David R. Henderson  

Would Roland Fryer Be Better Off If He Had Gone to Prison?

Mankiw on Free Trade in the EconTalk Extra...
At 13, he [Roland Fryer] forged his birth certificate to get a job at McDonald's. When he could, he told me, he stole from the cash register. He sold counterfeit Dooney & Burke purses out of the trunk of his car -- a tricked-out 1984 Monte Carlo that he wasn't nearly old enough to drive legally. With a friend, he recounted, he would go into Dallas, buy a pound of marijuana for $700 and sell it back in Lewisville for $1,400. He carried a .357 Magnum and one night, in a fight outside a Citgo station, almost used it on a white man. ''I didn't care if I lived or died,'' he said now as we idled in the parking lot of that same Citgo station. ''I always think I'm supposed to be dead, not alive, much less at Harvard.''
This is from Stephen J. Dubner, "Toward a Unified Theory of Black America," New York Times, March 20, 2005.

On Friday, the American Economic Association announced that it was awarding the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal to Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. The medal was first awarded to Paul Samuelson in 1947 and then to Ken Boulding in 1949 and Milton Friedman in 1951. It is awarded to "that American economist under the age of forty who is adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge". It was awarded only every two years. In one year in that sequence of odd-numbered years, 1953, it was not awarded at all. Starting in 2009, it was awarded every year. Not surprisingly, the list of past awardees reads like a Who's Who of economists, almost all American. Even those who few were not American did almost all their work in the United States.

I'm not well informed about Fryer's work, but I'm better informed than I was on Friday. Here are two highlights from his and Paul Torelli's "An Empirical Analysis of 'Acting White'", NBER Working Paper No. 11334, May 2005.

First, their definition of "acting white:"

In this paper, we focus on a highly controversial and well-publicized aspect of Black peer culture--the existence of a peer externality commonly referred to as 'acting white.' 'Acting White' describes a set of social interactions in which Black adolescents ridicule other black adolescents for investing in behaviors characteristic of whites (having an interest in ballet, raising their hand in class, or making good grades, e.g.). A primary obstacle to the study of 'acting white' has been the lack of quantitative measures of the phenomenon. We focus on racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement, our (albeit narrow) definition of 'acting white'.

Second, their findings:
Our empirical analysis of 'acting white' uncovers a rich set of new facts. In
contrast to the previous literature (Cook and Ludwig 1997), Figure 1A demonstrates that there are large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement. Among whites, higher grades yield higher popularity. For Blacks, higher achievement is associated with modestly higher popularity until a grade point average of 3.5, when the slope turns negative. A black student with a 4.0 has, on average, 1.5 fewer same-race friends than a white student with a 4.0. Among Hispanics, there is little change in popularity from a grade point average of 1 through 2.5. After 2.5, the gradient turns sharply negative. A Hispanic student with a 4.0 grade point average is the least popular of all Hispanic students, and has 3 fewer friends than a typical white student with a 4.0 grade point average. Put differently, evaluated at the sample mean, a one standard deviation increase in grades is associated with roughly a .103 standard deviation decrease in social status for Blacks and a .171 standard deviation decrease for Hispanics. For students with a 3.5 grade point average or better, the effect triples.

Although I haven't studied Fryer's work extensively, I have studied the drug war and I've been paying more attention in the last few years to our legal system, which can easily put a young person into a lifetime of horror for one or two bad mistakes early in life. In his teens, Fryer made a few such mistakes, as the opening paragraph makes clear. I don't defend his stealing from a cash register or selling counterfeit purses. I do defend his forging a birth certificate because it was likely to get around child labor laws. I also defend his right to sell marijuana. One can easily imagine any of these [other than the forging of the birth certificate] getting him in serious trouble. Ironically, the one that would probably have given him the longest prison sentence is the crime with no victims: selling marijuana to willing buyers.

Defenders of the drug war should answer this question: Are you glad that Roland Fryer didn't go to prison for a long time for dealing drugs? Do you think he should have?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Peter writes:

Minor comment but did make me wonder why you couldn't defend his purse selling also. While you can't condone fraud I'm not sure that's the case here. I want to say the typical buyer of luxury goods from non-reputable sellers at large discounts are well aware they are counterfeits hence no transaction deceit. I've had discussions with friends in those markets and it's not about getting legitimate goods but high enough quality fakes that on inspection from a non-expert they will pass as legitimate hence increasing their social status among their peer groups.

I believe, possibly wrongly, you can't defend him on this one because fraud is indefensible but just not sure that's the case here.

Ken P writes:

As I was reading this, I recalled how it wasn't cool to be smart at my school growing up. I remember learning to raise my hand less and to talk dumber so I would fit in. This was in a white rural school in the 70s. It was also more of a grade school thing and seemed to be less of an issue in high school. It wasn't cool to be smart. Today, it seems to be popular to be smart.

I have an observation that may or may not hold widely. It's about what drives dealers. It seemed to me that dealers were not "more bad" but instead had a common ambition towards business. I think one issue of the drug war that I have never seen discussed is that a side effect is to draw potential entrepreneurs into a life of crime. This is a loss to the community.

TMC writes:

Kids make friends with those they are around the most. If a black kid is earning a 4.0 then his classmates are more likely to be white or Asian. My son's honor and AP classes are half white and half Asian, maybe one black kid.

John writes:

Although I like the story, I think you're conclusions about the drug war are a little off base here.

You rhetorically ask whether Fryer would have been better off if he had been to prison. Obviously the answer is no, but it's not clear why any drug warrior should be committed to the idea that he would be better off. They will argue that drug laws are to diminish the frequency with which people take drugs.

Second, you ask in your final sentence whether he "should have" gone to prison for dealing drugs. I think clearly ex post many drug warriors will say no, but that's scant evidence against the drug war - he is an outlier, they will say, and ex ante there was no way the legal system could have decided between him and your average drug dealer. On average, they will say, dealers should go to prison.

Finally, some drug warriors will say that he should go to prison erely as a matter of justice. There are doubtless some murderers who don't go to prison, see the error of their ways and contribute positively to society. Perhaps consequentially it was better that they didn't go to prison, but as a matter of justice, they should have.

I say all this as a staunch opponent of the drug war.

Econymous writes:

Let's say somebody gets busted for a small scale drug offense, pleas guilty, and gets a small jail sentence. Then that person goes on to rape and murder 3 people. If I said "Is society really better off because we didn't lock that guy up for life on the drug offense?" then Henderson would likely dismiss this as a terribly irrelevent argument.

What am I missing here? This seems like an exact parallel.

Faze writes:

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David R. Henderson writes:

I don’t get it. In fact, I don’t get it so much that I can’t even answer your question about what you’re missing. Is your argument that people who commit small crimes should be kept in prison longer so that they won’t go on to rape and commit murder? I don’t think that is your argument but, as I said, I don’t understand your argument. And, by the way, although you may regard dealing marijuana as a “small scale drug offense,” that’s not often the way the government sees it.

David R. Henderson writes:

Touche to all your points. I still think I’m getting at something important, but I need to rethink.

David R. Henderson writes:

Here’s part of what I’m getting at. In my 1991 article “A Humane Economist’s Case for Drug Legalization,” I listed a number of harms done by the drug war to drug users. Then I wrote:

Some advocates of criminalization might say that the costs imposed by drug laws on drug users do not count because the the users know the consequences of their actions and choose to risk these consequences anyway. In other words, too bad. No humane advocate of crirninalizing drugs, however, can make this argument. In fact, most advocates of crirninalization base their case on a strong desire to protect people from hurting themselves with drugs. For example, [James Q.] Wilson stated: "What are the lives of would-be addicts worth? I recall some people saying to me then, 'Let them kill themselves.' I was appalled.”

I believe that Wilson's concern for would-be addicts is sincere. Surely he would care as much, or at least almost as much, about addicts as about "would-be addicts." If so, then he, and those on his side with the same humane values, must take into account the damage done to addicts by the very laws they advocate.

Dave writes:

I think Econymous was getting at more or less the same thing John was in John's second point. Ex post, we would all be better off if the marijuana murderer had gone to prison for a long time, but ex ante, there was no way of knowing that.

Your story asks the drug warrior to change his mind about ex ante punishment using ex post information, and just as Econymous suggests, you find this argument baffling or nonsensical when it points to the opposite conclusion.

Econymous writes:

@Dr. Henderson, I'll try to explain by way of two examples:

Jack shuttled drugs between cities, was caught, and was spared time in prison by a judge who was against the drug war. He went on to rape and murder 3 people.

Opponents of the drug war should answer this question: Are you glad that Jack didn't go to prison for a long time for dealing drugs? Do you think he should have?


Robert was found to have serial murdered ten people, but because evidence against him was gathered illegally he was not convicted. He committed no further crimes and went on to become one of the world's greatest inventors and philanthropists.

Opponents of leniency for serial murderers should answer this question: Are you glad that Robert didn't go to prison for a long time for his crimes? Do you think he should have?

It obviously would have been socially beneficial if Jack stayed in prison and socially harmful if Robert had gone to prison, regardless of whether or not we should send people to prison for these crimes in general. I think you'd agree that these anecdotes say absolutely nothing about the desirability of the drug war or of prison sentences for serial killers. So what am I missing that makes the Fryer example provide evidence for the undesirability of the drug war? This is extremely similar to commenter John's second point--drug warriors will certainly find the Fryer example to be specious cherry-picking, as I think you would with my two examples.

ThomasH writes:

Drug warriors do not read this blog. The "War on Drugs" like the "War on Crime" and the "War on Terror" was just a political tactic to elect more Republicans to public office. If a lot of poor people suffer, well, that's not their constituency (part of the "47%").

Deidra writes:

I'm pretty new to this site and reading these posts, so maybe I'm missing the point of this. This argument seems all over the place. What does his work on acting white have to do with if he should be in prison? Why exploit this man's past, exactly after winning a prestigious award, to weakly make an argument about the drug war?

David R. Henderson writes:

I'm pretty new to this site
What does his work on acting white have to do with if he should be in prison?
Very little. There is no requirement, in a blog post or anywhere else, that a blog post be about one thing.
Why exploit this man's past, exactly after winning a prestigious award, to weakly make an argument about the drug war?
I took an approach that didn’t work, as I conceded to John above. I do find your use of the word “exploit” interesting though.

NZ writes:

The question is a red herring. The vast majority of drug dealers facing jail time are not would-be Harvard economists or anything remotely like it.

Fryer got very lucky and the society he lives in got even luckier. That isn't an argument for removing the guardrails he managed to hop over.

David R. Henderson writes:

That isn't an argument for removing the guardrails he managed to hop over.
So, NZ, are you saying that you see the laws against selling drugs as a “guardrail?” Do you care to elaborate?

Floccina writes:

John made the point well but I would expect drug war advocates to go further and say that if the drugs war was executed more vigorously Fryer might not have sold marijuana.

The obligatory disclaimer: I am for complete legalization of all recreational drugs.

NZ writes:

@David Henderson:

Laws against using/selling drugs are guardrails. All laws are. What their purpose is, and whether they achieve it, is a separate question. To answer that question in a useful way, you have to look at the history and general patterns around the law, not the extreme exceptions to it.

I'm an unconventional opponent of the drug war, though: my chief complaint has nothing to do with individual rights or how many would-be Harvard professors we put in prison.

Rather, drug prohibition requires us to embroil ourselves internationally, simultaneously provoking and enriching our enemies before inevitably importing them and their families via mass immigration (or "imperial backwash" as I've once seen it elegantly put).

Glenn writes:

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The Original CC writes:
Very little. There is no requirement, in a blog post or anywhere else, that a blog post be about one thing.

C'mon DH, I think that's a little harsh & sarcastic. It's perfectly reasonable to try and figure out the relationship between two paragraphs of a single blog post. And I think we should be nicer to new readers. :)

[I don't think you meant to be caustic; I just think that it's difficult sometime to imagine how other people will read what you wrote.]

Nathan writes:

@ ThomasH - I am a "drug warrior" - at least in the sense that I generally do not support the loosening of restrictions on the drug trade - and I read this blog.

fralupo writes:
Defenders of the drug war should answer this question: Are you glad that Roland Fryer didn't go to prison for a long time for dealing drugs? Do you think he should have?

I'm not sure why drug warriors would be the only ones you inquire this about. Shouldn't people who favor laws against forgery have to take a stand on whether Dr. Fryer should have spent years in prison for his fake birth certificate or fake purses? The quotes you provide are of a person who committing all sorts of felonies, not just selling drugs.

And the question isn't one that is useful when thinking about what the law should be. Perhaps in some future time it may be possible to selectively enforce our laws based on how people turn out years later. For now we only have a history that we can evaluate and it would be hard to make laws that do not affect people that go on to do good and only hinder those that do bad without a significant failure rate.

Richard Besserer writes:

Many of the same drug warriors would probably not shed a tear if Harvard, that alleged nest of liberal vipers, closed its doors tomorrow morning, so I doubt they'd have any sympathy for Roland Fryer, if they even knew his name.


[CV omitted]

"Oh. Sounds like the affirmative action hire to me anyway. To heck with him. Throw the affirmative action president in the can with him!"

[Exit, laughing at own joke.]

Shigoli Shitero writes:

My opinion is that Fryer is an outlier, who mastered and studied his environment critically. From forging a birth cert, to making 100% profit on Marijuana embodies the essence of economic brilliance. He showed earlier glimpses of ingenuity though unorthodox.

whether he should've been in prison is neither here nor there. His contribution is ingenious in the field of behavioral economics too.

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