Friday, March 16, 2012

Bill James: Popular Crime

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Bill James is a man with obsessions. Lest you think that I'm throwing stones in glass houses, because themacinator is a woman with obsessions, Bill James is a man that admits to having read something like 2000 "Crime Story" books. This is in addition to being The Man behind popularizing baseball statistics, as in THAT Bill James, the guy behind sabermetrics, the guy who came before Moneyball, who made the Red Sox viable, who said that 27 was the number... yeah, that guy. You have to be kind of obsessed with baseball and numbers to be that Bill James. You have to be obsessed with crime and reading to read over 2000 crime books, and to write a 500+ page book about it, with the kind of detail that Bill James has written. I feel justified in writing that Bill James is a man with obsessions.

Before Bill James came along, baseball nerds depended on the box score and the traditional scout. People who only know baseball from the Moneyball movie can kind of relate to this- the guys who just had a "feeling" about a guy are no longer. The box score included some interesting stuff- wins, losses, hits, RBIS, errors, stolen bases. And it was fun to read them, and if you were a real baseball nerd, use that kind of stuff in your fantasy league team, which meant you were a REAL nerd. This isn't really a book review about how Bill James changed all that, but it is meant to point out that Bill James changed all that. If you go over to the awesome Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan blog, you probably won't be able to keep up with the stats, and it's not just nerds who talk about this stuff with their fantasy league teams. If you read "Popular Crime," you'll get it: Bill James wants to change how we think about crime and the justice system in the same way that he changed how we think about, and even how we (they) play baseball. If James could do this to baseball- one of the most tradition-entrenched American systems- what's to say he can't have a similar impact on the criminal justice system?

Bill James starts with the premise that, similar to the situation with scandal, we pretend that we aren't interested in popular crime at our own risk. "Serious people," as he calls them, and I'm certainly guilty of this, look down their noses at the mass fascination of Americans with popular crime. I learned more about JonBenet Ramsey from this book than I knew about her and her murder from all of the media surrounding her case that has gone on for years. Because I'm a "serious person" and think that this kind of thing is beneath me. But, as with scandal, James believes that "Popular crime stories are an expression of our impulse to draw a protective circle around ourselves. The interest that we take in a crime is therefore proportional to the sense it creates that our sanctuary may have been violated. If we suspect that our perimeter has been violated, we are immediately concerned to locate, identify, and rectify the problem." In this specific instance, he's talking about why crimes against attractive women and children get so much more attention than other crimes, but more generally his point is that popular crimes is about the violation of boundaries: we are not like THOSE people that would commit crimes. Our kind of people wouldn't do that. In fact, crime is about defining who "our kind of people" are. The focus on crime is about reinforcing those boundaries. Serious people, he says, should pay more attention to this- the rest of the world is.

James has a lot of insights into how the criminal justice system works, and/or fails to work. "Popular Crime" covers big crime stories from 1880-2010, and James knows a lot about a lot of crimes. He has developed a lot of theories about things, and some of them are a little odd, but I respect this, as themacinator is someone who has a lot of theories about things, many of which are a little odd. Themacinator, on the other hand, has not spent twenty years reading every single piece of literature about any one thing, thereby giving her the knowledge to justify any one of the odd theories that she comes up with. James has. For example, James has an idea about why murder rates between 1840 and 1885 in America shot up at a rate much faster than the murder rates in Europe at the same time. First, guns were cheap. Second, the civil war led to a serious lack of law and order, which then to what he calls a "circle of legitimized violence." But what I found most intriguing was the last reason he gives: America was expanding: it took a vastly larger number of officers and a vastly different kind of policing to take care of law enforcement to take care of the rapidly opening frontier. Europe didn't have this problem. James, baseball statistics man, knows how to analyze the numbers.

That being said, James makes it all the way to page 45 before introducing a mathematical way to deal with trials. A trial, he writes, "is rather like a basketball game at which no one keeps score, but at the end of the game the audience is asked to vote on which team has played better." Only it's worse in a court of law (and I'm sure James intended that pun), as at least in a game, baskets actually have a numerical value assigned to them, so a "real" score can be determined, and that can have some weight in the "playing better" value judgement. In a trial, there's this nebulous standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," and there's "evidence." He absolutely abhors the "means, motive and opportunity" schema, and feels that it should be abolished as a way of proving guilt. At best, it's a starting point for investigators to look for evidence, at worse, it's a catchy acronym: MMO. Instead, he suggests a 100 point system: convicting a person beyond a reasonable doubt takes 100 points, and each piece and type of evidence is allotted points. James has a seven-step way of analyzing evidence that I won't go into, but let's just say that James is good at designing mathematical systems. He introduces this system during the discussion of the Lizzie Borden story, which took place in 1892. By the time he gets to the crimes of 2010, you're left wondering why we don't use this system in courts now. Well, as I mentioned earlier, the law is one of those bastions of tradition, kind of like baseball. As James writes, "The world will reject these ideas; lawyers will scoff at them, judges will ignore them, juries will never hear of them..." but the bottom line is, they're good ideas.

James also has a slightly complicated argument about how the liberal Warren and Burger courts royally screwed up the justice system by trying to reform things that were accepted by mainstream, which led to later conservative courts making the penal system outrageously bad like it is today. I wrote about it, then accidentally deleted this blog post, which has left me sad for a good 24 hours. So I'm not going to rewrite it. This has been enough. Plus, this book is so good, and so long, that at last count, I've accrued $1.50 in library fines, and that is crime enough for me. What I will leave you with is the fact that this is a great book, that covers a lot of disciplines, not least literary criticism. If you like true crime, you've got to read this book, because it covers the genre nicely, and also because it will give you a reading list a mile long. If you like baseball, you should probably read it, too, but not because it's about baseball. And if you like law, or philosophy, or both, you should read it, as well. Here:
We do not have the ability to figure out what happened in every case. Sometimes we will try, and sometimes we will fail... Let me then ask another question: Is it wise to construct a judicial system upon the premise that the pursuit of justice can be perfected? It seems to me that this is what we have done... The real problem is not that trials are imperfect, but that we declare them to be perfect... I am stepping outside the circle of the law to ask a more difficult question: was this a smart idea to begin with? The "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard pushes the system toward the pretense of certainty, rather than allowing it to recognize the reality of doubt. Should we perhaps have started with a different assumption: in many cases we simply do not know what happened. [italics in original]