Interview with Professor Weber

Most undergraduate economics courses focus on traditional markets in which participants legally transact with one another, resulting in an efficient allocation of resources. Bryan Weber, a new professor at W&M who specialises in applied microeconomics, studies illegal transactions.

“Crime is a job, a type of employment. You can get your income from it. It can be harder to study than other types of employment, but it is still a valid way of analyzing how people get things done,” said Weber when I spoke with him about his research. He recently conducted a study at the University of Milwaukee (his alma mater) and Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in order to determine how public transportation systems affect crime. Both of these universities are located downtown and provide transportation for their students. 30-40% of four-year urban universities have similar transportation programs in place. They are popular, but expensive.

“I looked into this because our university was facing budget cuts and I wanted to see if the program was actually working. There is a concern that this type of transportation, which provides easy access to bars, may promote drinking among students even of illegal age, which could in turn increase crime,” said Weber.

Weber reached the opposite conclusion. He found that these transportation systems were associated with about a 25% reduction in campus-related crime, a result that suggests they are worth funding. College campuses are not the only places where people are concerned about the effects of public transportation. As Weber explained to me, many people are concerned that fixed routes can create crime. Particularly, people who live in suburban areas often believe that expanding commuter railways will attract criminal activity from the inner city. Research done by Keith Ihlanfeldt at Florida State University suggests that commuter rails do not increase crime in wealthy areas, though it does seem to have an effect in poorer areas.

“Most of my research suggests that transit systems don’t have as many negative effects as we think, so concern about expanding these networks is not well-founded. They actually work to reduce crime,” said Weber.

Currently, Weber is working with the University of Maryland’s START, The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, to study a more unconventional type of crime. At the heart of the issue, the same age-old economic motivations are at work.

“We are analyzing why terrorists act the way they do, what attacks they choose to carry out– in other words, how they allocate their resources and make strategic decisions,” said Weber. “We are looking at broad collective data collected on US attacks. Many attacks are small, and most fail. Over half the time there are no casualties and the attack is prevented. This indicates terrorist attacks are hard to pull off. We should pay attention to the large attacks that are successful. These are terrorists’ ultimate goal, after all. Studying these attacks can help us prevent them in the future.”

I asked Professor Weber why he studies criminal activity.

“I like the challenge of trying to figure out what to do when information is hard to come by. For example, it’s tough to find good information on sexual assaults and criminal activity in general. Transactions aren’t monitored; one-half of the equation is trying to hide what’s going on. A lot of the information is hidden, so we need to take very educated guesses and use the best techniques available to figure out what happens next.”

For his next project, Weber hopes to study the relationship between education and crime. He specifically wants to look at the unintended effects of school voucher programs, which are popular in his home state of Wisconsin and are spreading across the country. They allow parents to take back their tax money that would have funded a public school and instead use it to enroll their child in a private school. The basic argument in favor of these programs is that they increase competition among schools and give kids access to a better education. However, Weber and others are concerned about the students who are left behind. Generally, these students have less-involved parents and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Could leaving these students behind increase the likelihood of them participating in criminal activity in the future?

Professor Weber’s paper, “Can safe ride programs reduce urban crime?”, is linked here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166046214000416. Ihlanfeldt’s research was featured on CityLab last year: http://www.citylab.com/crime/2014/12/the-myth-that-mass-transit-attracts-crime-persists-in-atlanta/383609/. In addition, Professor Weber has a blog, http://bryansweber.com/, where he recently applied statistical analysis to make predictions about the outcome of “The Button” social experiment hosted on Reddit last spring.

Written by Lauren Hurley

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