Of Drug Dealers and Dealmakers

A new study argues that success, be it on a street corner or in the boardroom, requires many of the same skills and character traits

He has a deep-seated desire to succeed, a high tolerance for risk, and is bright and personable. In fact, he'd probably excel as a legitimate entrepreneur -- except that he's busy taking care of business as the neighborhood drug dealer.

That's the conclusion of a study by a pair of social scientists who found that the successful pusher shares certain traits with entrepreneurs operating on the right side of the law: Both are risk-takers, each collaborates with others, they aspire to wealth, and demonstrate competence in their chosen fields, which each demand intelligence, dependability, and self-confidence.

"Good entrepreneurs are good entrepreneurs, whether legal or illegal," says Bill McCarthy, sociology professor at the University of California at Davis and co-author of When Crime Pays: Capital, Competence, and Criminal Success, which chronicles his research with Northwestern University criminologist John Hagan. The pair interviewed hundreds of young adults in the drug trade in Toronto and Vancouver to determine which factors were important in their success.

Their conclusion: The better the dealers were at networking and the greater their desire for money, the more they earned. Higher income also went hand-in-hand with a greater propensity for risk and a marked degree of competence. "Even among street youth, those who make the most of the economic potential of crime possess characteristics that may have brought them success in more conventional employment," the research report concludes.


  In an interview, McCarthy conceded that the report's conclusions are less than earth-shattering. "That's one of the hazards of doing social-science research: The data appear to be commonsense conclusions," he explains. But McCarthy is also quick to add that the issue is more complex. "It's not always that simple," he begins. "There's a whole other area of theory that says people in crime are social misfits, have behavioral problems, can't fit in." Sometimes, he argues, it's simply adverse circumstances -- a tight job market, a lack of education -- that lead young people into crime. "We are losing all sorts of valuable resources by not providing sufficient opportunities in the economy for these bright people."

Based on the youths' answers to questions about their attitudes and income, McCarthy and Hagan were able to put a dollars-and-cents figure on certain attributes. For example:

-- Those dealers with the greatest desire for wealth earned about $100 more per day than those with the least interest in making money.

-- Young drug dealers who collaborated with others increased their profits by about $79 a day, vs. those who work alone.

-- Overall, the average daily illegal income of the youth in this survey was about $101, vs. $37 a day, before taxes and other deductions, for those in the legal economy.

For the bright, motivated, collaborative drug-dealer, crime pays -- but only in the short term. In the long run, the other costs of doing business -- the risk of arrest, drug addiction, and becoming a target of violence -- overwhelm the financial upside.

"Once we understand, maybe we can figure out how to reduce the criminal arena and bring those people into the legal economy," says McCarthy, whose research is aimed at identifying the motivations and patterns of criminal behavior.


  He acknowledges that this research -- and the conclusion that success in crime or business both require similar attributes -- might offend some people. "When they hear it, they think you're saying that businesspeople are criminals," he says. "The notion that anyone in business could be a criminal is hard to accept -- an important pretense to keep is that [successful businesspeople] have different traits than criminals."

It's also difficult for some people to accept that hard work alone isn't enough. "We in America tend to think that if you are industrious, you can be anything you want," McCarthy says. "That's not true." Success also depends upon personal and social capital -- the kinds of traits he and Hagan studied in the young drug dealers. "In that regard, what is true for the legal economy is true for the illegal economy, as well."

How to dissuade youths from applying their skills and talents in the illegal economy? The jury is still out on that.

By Theresa Forsman in New York

Edited by Robin J. Phillips

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