Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Why So Much Trust, So Little Theft?

I just left my macbook unattended in the highly trafficked Johnson Center at George Mason University. As I walked away from my pricey machine, I noticed several others had also left unattended laptops (and cell phones, keys, jackets, etc). I couldn't help but ask myself: Why so much trust, so little theft?

In the 10 minutes I spent at the photocopier, I came up with the following possibilities:
While the probability of being caught stealing an unattended laptop is low, the punishment should one be caught is extremely high.
This might explain why I would be more likely to leave my computer unattended on a college campus than, say, on the DC Metro. I imagine the person most likely to steal traveling in this section of the building (third floor, library) has a higher expected lifetime income than the person most likely to steal on the Metro. As a result, incarceration for some period of time would be a harsher punishment for the former.

The probability of being caught isn't actually all that low.
As I mentioned, there are quite a few people walking in this area. Since potential crooks have no idea how long I will be away from my belongings, they are reluctant to sit down and pretend to be me for a few minutes before packing up and making off with my belongings.

My things are just not that valuable.
How easy is it to sell stolen goods? I have no idea. A new sim card would probably make a stolen cell phone as good as new. A new hard drive would do the same for a computer, I imagine. Both of these expenses seem low relative to the price of the respective item new. But I am not sure this is the relevant comparison. I'd expect black market goods for which there are legal substitutes readily available to be sold at a substantial discount in price. Otherwise, consumers would just buy the legitimate products. And what are the transaction costs associated with selling on the black market? I imagine the number of GMU students, staff, and faculty in this part of the building with fast access to a fence is quite low. And if they are not already plugged into a criminal network, conducting black market transaction could be expensive.

Individuals are not narrowly selfish.
Maybe individuals gain utility from not stealing things. Rather than snatching up my property, they look at my unattended belongings and say "It feels so good to live in a safe place." In this case, U(not stealing)>U(stealing). Of course, if this explanation is correct in and of itself, it would have to be true of everyone that passes (or else one of them would steal my things!).
What do you think?


David said...

Will, I'm not convinced there is "so little theft". I know Economics Ph.D. students at GMU who've had their laptops stolen. Also, I see lots of people in the Johnson Center purchase locks for their laptops that allows them to attach it to immovable furniture. Both suggest that theft is a real concern.

Will Luther said...

Let me suggest another possibility:
I systematically underestimate the possibility that I will be a victim of theft.

This is plausible I suppose. But I am not entirely convinced. For one, I would not leave my computer alone if I were in the food court at the JC (...well, maybe if someone were dropping $100 dollar bills or something like that). It is only on the 3rd floor of the library that I am confident enough that my machine will not be stolen. And, as noted, I am not alone in doing so.

Of course, if criminals at GMU read this blog they will find new profit opportunities to exploit until those of us Trusters up here update our expectations.

brent butgereit said...

One theory that is related to your first suggestion is that there is a high opportunity cost of theft. Not only will the student get penalized if they get caught in the immediate future, but it may also have deleterious effects on their future earnings. In an age where there is significant potential for having a high income, the risk of losing that is not one many are willing to take.

I'm not sure as to how open the GMU campus is as a whole, but it seems plausible that the threat of an outsider stealing (specifically) your laptop is low. With many other laptops lying around, the most threatened ones are likely to be portable and accessible (i.e., stealing it would be easy). My campus has a similar "No-worries" system and when there appears to be someone (or a group of people) leaving their belongings briefly, social norms kick in and people start paying a little bit more attention to others' stuff.