Most Times it’s the Little Things

The broken windows theory dates back to 1982 when two social scientists, James Wilson and George Kelling put forth that a building with a handful of broken windows signals something over time if the windows indeed stay broken. The signal is permission via complacency to go ahead and break a few more windows. Every society has its fare share of criminals so these signals are not falling on blind eyes. What eventually occurs is more broken windows lead to increased access to the building which then results in the building being overrun by this same criminal element.

Apply the same example to graffiti, trash in the street, jay-walking, not leashing your dog, the list of minor slap-on-the-wrist crimes goes on and on. The crux of the theory is the reason why the physical state of one’s environment may affect crime is due to 3 factors: 1) social norms and conformity, 2) lack of monitoring, 3) social signaling and signal crime.

For those that may not already know, the former Chief of Police in New York, William Bratton, applied this theory in New York during the mid-90’s when crime was high. He started cutting down on subway fare jumpers, people drinking in the street, graffiti kids, etc. Now, the subsequent drop in crime at the time was due to what everyone believed was the application of the theory. Since then other theories have been posited as contributing factors – mainly Steven Levitt’s that by legalizing abortion years prior to the 90’s resulted in less “future criminals” entering the world.

Regardless of what exactly contributed to the drop, broken windows makes intuitive sense. I currently reside in Santiago, Chile. While not a developed country, it is also not a poor country. It is what the UN would refer to as a top tier developing country. Down here the goal is to make it to the developed world by 2018. It will be interesting to see what that day holds when the local press announces we are now developed. How does that work, will all Chileans feel compelled to present themselves as European intellectuals? Will you be able to trade in antiquated items from your undeveloped past for new developed ones? Can’t wait …

Anyways, living here has thrown me back in time somewhat to where the little things matter. Dogs literally live in the streets, and most disconcerting is many of them have owners. They are allowed to run wild and then return to their homes in the evening. Graffiti is prevalent not only in the urban center but also in virtually every wealthy neighborhood. I say wealthy because it is of course in every poor neighborhood but the fact that the wealthy “put up with it” is the reason it is worth mentioning. Many local products you find in the supermarket (milk, aspirin, beverages) are of a poorer quality. Tops come off, lack of instructions for most medicine you buy, leaking containers.

A major part of economic growth is developing competitive sectors, applying the right mix of regulation and market freedom and increasing per capita output, among others. These are big challenges, and ones that Chile is grappling with. But I’d also argue that in addition to the macro level changes that need to occur, fostering a smart and responsible citizenry should also be high on the list. It is also rather cheap, comparably.

It does not take loads of cash to set up neighborhood watch groups, push legislation to fine pet owners who let their dogs roam free, crack down on graffiti, issue tickets for jaywalking. I mean imagine the revenue boom to the cities if the last measure was harshly enforced. The reason why people put up with crappy local products, graffiti on the walls of their million dollar mansions, dogs roaming wild, poor customer service, is they feel powerless over the situation. This feeling in turn leads to resentment, divides societies, and hampers overall progression.

As human beings we naturally pay attention to our environments and shape our behavior accordingly. The small steps I have outlined here are not very complicated but astonishingly absent from the conversation, at least in Chile. Coming from the U.S. I have seen what can happen when the little things are placed on the front burner. It will be interesting to see when that kicks in down here.



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