Rap and the esteem economy


In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt contemplates an important puzzle: that, in the 1990s, violent crime in the US fell suddenly and steeply.  

Levitt reviews, and finds wanting, the usual explanations. He says the drop in violent crime cannot be exhaustively explained by any one, or combination, of the following factors:

Innovative policing strategies

Increased reliance on prisons

Changes in crack and other drug markets

Aging of the population

Tougher gun control laws

Strong economy

Increased number of police

All other explanations (increased use of capital punishment, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and others)

Levitt has his own, now famous, account: legalized abortion diminished the population most likely to commit crime, specifically teens brought into the world by reluctant mothers. (2005:139)

I think we are still missing something. Call it the “esteem” or “Goffman” explanation. 

As Levitt points out, we are talking not about crime but violent crime (2005: 121). Lesser crimes, burglary, robbery and auto-theft, for instance, have a “direct financial motivation.”  Violent crimes (assault, rape, homicide) appear to have an extra-economic motivation. They damage not only the material interests of the victim, but something more. Victims of assault and rape say that they feel diminished and even humiliated, and that this immaterial loss creates injury every bit as grievous as the loss of money and possessions.

Violent crime is a crime against esteem, as much as it is a crime against property.  (By “esteem,” I mean the value attacked to the individual by the individual and by others. We could also call this “face,” as Goffman did.)  And it is as a crime against esteem that it is sometimes committed.  This is to say that the diminishment and humiliation felt by the victim is no mere accident of the crime, but the very outcome the criminal sometimes intends.  

If violent crime began to fall in the 1990s, the anthropological question is this: why was the need to commit crimes against esteem felt less urgently than before? What had changed? 

To answer this question, we must answer several smaller questions. First, we must ask who would commit violent crime as a crime against esteem.  I think violent crime is mostly like to come from those who have suffered attacks upon esteem of their own.  Those who live in poverty are often subject to belittling stigma and stereotype. (These are “violent crimes” of an endemic, slow motion, rhetorical kind.) 

When committed by this group, violent crimes may be seen to have an element of retribution and, possibly, redistribution.  Victims are punished for having so much esteem when the criminal has so little. It seems to me unlikely that the criminal also hopes for redistribution. The criminal doesn’t get to “keep” the esteem he/she “takes” from a victim. (This is of course an ethnographic question that should not be answered from an armchair.)  But something like redress has been accomplished. The criminal might not have more esteem, but the victim does at least have less.

What, then, has changed for those who come from poverty, that they should feel the need to commit crimes against esteem less urgently. I believe the answer to this question comes from the single most important development in musical taste of the last 30 years, the rise of the musical form variously called rap, hip hop, gangsta and here called rap.  

Rap bestowed new esteem upon impoverished urban teen.  As long as it remained the possession of impoverished teens, black and white, it did not change the esteem equation.  But sometime in the late 1980s, it crossed over into the mainstream, black and white.  Beastie Boys and Run-DMC were calculated to have cross over appeal, and the former’s Fight For Your Right entered the top ten in 1986.  In 1988, Public Enemy released It Takes A Nation and NWA released Straight Outta Compton. Gangsta rap was now headed for the suburbs. And once this diffusion of musical form had taken place, the position of the impoverished teen went from scorned loser to a creature of standing, status, and credibility.  So utterly did rap win the day that, with a brief but interesting interruption in the form of “alternative music,” the children of the suburbs now wanted very much to walk, talk and otherwise conduct themselves as if they came from very different socio-economic origins.

The rise of rap represented a massive transfer of esteem from the teens of the middle class suburb to those of the impoverished city. There was in short an abrupt and thoroughgoing reversing of the asymmetries. Those who once suffered esteem shortages now enjoyed whacking, great surpluses. Violent crime? To protest what exactly?  To exact a revenge?  To appropriate esteem?  Violent crime was now an antique of another age, the dangerous preoccupation of another generation, an activity that was now just odd.  I believe this is why violent crime began to drop in the early 1990s.  As the suburbs began to absorb rap, the esteem economy began to tip in a new direction.  Violent crime has become an increasingly pointless enterprise. 


Bourois, Philippe. 1995. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York Cambridge University Press.

Levitt, Steven D. 2005. Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York: William Morrow.

post script: sorry this is a little rushed. relatives for dinner!

20 thoughts on “Rap and the esteem economy

  1. charu

    excellent analysis, Grant (as usual!)- I always enjoy the perspective you bring to routine questions… I haven not read Freakonomics yet – looking forward to it…
    Gladwell has also discussed in The Tipping Point the puzle of sudden and sharp drops (or raise) in crime rates, especially violent crimes. Am sure you have read it – http://www.gladwell.com/1996/1996_06_03_a_tipping.htm

    I guess this is what terrorism is also all about – self esteem of the perpetrator and the victims (individual / group / nation in both cases)I would tend to place religious / ethnic motives a tad behind, even if stated as prime reasons.

    I also wonder about whether violent crime can be viewed within the framework of Inglehart’s post materialism thesis. In a society where basic (material and therefore emotional) needs are not taken care of, violent acts would be common? (I am quite blurry about this – am just thinking aloud as I reread this post)

  2. CarolGee

    This may be another way to look at the cause/effect question of violent crime:
    People are like buckets. Those with good self-esteem are full buckets; those with little s.e. are empty. The “empties” try to dip out of the “fulls” to fill up the emptiness. But, no matter how much they dip from others, they stay empty because their buckets have a leak in the bottom. Criminals are dangerous leaky buckets run amok.
    How do those leaks get patched? Justice, caring, firm but respectful intervention, meaningful work, hope, social responsibility, all those other interactions that communicate that dipping is counterproductive.

  3. brian kenny


    I’ve written the lyrics for your rap song
    (attached below)….


    Just your bad ass Jihadi
    And now we’re afta you
    Gonna blow your f. ass up
    Call the clean-up crew

    We got some ‘distribution
    It’s da hood’s retribution
    All onnaccount of your
    F. cultural pollution

    Don’t jive us with your stigma
    And your lousy stereotype
    Gonna blow your f. mind
    That ain’t no hype

    Forget your loss of money
    Who cares you got possessions
    This is way different
    It’s a c-cred building session

    We’re jammin a slow mo’ rap
    It’s our rhetorical obsession
    We know you may not like it
    But you gonna learn the lesson

    Your children of the burbs
    Tip far in our direction
    Transfer your asymmetries
    Now who’s gonna go to Heaven?

    Esteemed impoverished teens
    See your pointless enterprise
    They dis your con econ 101
    You want that supersized?

    We gonna blow your f. mind
    With a slo mo’ rap
    It’s an ethnographic question
    Can you stand the flack?

  4. Grant

    Holy Toledo, with comments this good, the blogger just needs to set a theme and get out of the way.

    Charu, great point, I hadn’t seen it, but now that you mention it, some terror does seem to come from esteem (self and other) deficits. Mind you, some of this is no mere deficit but an honest reckoning with the facts of the matter. It depends I guess whether the deficit is assigned by stereotype or earned by accomplishment (or lack thereof). Thanks, Grant

    CarolGee, very good figure of speech and point, Thanks, Grant

    Brian! good lord, man. this counts as best comment ever, I think. Thanks! Grant

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  6. LK

    i think chuck D of public enemy’s comment (see below) warrants repeating here. he said it over a dozen years ago — that rap is the black CNN — and the fact that there was now a 24/7 ‘voice’ for the people (sans larry king et al) who were once the disenfranchised may well have played a significant role in the phenomenon you’ve identified.


    from mtv.com

    Public Enemy’s debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, was released on Def Jam Records in 1987. Its spare beats and powerful rhetoric were acclaimed by hip-hop critics and aficionados, but the record was ignored by the rock and R&B mainstream. However, their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was impossible to ignore. Under Shocklee’s direction, PE’s production team, the Bomb Squad, developed a dense, chaotic mix that relied as much on found sounds and avant-garde noise as it did on old-school funk. Similarly, Chuck D’s rhetoric gained focus and Flavor Flav’s raps were wilder and funnier. A Nation of Millions was hailed as revolutionary by both rap and rock critics, and it was — hip-hop had suddenly became a force for social change. As Public Enemy’s profile was raised, they opened themselves up to controversy. In a notorious statement, Chuck D claimed that rap was “the black CNN,” relating what was happening in the inner city in a way that mainstream media could not project.

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  10. Bob V

    “Brian! good lord, man. this counts as best comment ever, I think.”

    Brian had the best comment ever? Man, I can feel the esteem just leaking out of my body as I type!

  11. phancylad

    Most crime occurs within racial groups. So it doesn’t seem likely that members of any group are committing crimes for the purpose of taking social esteem away from members of an adversarial community: there isn’t enough cross-group crime for that. Given that, the rise in esteem for african amercians vis-a-vis white suburbanites should not affect crime very much at all, or at the least would only eliminate that violent crime that is inter-group. This doesn’t strike me as a great explanation.

  12. Grant

    Bob V, sorry!, Grant

    Phancylad, I don’t think this breaks out by racial group. It is more genuinely economic. Poor kids vs. rich kids. Now does it strike you as a great explanation? I thought so. Thanks, Grant

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  14. Anti-Oedipus

    … its all about the class structure…. who’s zoomin who? Krunking is about class identity, which is why it is so sad, like a clown. :o( …why dont terrorists just krunk & clown! :o)
    When christianity came up into northern europe 100-1000ad they encountered a lot of human sacrifice societies (like Uppsala), along with doing their own fair share of killing. All for this for ideas. well, i guess for the christians it was less about ideas, more about non-christian white slave labor (Thralls).
    if you read stories from that time, stories of Snorri or Grendel and Beowulf, you will know about the primitive concept of “weregild”
    Weregild was a reparational payment usually demanded of a person guilty of homicide, although it could also be demanded in other cases of serious crime. The payment of weregild was an important legal mechanism in early northern European societies, such as those of the Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons; the other common form of legal reparation at this time was blood revenge. The word means, literally, “man price”. (from wiki)

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  16. Kedar

    excuse the digression.

    i just read your post that replied (only partially) to the Freakonomics question. didn’t think i’d get your attention if i left a comment in there. and so, i’m posting one here.

    “I believe this is why violent crime began to drop in the early 1990s. As the suburbs began to absorb rap, the esteem economy began to tip in a new direction. Violent crime has become an increasingly pointless enterprise.”

    i have a couple of contentions –

    1.your case is based on an assumption that “the blacks were solely responsible for high rates of violent crime.”

    2. considering the fact that rap didn’t crossover to the whites until recently (eminem), what do you think actually tipped the esteem scales for all those impoverished white chaps back then?

    the point is you’ve only managed to answer half the question. which isn’t answer enough, even by your standards.

    Posted by: kedar | Mar 28, 2006 12:14:34 PM

  17. Grant

    Kedar, the post doesn’t actually say anything about race…so you will want to watch those quotation marks, won’t you. In any case, suburban urban influence is much older than eminem. So I guess you will want actually to read the posts you comment on. Thanks, Grant

  18. kedar

    apologies for those jarring quotation marks.
    should have dug up a little more on rap before writing any of that.
    i’ll suck it up this time.

  19. William

    Your excellent response to what might be the high-water mark of Freakonomics still leaves needing to say something about the book itself.

    Steven Levitt is now best-known for his findings on America’s falling crime-rate during the 1990s. Teenage murder rates were predicted to double. Instead they fell by more than 50% in the space of five years. By 2000 they were at their lowest in 35 years. But why? Well, a lot of people were taking the credit. They were citing economic growth, gun control, policing, imprisonment and even the death penalty as the reason. Levitt proved the cause as Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court decision that lead to the repeal of abortion laws in the US. His research showed that children born into impoverished environments were more likely to grow up to become criminals. His analysis formed the elegant but uncomfortable syllogism: “Unwantedness leads to high crime; abortion leads to less unwantedness; abortion leads to less crime.”

    But the book gets to me. The title of Freakonomics tells us that Steven Levitt is a “rogue economist” exploring the “the hidden side of everything.” I have always been up for a rogue telling me about everything. Even a rogue telling me about anything appeals to me; you know that special insight that only a mischievous, perhaps unprincipled, but somehow likeable person has. From the title I even conjured up some noble rogue elephant tearing apart the civilized world after suffering a loss of habitat. I was up for rogue. Economics, I thought, is a damn good place for a rogue. And a rouge that wins John Bates Clark Medal – well yes.

    Levitt is saying, according to Dubner, that incentives and motivations are intimately linked in driving human behaviour. No breakthrough – my mum knew that! He does come through with some interesting proofs. His ingenious methods of analysing data reveal sometimes startling conclusions: Chicago public school teachers were helping their students cheat on state exams; Sumo wrestlers were fixing some of their matches; real-estate agents don’t really care about how much they sell your house for – only their own house, and my favourite; dope-dealers rarely make a good living. These results do amuse, surprise and even educate. In all these conclusions there is a haunting. Strangely, within these intriguing anomalies we never find that superbly-skilled rogue practitioner of economics. Instead we are left with a peppy little repertoire of cocktail chatter (beer-chat for me) and little else.

    Something went wrong in the writing of Freakonomics. In the reading there was the echo of Mark Twain’s comment that golf was “a good walk spoiled.” Yes it is provocative and interesting but it has a problem. If Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame says “Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America . . .” then the problem is uncompromisingly simple – we can’t find Levitt or his mind in this book!

    Without question we can find – actually, we can’t get away from – the other Stephen, Stephen Dubner. He is Levitt’s coauthor and a contributor to the New York Times. Dubner occasionally genuflects to Levitt’s genius, to his unique insight, and treats us to the odd passing anecdote. For most of the book though he relies on the coattails of Levitt to spin his own story.

    Dubner just doesn’t get Levitt. A flaw, especially given the hype in the title. He tells us that this very special economist is challenging the established lens through which we see conventional economics. The problem is what is conventional is never argued and the nature of the difference is never revealed. This new lens, we are told, uncovers – no exposes – the patterns of conventional thinking. These come by way of conclusive moments, end points really, that are sometimes remarkably fascinating and clearly capture interest. The question is, are these moments, this shopping-list of results, the only point of the book?

    Although Steven Levitt is apparently (or even paradoxically) the coauthor, he never actually appears. Not only is he not there but his methodology is never fully presented nor explained. Gladwell goes on to say “. . . and reading Freakonomics is like going for a leisurely walk with him on a sunny summer day, as he waves his fingers in the air and turns everything you once thought to be true inside out.” Well the problem is we never get to go on that walk with Steven Levitt. He just might be nearby, but you never know for sure.

    The book is a first-person telling by Dubner. So it leaves Dubner responsible for that walk. It also leaves him responsible for the non-telling of either process or personality. It is an issue of depth. His preamble, along with the very bad An Explanatory Note are ill-chosen attempts at building an arcane, deified and mystical Steven Levitt. When we get into the book, we think we are going to meet Levitt, this “rogue economist” – but we never do.

    Dubner continually misses the mark. He let a good book and a great opportunity slip away. This is because he thinks the mark is simply some captivating Levitt conclusion. Even though I found myself relishing some of these points and was more than willing to tell these little tidbits to my friends; they leave forever undone some important thinking.

    The success of the book is that each story is portable. In their portability there is a weakness. If the point is, each story is an indicator of how we can mis-see the world, then how do we understand mis-seeing or recognize mis-telling? The only way to know would be to understand Levitt, economics, and the processes by which we make conventional and sometimes remarkably wrong conclusions.

    We never do. Instead, in each story there is an echo of missed opportunity. In each he takes us on some short walk on how we might see the world. The trouble is it is only a short walk with no critical path to understand how we got there or just where we might be going.

    Dubner tells us early on that when the publisher approached Steven Levitt, Levitt didn’t want to write a book. He finally did agree to write it, but along with Dubner who had done a story about him for the Times. So Dubner and the brilliant Levitt agree to coauthor. Freakonomics is the result of that division of labour. Presumably Levitt’s job was to continue mining of the reality of the “hidden side of everything.” Then what was Stephen Dubner’s job? The answer: The weaver of these disparate stories; the interpreter; the pattern-finder – the writer! Unfortunately a substantive telling never happens. It takes about half the book to slowly realize Dubner doesn’t really get Levitt – and neither do we.

    In the end this book bizarrely peters off into some kind of parenting manual. This is presumably because Dubner and Levitt are young fathers. Who knows? Dubner then thinks he can put Humpty back together by saying in the Epilogue that there is “no unifying theme” in Freakonomics. Well he got that right! Here he is alluding to a quote by the philosopher Robert Nozick where Nozick said that at 26 Levitt didn’t need a “unifying theme” as an economist. This may be right for a young economist – but it is not necessarily true of a book.

    Dubner’s patchwork attempt at an ending only exacerbates the reality of missed opportunity. Unfortunately it causes Freakonomics to read a bit like: What my really important really really smart friend did on his summer vacation.


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