Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lessons from “Million-Dollar Murray”

Million-Dollar Murray is a Malcolm Gladwell essay from 2006. The title character, Murray, was an actual homeless man whose alcoholism landed him in jail or the emergency room so often that he cost Nevada taxpayers one million dollars over ten years.

Murray was an extreme case, but that is Gladwell’s point: What would happen if we attacked a seemingly intractable problem like homelessness at the extremes, where the cost/benefit is obvious? That is, if taxpayers are paying $100,000 per year for the state to react to Murray’s problems, what could be done proactively for, say, $50,000? Rent him an apartment, pay for treatment, and get him close monitoring?

Gladwell recognizes the moral hazard: The worse Murray screws up his life, the more the state can justify spending on him. Although economically rational for the state, solutions like this...

...have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness [targeting only the part of the problem that is cost-effective to address] suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis.

Gladwell explores this dilemma with his usual mix of masterful storytelling and data-mongering. The kicker is, the dilemma is not necessarily about the morality of homelessness. It’s about societal problems that are concentrated in a relatively small percentage of extreme cases. For homelessness, Gladwell cites research that only 10% of homeless people are chronically so, and a subset of those approach Murray’s level. Gladwell finds similar concentrations of extreme cases in police brutality and auto emissions. These issues have less moral complexity than homelessness, yet targeting the concentrated part of the problem is still the exception, not the norm. For auto emissions, it’s common to test all cars the same even when the vast majority, especially newer ones, are near-certain to pass. With police brutality, the tendency is to spread an even dose of reform across an entire police force rather than focus strong medicine on the relatively few offenders.

So, Million-Dollar Murray is less about Murray’s problems than about society’s dealing with a class of problems that Murray represents.

It’s Gladwell at his best. Check it out.

1 comment:

  1. On this topic is a June 2012 BBC report about a project in Australia. It provides highly proactive help to homeless people, with the idea that...

    "It's more expensive to have a person homeless than not to have a person homeless," says James Toomey from Mission Australia.