IDEAS home Printed from
MyIDEAS: Log in (now much improved!) to save this article

Crime and punishment in the "American Dream"

  • Di Tella, Rafael
  • Dubra, Juan

We observe that countries where belief in the "American dream"(i.e., effort pays) prevails also set harsher punishment for criminals. We know that beliefs are also correlated with several features of the economic system (taxation, social insurance, etc). Our objective is to study the joint determination of these three features (beliefs, punitiveness and economic system) in a way that replicates the observed empirical patterns. We present a model where beliefs determine the types of contracts that firms offer and whether workers exert effort. Some workers become criminals, depending on their luck in the labor market, the expected punishment, and an individual shock that we call "meanness". It is this meanness level that a penal system based on "retribution" tries to detect when deciding the severity of the punishment. We find that when initial beliefs differ, two equilibria can emerge out of identical fundamentals. In the "American" (as opposed to the "French") equilibrium, belief in the "American dream" is commonplace, workers exert effort, there are high powered contracts (and income is unequally distributed) and punishments are harsh. Economists who believe that deterrence (rather than retribution) shapes punishment can interpret the meanness parameter as pessimism about future economic opportunities and verify that two similar equilibria emerge.

If you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.

File URL:
Download Restriction: Full text for ScienceDirect subscribers only

As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to look for a different version under "Related research" (further below) or search for a different version of it.

Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Journal of Public Economics.

Volume (Year): 92 (2008)
Issue (Month): 7 (July)
Pages: 1564-1584

in new window

Handle: RePEc:eee:pubeco:v:92:y:2008:i:7:p:1564-1584
Contact details of provider: Web page:

References listed on IDEAS
Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:

as in new window
  1. Edward L. Glaeser & Bruce Sacerdote, 2000. "The Determinants of Punishment: Deterrence, Incapacitation and Vengeance," NBER Working Papers 7676, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Rafael Di Tella & Robert MacCulloch, 2007. "Why Doesn't Capitalism Flow to Poor Countries?," NBER Working Papers 13164, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. David K Levine, 1997. "Modeling Altruism and Spitefulness in Experiments," Levine's Working Paper Archive 2047, David K. Levine.
  4. Denzau, Arthur T & North, Douglass C, 1994. "Shared Mental Models: Ideologies and Institutions," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 47(1), pages 3-31.
  5. Harris, John R, 1970. "On the Economics of Law and Order," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 78(1), pages 165-74, Jan.-Feb..
  6. Richard B. Freeman, 1996. "Why Do So Many Young American Men Commit Crimes and What Might We Do About It?," NBER Working Papers 5451, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Roland Benabou & Jean Tirole, 2005. "Belief in a Just World and Redistributive Politics," NBER Working Papers 11208, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Alesina, Alberto & Angeletos, George-Marios, 2005. "Corruption, inequality, and fairness," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 52(7), pages 1227-1244, October.
  9. Roland Benabou & Efe A. Ok, 1998. "Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution: The POUM Hypothesis," NBER Working Papers 6795, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Jean-Pierre Benoit & Juan Dubra, 2004. "Why Do Good Cops Defend Bad Cops?," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 45(3), pages 787-809, 08.
  11. Saint-Paul, Gilles, 1994. "The Dynamics of Exclusion and Fiscal Conservatism," CEPR Discussion Papers 998, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  12. Julio J. Rotemberg, 2002. "Perceptions of Equity and the Distribution of Income," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 20(2), pages 249-288, Part.
  13. Alberto F. Alesina & Edward L. Glaeser & Bruce Sacerdote, 2006. "Work and Leisure in the U.S. and Europe: Why So Different?," NBER Chapters, in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2005, Volume 20, pages 1-100 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Di Tella, Rafael & MacCulloch, Robert, 2006. "Europe vs America: Institutional hysteresis in a simple normative model," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 90(12), pages 2161-2186, December.
  15. Milgrom, Paul & Shannon, Chris, 1994. "Monotone Comparative Statics," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 62(1), pages 157-80, January.
  16. Hassler, John & Mora, José V Rodríguez & Storesletten, Kjetil & Zilibotti, Fabrizio, 2001. "The Survival of the Welfare State," CEPR Discussion Papers 2905, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  17. George Baker & Michael Gibbs & Bengt Holmstrom, 1994. "The Internal Economics of the Firm: Evidence from Personnel Data," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(4), pages 881-919.
  18. Juan Dubra, 2004. "Optimism and Overconfidence in Search," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 7(1), pages 198-218, January.
  19. Gary S. Becker, 1974. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," NBER Chapters, in: Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment, pages 1-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  20. Fong, Christina, 2001. "Social preferences, self-interest, and the demand for redistribution," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 82(2), pages 225-246, November.
  21. Shavell, Steven, 1987. "The Optimal Use of Nonmonetary Sanctions as a Deterrent," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(4), pages 584-92, September.
  22. Verdier, T. & Zenou, Y., 2000. "Racial Beliefs , Location and the Causes of Crime," DELTA Working Papers 2000-26, DELTA (Ecole normale supérieure).
  23. Guth, Werner & Schmittberger, Rolf & Schwarze, Bernd, 1982. "An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 3(4), pages 367-388, December.
  24. Federico Echenique, 2002. "Comparative Statics by Adaptive Dynamics and the Correspondence Principle," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(2), pages 833-844, March.
  25. Mookherjee, Dilip & Png, I P L, 1992. "Monitoring vis-a-vis Investigation in Enforcement of Law," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(3), pages 556-65, June.
  26. La Ferrara, Eliana & Alesina, Alberto, 2005. "Preferences for Redistribution in the Land of Opportunities," Scholarly Articles 4552533, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  27. Thomas Piketty, 1995. "Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 110(3), pages 551-584.
  28. Alesina, Alberto & La Ferrara, Eliana, 2005. "Preferences for redistribution in the land of opportunities," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 89(5-6), pages 897-931, June.
  29. Roland Bénabou & Jean Tirole, 2002. "Self-Confidence and Personal Motivation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 117(3), pages 871-915.
  30. Alberto Alesina & George-Marios Angeletos, 2005. "Fairness and Redistribution," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(4), pages 960-980, September.
  31. W. Guth & R. Schmittberger & B. Schwartz, 2010. "An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining," Levine's Working Paper Archive 291, David K. Levine.
  32. Roland Benabou, 2000. "Unequal Societies: Income Distribution and the Social Contract," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(1), pages 96-129, March.
  33. Rotemberg, Julio J., 2008. "Minimally acceptable altruism and the ultimatum game," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 66(3-4), pages 457-476, June.
  34. Isaac Ehrlich, 1973. "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death," NBER Working Papers 0018, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  35. Forsythe Robert & Horowitz Joel L. & Savin N. E. & Sefton Martin, 1994. "Fairness in Simple Bargaining Experiments," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 6(3), pages 347-369, May.
  36. Steven D. Levitt, 2004. "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 18(1), pages 163-190, Winter.
  37. Ruggie, John Gerard, 1998. "What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 52(04), pages 855-885, September.
  38. Searle, John R., 2005. "What is an institution?," Journal of Institutional Economics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 1(01), pages 1-22, June.
  39. Alberto Alesina & Edward Glaeser & Bruce Sacerdote, 2001. "Why Doesn't the US Have a European-Style Welfare System?," NBER Working Papers 8524, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  40. Alberto Alesina & Edward Glaeser & Bruce Sacerdote, 2001. "Why Doesn't The US Have a European-Style Welfare State?," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 1933, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  41. Kahneman, Daniel & Schkade, David & Sunstein, Cass R, 1998. "Shared Outrage and Erratic Awards: The Psychology of Punitive Damages," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 16(1), pages 49-86, April.
  42. Eaton, B Curtis & White, William D, 1991. "The Distribution of Wealth and the Efficiency of Institutions," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 29(2), pages 336-50, April.
  43. Casey B. Mulligan & Andrei Shleifer, 2005. "The Extent of the Market and the Supply of Regulation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 120(4), pages 1445-1473.
  44. Milgrom, Paul & Roberts, John, 1994. "Comparing Equilibria," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 441-59, June.
Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

This item is not listed on Wikipedia, on a reading list or among the top items on IDEAS.

When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:eee:pubeco:v:92:y:2008:i:7:p:1564-1584. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Shamier, Wendy)

If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.

If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.

If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

This information is provided to you by IDEAS at the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis using RePEc data.