Years ago, I lived in a rather Podunk town in North Carolina. It had its charms, but one of my biggest gripes was that it took over an hour to drive to a decent bookstore. It was around this time I started ordering books online more often. But there was a problem. The area where I lived had no shortage of people willing to snatch unattended boxes away from people’s doorsteps. I had more than a few books swiped before I thought of a solution, with a little help from Gary Becker.

Like many Chicago school economists, Becker was keen to use economic modeling to analyze all kinds of behaviors. Among these are his economic analysis of the family and of discrimination, but he also worked out an economic analysis of criminal behavior. In short, he modeled crime as a form of rational economic behavior. People will engage in crime when the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs.

The expected cost was taken to be a combination of two factors – the likelihood of being caught, and the severity of punishment. The prospect of severe punishment could still lead to a low overall expected cost if one was near-certain they wouldn’t be caught. Similarly, a high likelihood of being caught might not provide much deterrence if the prospective punishment was trivial.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t well situated to alter either of these variables. There wasn’t much I could do to increase the likelihood of them being caught. The occasional book being swiped from someone’s doorstop was not a major issue, in the eyes of the local cops, so it’s not as though I could convince them to stake my place out whenever I was expecting a delivery. And even if someone was caught swiping a package from a doorstep, they would likely only face a legal slap on the wrist.

So, considering this, how did Becker’s work help me come up with an idea? I realized that even though I couldn’t do anything to increase the “expected cost” side of the ledger, I could do something to lower the “expected benefit” side. I just started ordering my books from Barnes and Noble instead of Amazon.

This was my reasoning. When Barnes and Noble shipped a book, the box it came in was prominently marked as from that store. Similarly, when Amazon shipped a book, it was sent in a distinctive Amazon package. But I went on a limb and assumed that the type of person who is willing to steal boxes from doorsteps is not likely to be the sort of person who is interested in books or reading. If they saw a box on my door that was clearly from Amazon, aka “the everything store”, that box could contain, well, just about anything. So it might seem worth swiping, just in case. But if they saw a box that was clearly from Barnes and Noble, which would almost certainly contain a book, I figured they wouldn’t bother to grab it. Even with a low expected cost of stealing, the benefit of gaining a book would be, to them, even lower.

And it worked! After I made that change, I never had another book taken from my doorstep again. There were times I ordered things other than books from Amazon, and occasionally those boxes would disappear. But my books were always left behind. I would that Becker earned his Nobel Prize for that alone – but to date Stockholm hasn’t returned my emails suggesting they amend his information and add this to his list of accomplishments.