Tread Warily, Fair Traveller

A Socioeconomic Journey into Vengeance

The world of economics is a curious domain, beset by mathematics, often at odds with the reason of everyday life, but enormously informative should you traverse its difficult terrain. I’m reminded, each time I enter, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s perilous land, the enchanting realm of Faerie wherein lie “pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold”. But I doubt another place could offer the governance of pirate crews and longevity of nuclear deterrence both to illuminate the human condition, still speaking of interest rates and supply matched mostly to demand.

Economics has taught me that much of what we assume is in no way actual, and that logic other people can’t understand is no less logical for it. So now I venture there again, to look around, to shout BEWARE! and to marvel at the concepts that lie in wait within.

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US recently uploaded Naci Mocan’s working paper on vengeance. Yes, you read that correctly – vengeance. Those of you who, like me, have spent a while in and around academia might be tempted to think first of departmental politics, but not this time.

Mocan’s paper is a very carefully argued study of statistics drawn from the International Crime Victim Survey conducted by the United Nations, covering the responses of 89,000 interviewees from 53 countries. To cut a very long story short, it’s about what is likely to happen if your colour television is stolen that the perpetrator caught. How are you likely to feel?

That doesn’t seem entirely within the realm of economics, but it is given that Mocan finds different attitudes prevalent in different places, and according to different income levels, including per capita levels for the whole country. People from lower socioeconomic groups, and in poorer countries, will want to send that TV-stealing thief to jail for longer, and sometimes even for life.

Women, it turns out, are more vengeful than men, especially when they’ve been burgled once before in the last year. Older people are more vengeful than younger people. The more educated you are, the less likely you would be to want the thief sent away, but if you’re well educated and living in a country without the rule of law the thief would be wishing he’d emigrated long ago.

Mocan also covers location – people who live in areas with higher levels of burglary, it turns out, aren’t as vengeful as people who don’t – ethnolinguistic diversity, the type of job you have, whether or not you own a gun and various other characteristics that can be attributed to either individuals or cultures. Keep that juxtaposition of person and place in mind for a while.

Although Mocan makes a stab at showing some sort of relevance to justice system – and much of his other work seems to focus on the economics of criminal behaviour – his crucial finding is that “individual choice can best be explained by considering the interplay of personal and cultural factors”. Now you might think that’s obvious, but how many times have you thought something of someone based purely on their culture? Chinese are . . . Americans are . . . Jews are . . . you can probably see where this is going.

Yet somewhat ironically, and here I shout BEWARE! for a while, Mocan comes to that conclusion after a brief flirt with Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. Let’s leave his study for a while and consider the wider ramifications of heading in that particular direction. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these dimension, they measure differences between cultures based on self-reported perceptions of power, individualism or collectivism, the distribution of roles according to gender, the extent to which uncertainty is avoided and the degree to which actions are oriented towards long-term goals.

My scepticism towards them lies not so much in their value as a coherent methodology – because, let’s face it, we need to find better ways to understand each other – but the uses to which they can be put.

As an editor of academic writing in Hong Kong I have seen countless examples of Hofstede’s dimensions being used clumsily to ‘prove’ vast and often value-laden difference between Chinese culture and Western culture, and not always from locals. As comic writer extraordinaire Will Eisner once wrote, “the target is easy to find because the enemy is always the other”.

Yet, leaving aside the inherent illogic of lumping a multitude of cultures derived from Western Europe into a single, amorphous mass, that sort of ‘natural’ difference just doesn’t show up when the method is used correctly. Australians, for instance, are around as ‘masculinist’ in their values as Hong Kongers according to Hofstede’s method and less likely to embrace uncertainty (which is often seen as an Asian ‘trait’). Only perceptions of power, individuality and long term orientation determine our difference, if you accept the method’s validity of course.

Maybe we’re all just a little bit more similar than we thought.

But Mocan, thankfully, avoids that all-too-common pitfall, only using the collectivism scale, and only then because he wants to show the relations between culture and the characteristics of individuals. In the consideration of personal choice – which is, after all, at the basis of the self-regulating market that economists study – he argues that we need to consider both personal and cultural characteristics, and then the interplay between them.

Ultimately, vengeance is a convenient vehicle (89,000 strong data sets don’t come by very often) to explain the deficiencies in how we consider ourselves and others. I applaud the effort, even though I’ve obviously simplified to argue against simplification. As we return to that other, far more puzzling world in which we live, it pays to remember that not everything is as it seems.

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