Sorry Gawker, Rioting Is Actually a Bad Thing

In what might just be the most desperate and absurd attempt to whitewash the Ferguson riots yet, Matt Bruenig of Gawker argues that rioting—“at the right levels”—is good. Granted, Bruenig does not parrot the destruction-drives-consumption talking points of charlatan—sorry, Keynesian—economist Paul Krugman. Instead, he chooses the somewhat more sophisticated, albeit far more absurd, argument that “rioting that occurs in response to police misconduct and criminal system abuses imposes costs on doing those things.”

Admittedly, as I was planning this article, I found it difficult to come up with anything of substance to say. After all, what does one say after having witnessed the ramblings of a madman? “Wow, that guy is nuts” seems like an appropriate response, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting article. After a while, however, when the initial confusion passed, so did the writer’s block. So, without further ado, here is The Ultimate Rebuttal to Bruenig’s Bullshit™.

It should come as no surprise by now that the left is obsessed with race and the plight of the black man in America at the hands of the evil whites. So, burdened by white guilt (because the people commenting on these events are overwhelmingly white, middle-class men), they glorify and victimize the likes of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and vilify people like George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, not because the evidence points to the former being good people and the latter being evil racists, but because the former are underprivileged blacks and the latter relatively well-off whites (or, in the case of George Zimmerman, one-eighth black Latino).

Matt Bruenig is no exception to this rule. “It’s estimated that white officers kill black suspects 96 times a year,” he writes—but conveniently forgets to mention that this number barely even represents one fourth of all so-called justifiable homicides committed by law enforcement in the United States every year. Granted, 25% is still twice as big a share as African-Americans of the general population (which, in 2010, was 12.6%), but when you consider the fact that roughly 49% of all murders and 28% of all crimes are committed by blacks, it’s pretty hard to make a convincing case that police officers are a bunch of Klansmen who join the force in lieu of the anachronistic lynch mob. But, who needs facts when you have an important narrative to which to stick, right?

Mr. Bruenig then goes on to do some mental arithmetic. The monetary cost, he concludes, of “white cops killing blacks,” lands somewhere around $883 million per year. This number is based on cost-benefit analyses carried out by a bunch of government bureaucrats that say the value of a statistical life is $9.2 million (the government is putting a price on life! Where is the progressive outrage?!). Now, some clarifications might be of use here, since Bruenig skipped this part. The value of a statistical life, VSL, is determined by the value an individual places on a marginal change in their likelihood of death. This is often measured by revealed preference studies (and sometimes simply by asking people). Its applications are limited to areas in which the government, constrained by limited resources, has to make economic trade-offs.

For example, were the municipality of Ferguson faced with the choice of upgrading a road, building a new hospital, and providing every citizen with a 24/7 personal doctor, VSL numbers would come in handy in order to determine which projects make the most financial sense. If the cost per life saved with either one of these projects is lower than the value of a statistical life, it makes sense to pursue that project. If not, the municipal government may choose to do something else with its money—build a statue, for example.

Applying the limited usefulness of VSL measures to things like rioting, then, is absolute humbug and testament to the utter disregard for sound reasoning of people like Bruenig. Moreover, even if this wasn’t the case, the $9.2 million figure would still be highly questionable. Justifiable homicide, when committed by law enforcement, is defined by the FBI (and Bruenig uses FBI’s statistics to make his case) as “the killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty.” Felons, per definition, value their lives lower than your average Joe, since they choose to take big risks in exchange for wealth. Any figure used to justify rioting in response to the killings of Michael Brown’s ilk would have to be adjusted for this revealed preference.

Moreover, it is assumed in the article that economic activity in Ferguson will only temporarily be interrupted. But this is not so. Looting and burning down stores has permanent (or, at the very least, long-term) effects on the local community. After an event like this, businesses might choose to relocate to other areas, taking much-needed jobs with them. Those who can will relocate to where the jobs are, leaving a more impoverished community behind. As noted in the article, capital is destroyed, and so is social capital and trust—the lack of which caused the escalation of police militarization and police violence in the first place. Count on more police encounters resulting in the deaths of black guys.

These are all important objections to Bruenig’s argument, but they only scratch the surface. The biggest problem with his line of reasoning is that his logic is fundamentally flawed. His entire argument is based on the idea that using rioting as a police sanctioning tool would save lives. But there is all the reason to believe otherwise. First of all, the financial costs on law enforcement incurred by mobs looting stores and destroying private property are indirect. Sure, they might lose out on some tax revenue, but it is chiefly small business owners that are punished by these things.

Secondly, and as mentioned before, the lack of trust in society is one of the main reasons police shoot first and ask questions later in the first place. In high-trust societies, police driving around in military vehicles (or even carrying guns) is something only ever witnessed at the cinema or when watching the news about Ferguson. With increasing civil unrest and enmity against law enforcement, there will be all the more reason for police stations to purchase military equipment, police officers will be more nervous, more likely to shoot in fear of their own well-being. The effect of rioting on cop behavior will be the absolute opposite of what is desirable. And thank God for that. If it didn’t, criminals of all colors would get off much easier than they should, or even do now. The last thing communities like Ferguson need is more lenient law enforcement, lest they end up in complete desolation as a result of wide-spread crime.

The final verdict, then, is that Matt Bruenig knows not what he is talking about. But hey, at least he got to flex his “more progressive than thou” muscles and put to shame his colleagues that are doing everything they can to defend Michael Brown whilst making it clear that rioting is bad, m’kay.

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