The following views are my own and do not reflect the European Union, the European Parliament, or my co-authors in any way.
Last week the European Parliament published a report written by Mike Levi, Martin Innes, Peter Reuter, and me entitled “The Economic, Financial & Social Impacts of Organised Crime in the EU.” In spite of the title, and the estimates of the impacts of organised crime that we made, we came to an early conclusion that calculating a comprehensive and authoritative figure would be an impossible task. Moreover, it was a calculation fraught with political implications.
Numerical reckonings and quantitative calculations are politically useful to the extent that they are used to justify actions. To be clear, I am not saying that such numbers should be disregarded. Rather, that they should be viewed as works in progress and the public ought to demand as much accurate information as possible. Current and accurate data is the only way that the public can expect their representatives to reliably make decisions that result in wanted outcomes.
I am not advocating the idea of a morally good or bad decision (as moral standards are notoriously difficult to establish), but the idea of a decision that is good or bad in terms of what it sets out to achieve. One could argue that a good decision is one that fulfills its objectives, whatever those objectives might be, whilst at the same time minimizing negative, unwanted consequences. A bad decision, conversely, is one that fails to achieve its objectives or does so at too high a cost. Thus the public should understand the objectives and consequences of any policy, and they should ask that their government attempt to fulfill the objectives as fully as possible and minimize any unwanted consequences.
As one might expect, data is hard to come by. Data gathering costs money, and is often not considered priority. Returning to our study, the difficulties we encountered while trying to estimate the costs of organized crime for the European Union was due to a substantial lack of information in most of the categories of organized crime.
There were three primary problems. First, data are not collected uniformly across the European Union. Second, there is a possibility that there are data which are not publicly accessible or are not published in one of the working languages of the European Union. Third, in the cases of data presented by organizations linked to industries or to causes with vested interests in specific outcomes, the data suffered from a variety of methodological problems such as making outdated claims and generating inaccurate, usually inflated figures to augment a discourse of threat
As a result, the data we were working with, in most classes of organized crime, were incomplete and sometimes inaccurate.
These are substantial problems and they are not cheap to remedy. The data we required to accurately assess the question charged to us is immense. However, in spite of the cost, a complete set of data, repeated in a time series, is likely to be worth while since it should illustrate the trends and transformations that would allow for better analysis and more efficient decisions. A step towards remedying this problem would be to identify all of the types of data required and to maintain an EU-wide data base where this information is collated.
I recognize that such a solution is not politically unproblematic. It may not be in certain countries' best interests to withhold the requested statistics for reasons that could range from fears of hurting tourism or business interests to fears of losing funding for existing programs.
Nonetheless, for functioning democracies, transparency and reasoned debate are crucial elements for a well functioning polis. Moreover, in a classic “easier said than done” suggestion, it is crucial that certain topics are depoliticized and freed from the shackles of political point scoring. This may only be done by explicitly describing numbers in a suitable context.
A good example is the topic of crime generally. As we see in the United States for example, the crime rate is decreasing, and yet the incarceration rate is increasing. Police are pushed to produce numbers of arrests and stops as a means of illustrating their efficacy. A reasonable reading of the numbers, however, would not place such a demand on police, since with a falling crime rate, one could predict a direct relationship with arrests, unless police were becoming more efficient with their tactics. If that were the case, we could actually spend even less on incarceration, if we are to believe Gary Becker's model that the biggest deterrent is a potential criminal actor's perceived probability of being caught.
Another extreme is to use the falling crime rate to justify the cutting of resources. However, one could conclude that the resources as mobilized over a particular point in time could contribute to the falling crime rate, and keeping funding the same but adjusted for inflation with a fund for research and development.
There are many specific examples of the use of numbers to develop a threat discourse, i.e. the x problem is serious because it causes y amount in damages. Another potential strategy is the use of rhetoric to overstate the seriousness of a crime. A good example of both, the data presented by the recording industry, is presented in Appendix G of our EP report.
In short, what I am suggesting here is that folks pay attention to numbers and definitions, especially when they are associated with crime. In the end voters and their representatives should push for decisions that are likely to precipitate a desired outcome rather than decisions that claim that they will result in desired outcomes but are effectively a shot in the dark or outright counterproductive. The first step in this process is demanding transparent, accurate, and current data. And the second step is having informed debate.
Maybe it's a big ask, but it is worth asking.