of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation, was plainly on edge. They didn’t know what to make of Venkatesh. He didn’t seem to be a member of a rival gang. But maybe he was some kind of spy? He certainly wasn’t a cop. He wasn’t black, wasn’t white. He wasn’t exactly threatening—he was armed only with his clipboard—but he didn’t seem quite harmless either. Thanks to his three months trailing the Grateful Dead, he still looked, as he would later put it, “like a genuine freak, with hair down to my ass,”
The gang members started arguing over what should be done with Venkatesh. Let him go? But if he did tell the rival gang about this stairwell hangout, they’d be susceptible to a surprise attack. One jittery kid kept wagging something back and forth in his hands—in the dimming light, Venkatesh eventually realized it was a gun—and muttering, “Let me have him, let me have him.” Venkatesh was very, very scared.
The crowd grew, bigger and louder. Then an older gang member appeared. He snatched the clipboard from Venkatesh’s hands and, when he saw that it was a written questionnaire, looked puzzled.
“I can’t read any of this shit,” he said.
“That’s because you can’t read” said one of the teenagers, and everyone laughed at the older gangster.
He told Venkatesh to go ahead and ask him a question from the survey. Venkatesh led with the how-does-it-feel-to-be-black-and-poor question. It was met with a round of guffaws, some angrier than others. As Venkatesh would later tell his university colleagues, he realized that the multiple-choice answers A through E were insufficient. In reality, he now knew, the answers should have looked like this:
- Very bad
- Neither bad nor good
- Somewhat good
- Very good
- Fuck you
Just as things were looking their bleakest for Venkatesh, another man appeared. This was J. T., the gang’s leader. J. T. wanted to know what was going on. Then he told Venkatesh to read him the survey question. He listened but then said he couldn’t answer the question because he wasn’t black.
“Well then,” Venkatesh said, “how does it feel to be African American and poor?”
“I ain’t no African American either, you idiot. I’m a nigger” J. T then administered a lively though not unfriendly taxonomical lesson in “nigger” versus “African American” versus “black.” When he was through, there was an awkward silence. Still nobody seemed to know what to do with Venkatesh. J. T, who was in his late twenties, had cooled down his subordinates, but he didn’t seem to want to interfere directly with their catch. Darkness fell and J. T. left. “People don’t come out of here alive,” the jittery teenager with the gun told Venkatesh. “You know that, don’t you?”
As night deepened, his captors eased up. They gave Venkatesh one of their beers, and then another and another. When he had to pee, he went where they went—on the stairwell landing one floor up. J. T stopped by a few times during the night but didn’t have much to say. Daybreak came and then noon. Venkatesh would occasionally try to discuss his survey, but the young crack dealers just laughed and told him how stupid his questions were. Finally, nearly twenty-four hours after Venkatesh stumbled upon them, they set him free.
He went home and took a shower. He was relieved but he was also curious. It struck Venkatesh that most people, including him sell; had never given much thought to the daily life of ghetto criminals. He was now eager to learn how the Black Disciples worked, from top to bottom.
After a few hours, he decided to walk back to the housing project. By now he had thought of some better questions to ask.
Having seen first hand that the conventional method of data gathering was in this case absurd, Venkatesh vowed to scrap his questionnaire and embed himself with the gang. He tracked down J. T. and sketched out his proposal. J. T. thought Venkatesh was crazy, literally—a university student wanting to cozy up to a crack gang? But he also admired what Venkatesh was after. As it happened, J. T. was a college graduate himself, a business major. After college, he had taken a job in the Loop, working in the marketing department of a company that sold office equipment. But he felt so out of place there—like a white man working at Afro Sheen headquarters, he liked to say—that he quit. Still, he never forgot what he learned. He knew the importance of collecting data and finding new markets; he was always on the lookout for better management strategies. It was no coincidence, in other words, that J. T. was the leader of this crack gang. He was bred to be a boss.
After some wrangling, J. T. promised Venkatesh unfettered access to the gangs operations as long as J. T. retained veto power over any information that, if published, might prove harmful.
When the yellow-gray buildings on the lakefront were demolished, shortly after Venkatesh’s first visit, the gang relocated to another housing project even deeper in Chicago’s south side. For the next six years, Venkatesh practically lived there. Under J. T.’s protection he watched the gang members up close, at work and at home. He asked endless questions. Sometimes the gangsters were annoyed by his curiosity, more often they took advantage of his willingness to listen. “It’s a war out here, man,” one dealer told him. “I mean, every day people struggling to survive, so you know, we just do what we can. We ain’t got no choice, and if that means getting killed, well shit, it’s what niggers do around here to feed their family.”
Venkatesh would move from one family to the next, washing their dinner dishes and sleeping on the floor. He bought toys for their children; he once watched a woman use her baby’s bib to sop up the blood of a teenage drug dealer who was shot to death in front of Venkatesh. William Julius Wilson, back at the U. of C, was having regular nightmares on Venkatesh’s behalf.
Over the years the gang endured bloody turf wars and, eventually, a federal indictment. A member named Booty, who was one rank beneath J. T., came to Venkatesh with a story. Booty was being blamed by the rest of the gang for bringing about the indictment, he told Venkatesh, and therefore suspected that he would soon be killed. (He was right.) But first Booty wanted to do a little atoning. For all the gang’s talk about how crack dealing didn’t do any harm—they even liked to brag that it kept black money in the black community— Booty was feeling guilty. He wanted to leave behind something that might somehow benefit the next generation. He handed Venkatesh a stack of well-worn spiral notebooks—blue and black, the gang’s colors. They represented a complete record of four years’ worth of the gang’s financial transactions. At J. T.’s direction, the ledgers had been rigorously compiled: sales, wages, dues, even the death benefits paid out to the families of murdered members.
At first Venkatesh didn’t even want the notebooks. What if the Feds found out he had them—perhaps he’d be indicted too? Besides, what was he supposed to do with the data? Despite his math background, he had long ago stopped thinking in numbers.
Upon completing his graduate work at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh was awarded a three-year stay at Harvard’s Society of Fellows. Its environment of sharp thinking and bonhomie—the walnut panelling, the sherry cart once owned by Oliver Wendell Holmes— delighted Venkatesh. He went so tar as to become the society’s wine steward. And yet he regularly left Cambridge, returning again and again to the crack gang in Chicago. This street-level research made Venkatesh something of an anomaly. Most of the other young Fellows were dyed-in-the-tweed intellectuals who liked to pun in Greek.
One of the society’s aims was to bring together scholars from various fields who might not otherwise have occasion to meet. Venkatesh soon encountered another anomalous young Fellow, one who also failed the society stereotype. This one happened to be an economist who, instead of thinking grand macro thoughts, favored his own list of offbeat micro curiosities. At the very top of his list was crime. And so, within ten minutes of their meeting, Sudhir Venkatesh told Steven Levitt about the spiral notebooks from Chicago and they decided to collaborate on a paper. It would be the first time that such priceless financial data had fallen into an economist’s hands, affording an analysis of a heretofore uncharted criminal enterprise.
So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald’s. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald’s organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.
The gang that Venkatesh had fallen in with was one of about a hundred branches—franchises, really—of a larger Black Disciples organization. J. T, the college-educated leader of his franchise, reported to a central leadership of about twenty men that was called, without irony, the board of directors. (At the same time that white suburbanites were studiously mimicking black rappers’ ghetto culture, black ghetto criminals were studiously mimicking the suburbanites’ dads’ corp-think.) J. T paid the board of directors nearly 20 percent of his revenues for the right to sell crack in a designated twelve-square-block area. The rest of the money was his to distribute as he saw fit.
Three officers reported directly to J. T: an enforcer (who ensured die gang members’ safety), a treasurer (who watched over the gang’s liquid assets), and a runner (who transported large quantities of drugs and money to and from the supplier). Beneath the officers were the street-level salesmen known as foot soldiers. The goal of a foot soldier was to someday become an officer. J. T. might have had anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five foot soldiers on his payroll at any given time, depending on the time of year (autumn was the best crack selling season; summer and Christmastime were slow) and the size of the gang’s territory (which doubled at one point when the Black Disciples engineered a hostile takeover of a rival gang’s turf). At the very bottom of J. T.’s organization were as many as two hundred members known as the rank and file. They were not employees at all. They did, however, pay dues to the gang—some for protection from rival gangs, others for the chance to eventually earn a job as a foot soldier.
The four years recorded in the gang’s notebooks coincided with the peak years of the crack boom, and business was excellent. J. T’s franchise quadrupled its revenues during this period. In the first year. it took in an average of S18,500 each month; by the final year, it was collecting 568,400 a month. Here’s a look at the monthly revenues in die third year:
|Total monthly revenues||$32,000|
“Drug sales” represents only the money from dealing crack cocaine. The gang did allow some rank-and-file members to sell heroin on its turf but accepted a fixed licensing fee in lieu of a share of profits. (This was off-the-books money and went straight into J. T.’s pocket; he probably skimmed from other sources as well.) The $5,100 in dues came from rank-and-file members only, since full gang members didn’t pay dues. The extortionary taxes were paid by other businesses that operated on the gang’s turf, including grocery stores, gypsy cabs, pimps, and people selling stolen goods or repairing cars on the street.
Now, here’s what it cost J. T., excluding wages, to bring in that $532,000 per month:
|Wholesale cost of drugs||$5,000|
|Board of directors fee||$5,000|
|Total monthly nonwage costs||$$14,000|
Mercenary fighters were nonmembers hired on short-term contracts to help the gang fight turf wars. The cost of weapons is small here because the Black Disciples had a side deal with local gunrunners, helping them navigate the neighborhood in exchange for free or steeply discounted guns. The miscellaneous expenses include legal fees, parties, bribes, and gang-sponsored “community events.” (The Black Disciples worked hard to be seen as a pillar rather than a scourge of the housing-project community.) The miscellaneous expenses also include the costs associated with a gang member’s murder. The gang not only paid for the funeral but often gave a stipend of up to three years’ wages to the victim’s family. Venkatesh had once asked why the gang was so generous in this regard. “That’s a fucking stupid question,” he was told, “’cause as long as you been with us, you still don’t understand that their families is our families. We can’t just leave ’em out. We been knowing these folks our whole lives, man, so we grieve when they grieve. You got to respect the family.” There was another reason for the death benefits: the gang feared community backlash (its enterprise was plainly a destructive one) and figured it could buy some goodwill for a few hundred dollars here and there. The rest of the money the gang took in went to its members, starting with J. T. Here is the single line item in the gang’s budget that made J. T. the happiest:
Net monthly profit accruing to leader $8,500
At $8,500 per month, J.T.’s annual salary was about $100,000— tax-free, of course, and not including the various off-the-books money he pocketed. This was a lot more than he earned at his shortlived office job in the Loop. And J. T was just one of roughly 100 leaders at this level within the Black Disciples network. So there were indeed some drug dealers who could afford to live large, or—in the case of the gang’s board of directors—extremely large. Each of those top 20 bosses stood to earn about $500,000 a year. (A third of them, however, were typically imprisoned at any time, a significant downside of an up position in an illicit industry.)
So the top 120 men on the Black Disciples’ pyramid were paid very well. But the pyramid they sat atop was gigantic. Using J. T.’s franchise as a yardstick—3 officers and roughly 50 foot soldiers— there were some 5,300 other men working for those 120 bosses. Then there were another 20,000 unpaid rank-and-file members, many of whom wanted nothing more than an opportunity to become a foot soldier. They were even willing to pay gang dues to have their chance.
And how well did that dream job pay? Here are the monthly totals for the wages that J. T paid his gang members:
|Combined wages paid to all three officers||$2,100|
|Combined wages paid to all foot soldiers||$7,400|
|Total monthly gang wages (excluding leader)||$9,500|
So J. T. paid his employees $9,500, a combined monthly salary that was only $1,000 more than his own official salary. J. T.’s hourly wage was $66. His three officers, meanwhile, each cook home $700 a month, which works out to about $7 an hour. And the foot soldiers earned just $3.30 an hour, less than the minimum wage. So the answer to the original question—if drug dealers make so much money, why are they still living with their mothers?—is that, except for the top cats, they don’t make much money. They had no choice but to live with their mothers. For every big earner, there were hundreds more just scraping along. The top 120 men in the Black Disciples gang represented just 2.2 percent of the full-fledged gang membership but took home well more than half the money.
In other words, a crack gang works pretty much like the standard capitalist enterprise: you have to be near the top of the pyramid to make a big wage. Notwithstanding the leadership’s rhetoric about the family nature of the business, the gang’s wages are about as skewed as wages in corporate America. A foot soldier had plenty in common with a McDonald’s burger flipper or a Wal-Mart shelf stocker. In fact, most of J. T.’s foot soldiers also held minimum-wage jobs in the legitimate sector to supplement their skimpy illicit earnings. The leader of another crack gang once told Venkatesh that he could easily afford to pay his foot soldiers more, but it wouldn’t be prudent. “You got all these niggers below you who want your job, you dig?” he said. “So, you know, you try to take care of them, but you know, you also have to show them you the boss. You always have to get yours first, or else you really ain’t no leader. If you start taking losses, they see you as weak and shit.”
Along with the bad pay the foot soldiers faced terrible job conditions. For starters, they had to stand on a street corner all day and do business with crackheads. (The gang members were strongly advised against using the product themselves, advice that was enforced by beatings if necessary.) Foot soldiers also risked arrest and, more worrisome, violence. Using the gang’s financial documents and the rest of Venkatesh’s research, it is possible to construct an adverse-events index of J. T.’s gang during the four years in question. The results are astonishingly bleak. If you were a member of J. T.’s gang for all four years, here is the typical fate you would have faced during that period:
|Number of times arrested||5-9|
|Number of nonfatal wounds or injuries||2.4|
|Chance of being killed||1 in 4|
A l-in-4 chance of being killed! Compare these odds to being a timber cutter, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the most dangerous job in the United States. Over four years’ time, a timber cutter would stand only a 1 in 200 chance of being killed. Or compare the crack dealer’s odds to those of a death row inmate in Texas, which executes more prisoners than any other state. In 2003, Texas put to death twenty-four inmates—or just 5 percent of the nearly 500 inmates on its death row during that time. Which means that you stand a greater chance of dying while dealing crack in a Chicago housing project than you do while sitting on death row in Texas.
So if crack dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary is only $3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job?
Well, for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood. For the same reason that a high-school quarterback wakes up at 5 a.m. to lift weights. They all want to succeed in an extremely competitive field in which, if you reach the top, you are paid a fortune (to say nothing of the attendant glory and power).
To the kids growing up in a housing project on Chicago’s south side, crack dealing was a glamour profession. For many of them, the job of gang boss—highly visible and highly lucrative—was easily the best job they thought they had access to. Had they grown up under different circumstances, they might have thought about becoming economists or writers. But in the neighborhood where J. T.’s gang operated, the path to a decent legitimate job was practically invisible. Fifty-six percent of the neighborhood’s children lived below the poverty line (compared to a national average of 18 percent). Seventy eight percent came from single-parent homes. Fewer than 5 percent of the neighborhood’s adults had a college degree; barely one in three adult men worked at all. The neighborhood’s median income was about $5,000 a year, well less than half the U.S. average. During the years that Venkatesh lived with J. T.’s gang, foot soldiers often asked his help in landing what they called “a good job”: working as a janitor at the University of Chicago.
The problem with crack dealing is the same as in every other glamour profession: a lot of people are competing for a very few prizes. Earning big money in the crack gang wasn’t much more likely than the Wisconsin farm girl becoming a movie star or the high-school quarterback playing in the NFL. But criminals, like everyone else, respond to incentives. So if the prize is big enough, the}’will form a line down the block just hoping for a chance. On the south side of Chicago, people wanting to sell crack vastly outnumbered the available street corners.
These budding drug lords bumped up against an immutable law of labor: when there are a lot of people willing and able to do a job, that job generally doesn’t pay well. This is one of four meaningful factors that determine a wage. The others are the specialized skills a job requires, the unpleasantness of a job, and the demand for services that the job fulfills.
The delicate balance between these factors helps explain why, for instance, the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect. It may not seem as though she should. The architect would appear to be more skilled (as the word is usually defined) and better educated (again, as usually defined). But little girls don’t grow up dreaming of becoming prostitutes, so the supply of potential prostitutes is relatively small. Their skills, while not necessarily “specialized,” are practised in a very specialized context. The fob is unpleasant and forbidding in at least two significant ways: the likelihood of violence and the lost opportunity of having a stable family life. As for demand? Let’s just say that an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than vice versa.
The rules of a tournament are straightforward. You must start at the bottom to have a shot at the top. (Just as a Major League shortstop probably played Little League and just as a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan probably started out as a lowly spear-carrier, a drug lord typically began by selling drugs on a street corner.) You must be willing to work long and hard at substandard wages. In order to advance in the tournament, you must prove yourself not merely above average but spectacular. (The way to distinguish yourself differs from profession to profession, of course; while J. T. certainly monitored his foot soldiers’ sales performance, it was their force of personality that really counted—more than it would for, say, a shortstop.) And finally, once you come to the sad realization that you will never make it to the top, you will quit the tournament. (Some people hang on longer than others—witness the graying “actors” who wait tables in New York— but people generally get the message quite early.)
Most of J. T.’s foot soldiers were unwilling to stay foot soldiers for long after they realized they weren’t advancing. Especially once the shooting started. After several relatively peaceful years, J. T.’s gang got involved in a turf war with a neighboring gang. Drive-by shootings became a daily event. For a foot soldier—the gang’s man on the street—this development was particularly dangerous. The nature of the business demanded that customers be able to find him easily and quickly, if he hid from the other gang, he couldn’t sell his crack.
Until the gang war, J. T.’s foot soldiers had been willing to balance the risky, low-paying job with the reward of advancement. But as one foot soldier told Venkatesh, he now wanted to be compensated for the added risk: “Would you stand around here when all this shit is going on? No, right? So if I gonna be asked to put my life on the line, then front me the cash, man. Pay me more ’cause it ain’t worth my time to be here when they’re warring.”
J.T. hadn’t wanted this war. For one thing, he was forced to pay his foot soldiers higher wages because of the added risk. Far worse, gang warfare was bad for business. If Burger King and McDonald’s launch a price war to gain market share, they partly make up in volume what they lose in price. (Nor is anyone getting shot.) But with a gang war, sales plummet because customers are so scared of the violence that they wont come out in the open to buy their crack. In everyway, war was expensive for J. T.
So why did he start the war? As a matter of fact, he didn’t. It was his foot soldiers who started it. It turns out that a crack boss didn’t have as much control over his subordinates as he would have liked. That’s because they had different incentives.
For J. T., violence was a distraction from the business at hand; he would have preferred that his members never fired a single gunshot. For a foot soldier, however, violence served a purpose. One of the few ways that a foot soldier could distinguish himself—and advance in the tournament—was by proving his mettle for violence. A killer was respected, feared, talked about. A foot soldier’s incentive was to make a name for himself, J. T.’s incentive was, in effect, to keep the foot soldiers from doing so. “We try to tell these shorties that they belong to a serious organization,” he once told Venkatesh. “It ain’t all about killing. They see these movies and shit, they think it’s all about running around tearing shit up. But it’s not. You’ve got to learn to be part of an organization; you can’t be fighting all the time. It’s bad for business.”
In the end, J. T. prevailed. He oversaw the gang’s expansion and ushered in a new era of prosperity and relative peace. J. T. was a winner. He was paid well because so few people could do what he did. He was a tall, good-looking, smart, tough man who knew how to motivate people. He was shrewd too, never tempting arrest by carrying guns or cash. While the rest of his gang lived in poverty with their mothers, J. T. had several homes, several women, several cars. He also had his business education, of course. He constantly worked to extend this advantage. That was why he ordered the corporate-style bookkeeping that eventually found its way into Sudhir Venkatesh’s hands. No other franchise leader had ever done such a thing. J. T once showed his ledgers to the board of directors to prove, as if proof were needed, the extent of his business acumen.
And it worked. After six years running his local gang, J. T. was promoted to the board of directors. He was now thirty-four years old. He had won the tournament. But this tournament had a catch that publishing and pro sports and even Hollywood don’t have. Selling drugs, after all, is illegal. Not long after he made the board of directors, the Black Disciples were essentially shut down by a federal indictment— the same indictment that led the gangster named Booty to turn over his notebooks to Venkatesh—and J. T. was sent to prison.