Crime Does Not Pay Very Well
The LA Times had an interesting editorial over the weekend, "Why Drug Dealers Live With Their Moms." Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner analyze the work of Sudhir Venkatesh, who was "embedded" in a street gang for 6 years.
He studied the economics of crack and discovered a pyramidal structure where a few live well at the top, branch leaders do alright, and the rest do passably at best. If broken down to hourly wages, most in the vast rank and file don't even make minimum wage.
Of course, we see the pyramidal structure everywhere--in a corporation, the armed forced, government, society as a whole. But in these places, there are better chances for advancement, plenty of room in the middle and, even in the army, a pretty good chance of surviving. The reason people join gangs, then, aside from a perceived lack of choice, is the glamour at the top, not unlike what one sees in Hollywood or professional sports.
Venkatesh does a fine job of giving us specifics, but the general truth of his claims has long been known. There's a bizarre Fritz Lang film, You And Me (1938), a flop when released, that I've always liked. It's (partly) a gangster film and the highlight comes when Sylvia Sidney gets the "boys" together and actually crunches the numbers on a blackboard, showing how the guys at the bottom get nothing. The message: Stop being a sucker for the man!