Bill James on Crime

Over at Grantland: a fascinating interview with Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, about…crime. Who knew that James’s passion in life is not actually baseball, but the mechanics of crime?

As a society, do we overestimate or underestimate the importance of crime in day-to-day life?

We underestimate it, because it’s our intent to underestimate it. We only deal with it indirectly. We all do so many things to avoid being the victims of crime that we no longer see those things, so we don’t see the cost of it. Just finding a safe place for us to have this conversation, for example — we needed a quiet place, but before that, we needed to find a safe place. A hotel lobby is what it is because of the level of security. I’ve checked out of this hotel, but I’m still sitting here in the third-floor lobby, because it’s safe. When you buy something, it’s wrapped in seven layers of packaging in order to make it harder to steal.

Another interesting exchange between James and the interviewer, Chuck Klosterman:

But is there some unifying element among the type of people who become murderers? What is the fundamental difference between the kind of person who kills someone and the kind of person who never could?

That’s an interesting question. In a lot of true crime stories, you will see that someone testifies for the defendant and talks about what a good person they are, and that this person could never commit the crime in question. I would like to think of myself as someone who would never commit a crime. I’m sure a lot of people would. But I don’t think that’s a good argument for anything. If I was on a jury, the claim that the accused was “too good a person” to commit the crime would not be an argument I would buy. Rabbis commit crimes. Ministers. Priests commit terrible crimes. Now, are they committing these crimes because they’re not really good people and they’re just pretending to be good, or are they truly good people who simply fail to deal with certain situations? I think the latter is more often the case.

But this is the most fascinating nugget from Bill James:

We continually become less tolerant of actions that lead to death. The human race has been in a long struggle to eliminate murder. And we will succeed…There will always be occasional exceptions, but we’re involved in a long struggle against murder, war, famine, disease — and we move forward more than we move back. 

I think that Bill James and David Eagleman need to have a talk. What about you?