I'm not opposed to the death penalty in some cases, although, like most thinking people today I do have serious problems with its implementation. Some offenders, I think death is too good for them, like Timothy McVeigh who killed all the folks across the street from where I was working on April 19, 1995. We just give them what they want, as shown by the frequent cases of offenders rejecting appeals so they can get their executions done and be finished with the prospect of the rest of their lives behind bars.
That said, I'm looking with serious skepticism at yet another report of how economists, you know, those guys who do so well with our understanding and use of our economy, have determined there is a deterrent effect to executions. The story, to its credit, does acknowledge that even other economists understand the problems with the methodology, and the controversy over John Lott's famous pronouncements of gun effect on crime should make us all run screaming from the room any time an economist steps into it.
The biggest problem is that there are people like Doug Berman seriously and publicly trying to come to their own reasoned stances on the death penalty who might look at this kind of study as an answer to the question of the penalty's efficacy. Let me just note that, when you're trying to figure out how many people say "I'm thinking about killing someone . . . wait, oh, no, they just executed one of a thousand people who killed so I won't," both sides of the debate fail to get at this. That world of variables is too complex, as the critical economists point out in the article, to place a decision on whether you support the death penalty or not on these studies.
The death penalty is a statement that this behavior is so morally offensive to the culture that it warrants the culture's taking of life itself. As a statement, it can be debated but ultimately it's up to the individual to agree or not based on his/her own values. As a deterrent to anything, it's very questionable, as the states without the death penalty but as good or better crime rates than those with it might note. To even talk about a uniform impact of the death penalty across the nation when even this study notes that its impact seems to be greatest in the states where violence and retaliation to save face are more a way of life for both "good" and "bad" people demonstrates the misuse of statistics for this question alone. Of course, to understand that, you can't be in a discipline that ignores culture, history, the complexity of our ties and networks with each other, a discipline that repeatedly insists that offenders, some of the least thinking people in the world, do careful cost-benefit analyses before committing their crimes. A discipline that doesn't even have its own academic house in order but insists on polluting other disciplines with the same perspectives and methodologies that have given us the global warming crisis that is bearing down fast and hard on us today.
Tell you what. I'll start relying on them to help me make decisions about the value of punishments when they rely on me to help them understand all the many, many places their predictions and theories have failed. In the meantime, it's enough to think through what you would consider appropriate punishments for people considered for the death penalty. Like I said, I tentatively support it in some cases, although I abhor the glee and frothing that accompanies something so serious from some of the proponents, but I think our efforts should go toward ensuring that it is only used when we are absolutely sure that guilt has been established and not when we are using processes definitively demonstrated to be fundamentally flawed. These "helpful" studies by academics far afield from real knowledge of the subject only obscure that.