San Francisco Shoplifting: Prelude

You may have heard that there’s a shoplifting surge hitting San Francisco. Criminals are running wild, and thanks to bleeding-heart progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin, there are no consequences for any of it.

Consider the Wall Street Journal headline “San Francisco Has Become a Shoplifter’s Paradise”, or the New York Times article on “San Francisco’s Shoplifting Surge” which opens “The mundane crime of shoplifting has spun out of control”. Or for more local coverage, you might prefer SF Mayor London Breed’s pronouncement:

[we will] take the steps to become more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullshit that is destroying our cities.

If mainstream media isn’t your thing, perhaps you’d prefer various ingroup thought leaders weighing in. Here’s Tyler Cowen uncritically quoting a CVS exec who calls San Francisco “​​one of the epicenters of organized retail crime”. And Marginal Revolution co-blogger Alex Tabarrok on the “rampant, brazen shoplifting in San Francisco.” Or legendary tech titans David Sacks, Chamath Palihapitiya and Jason Calacanis on the “pure propaganda” “preposterous claim” that crime could possibly be anything but skyrocketing.

The only problem is, evidence for the surge is scant, and largely anecdotal.

Sure there are viral videos, but in a city of 900,000, with tens of thousands of thefts reported each year in normal times, it’s easy to find dozens of instances that establish a narrative, while still proving nothing. As Diaconis and Mosteller put it, “With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” Or as Gwern puts it more brutally:

The paradox of news is that by design, the more you read, the less you might know, by accumulating an ever greater arsenal of facts and examples which are (usually) true, but whose interpretation bears ever less resemblance to reality. This was always true, but online/​mainstream media and social networking, which turn over much more rapidly, seem to have become increasingly misleading as to the state of the world by focusing on ‘stories’ and ‘events’ rather than trends and averages. [1]

Normally, this kind of discussion is fairly straightforward. Some people on the internet make misleading claims, some other people post charts demolishing their claims, and the matter is settled. In the case of San Francisco shoplifting, we don’t have that luxury. It’s not just that the anecdotes are misleading, it’s that even the data bears little resemblance to reality.

If you stick though this series, you’ll get to hear:

  • Why the case for a shoplifting surge looks so strong, but still falls flat.
  • How to figure out what’s real when you see conflicting data.
  • How we ended up in this weird and wacky world where libertarian VCs somehow end up agreeing with liberals like Nancy Pelosi and London Breed, and where the stance they all agree on is that we should be tough on a crime, a stance historically antithetical to both parties’ platforms.

At this point, you should have just about every epistemic red flag in your arsenal raised, and be prepared to read with immense skepticism. My own view here might not be correct, and it’s certainly not the entire story, but it is very likely better researched than anything else you’re reading on the topic.

Part 1: Failed Reforms; Skyrocketing Crime

On January 8th, 2020, Chesa Boudin was sworn in as the new District Attorney for San Francisco. Having campaigned on a platform of progressive reforms including decareration, refusal to assist ICE, and what can be generously described as a “long left-wing lineage”, he was the darling child of the radical-left, and the “soft on crime” boogeyman for the right.

Despite a variety of ambitious initiatives carried out by his office, crime in the city seemed to be on the rise. As one video after another went viral, the city’s merchandise seemed to be anyone’s for the taking. Sure enough, SFPD crime data confirms 23% increase from 2020 to 2021:

Looking at shoplifting in particular and zooming into a monthly view, we see the recent surge made evident with reported cases more than doubling from August to November:

Taking yet another angle and looking at the impact on stores, we can hear testimony after testimony about how uniquely bad San Francisco is. According to one Target spokesperson:

For the last few months, we’ve been experiencing a significant and alarming rise in theft and security incidents at our San Francisco stores, similar to reports from other retailers in the area.

And it’s not just empty claims. Across several major retail chains, stores have announced closures in San Francisco, pointing to elevated levels of shoplifting in the city. CVS is closing six of its stores across the city, and Walgreens announced that they’ll be closing five as well. As an article in The Guardian opens:

Walgreens announced the impending closure of five of its San Francisco stores. “Retail theft” had risen to unsustainable levels despite increased investment in security, the chain said. It was time to give up.

Bolstering all of the data on shoplifting and closures are a series of more politically charged arguments against the city’s liberal stance on policing. The aforementioned Wall Street Journal article explains that “thefts under $950 are effectively decriminalized”, removing the capacity for law enforcement to act as a deterrent against theft.

Looking at Chesa’s record more closely, we see that even of the shoplifting cases that get reported, relatively few are prosecuted. The Charging Rate–defined as the percent of cases brought to the DA’s office that result in charges–serves as a rough indicator of the DA’s “toughness” on crime. And for Chesa, the charges for theft have been considerably lighter than in past years. From the SF Chronicle’s analysis:

Given the decriminalization of theft, and further drop in charging rates, it’s no wonder cases are skyrocketing. Even further, Chesa’s critics argue that since store owners and employees know shoplifting is unlikely to result in consequences, they don’t even bother reporting most cases, meaning that we’re likely underestimating the rise in crime.

Overall, the case against Chesa, against San Francisco, and against left-leaning police reform more generally, looks pretty damning. This isn’t a one off incident. It’s not a series of random anecdotes. It’s a change in trends and averages backed by a solid explanatory theory and mounds of empirical evidence from the DA’s own office.

So that’s it. Case closed, right?


See you next time for part 2.

[1] See also Scott’s Chinese Robber Fallacy:

Most people think of stereotyping as “Here’s one example I heard of where the out-group does something bad,” and then you correct it with “But we can’t generalize about an entire group just from one example!” It’s less obvious that you may be able to provide literally one million examples of your false stereotype and still have it be a false stereotype. If you spend twelve hours a day on the task and can describe one crime every ten seconds, you can spend four months doing nothing but providing examples of burglarous Chinese – and still have absolutely no point.

If we’re really concerned about media bias, we need to think about Chinese Robber Fallacy as one of the media’s strongest weapons. There are lots of people – 300 million in America alone. No matter what point the media wants to make, there will be hundreds of salient examples. No matter how low-probability their outcome of interest is, they will never have to stop covering it if they don’t want to.

Every Grant is also a Bounty

The people you see have a reputation. Some of them are high-status, some are low-status. Some have their reputation conferred upon by a higher power, some have cultivated it for themselves.

What you might not realize is that reputation can be taken. Their reputation could one day be yours. When I look out over the internet, I don’t see faces. Just a turbulent ocean of bounties waiting to be harvested.

This is the art of the takedown piece. It can be something highly targeted like Guzey’s masterpiece “Why We Sleep” Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors, or my own Austen Allred is Consistently Deceptive. It can be about misrepresenting research (see Stuart Ritchie on Johann Hari), or just a series of theoretical arguments. By criticizing someone more prominent than yourself, you sap their life force, attempt to take their reputation for your own, and challenge their high standing.

For the modern public intellectual, shelf life is nasty, brutish and short.

This comes to a particularly critical crux at the instance of fundraising. Someone who was previously unknown can overnight become the proxy for a powerful and respected figure. If you take money from Open Philanthropy, you are now fair game for anyone with a bone to pick with EA.

This ranges from ridiculous (If you ever appear within 3 degrees of Peter Thiel, you will one day appear in a tortured op-ed sentence trying to link you to Donald Trump [1].) to be perfectly legitimate. Punching down is wrong, but punching up is what democracy is made of. Once you accept money, especially if it’s from a prominent donor, there is now a target on your back.

Which in most cases, is good actually! That’s the market for ideas at work. So long as the critiques are intellectually honest, adversarial truth-finding is the best strategy we have for figuring out what’s right. As Agnes Callard once put it:

Socrates came up with a method for doing that. His method was — I call it the adversarial division of epistemic labor. If you and I both want to find the truth, we can actually divide up the process of finding the truth or acquiring knowledge into two subordinate jobs. You do one and I do one. If we each do our job, together we can inquire. That’s what I take Socratic philosophy to be doing, and the dialogues present that to us…

The reason why we have adversarial systems for pursuing certain goals is that there’s actually a tension inside the goal itself. The goal threatens to pull itself apart. In the case of justice, we have the goal that we want to convict the guilty, and we want to acquit the innocent. And those are not the same goal.

They pull apart a little bit because if you’re really, really, really committed to acquitting the innocent, you’ll be like, “Look, if there’s any doubt, if there’s any possible doubt of any kind, we should acquit.” Then you’re not going to get to the other goal. It’s that tension inside of the goal itself of justice that’s generating need for the adversarial system.

What I don’t entirely like is that to date, these bounties have been largely reputational. It’s fine to have some status on the line, but for someone in a grant making position, the bounty should be financial.

To take a concrete example, say Open Philanthropy gives a researcher $6M dollars. Presumably, they’ve already done a good amount of due diligence, and they believe that their research is very likely legitimate. But in theory, it might be wrong, and if so we should ask: what would be the value of discovering that error?

If you figured it out ahead of time: at least the $6M that you could save OP. Even if you figured it out after the fact, it would be worth a lot to know that we shouldn’t pump more money into this line of research. Plus, in both cases, the actual value of figuring out that a particular theory is wrong.

In a really ideal world, you might not just want this to be Open Philanthropy’s money. You might want the researcher themselves to say “It would be very valuable to me to know that I’ve made an error. It would both improve the quality of my work, and potentially save me a lot of time if you can show that a research direction is wrong. So please look at my work for errors, and if you find any, I’ll pay you money.”

That sounds absurdly earnest right? It could never happen in academia. But in the blogosphere, it’s not entirely unusual. For years, every Nintil article has opened with the line “Is this article wrong?” linking to a page where you could find bounties going up to $200 for correcting errors in his writing (he doubled it in 2019), and a Mistakes page where he keeps track of payouts. Gavin Leech has a similar page offering $1 to $50 for reporting errors.

Although $200 is laudable, it’s still a fairly small amount of money compared to grant sizes. Since we can’t really expect researchers to put up their own capital, this role should fall onto the grant maker themselves.

For example, I recently pledged to give a bunch of money to Slime Mold Time Mold. Accordingly, I will also place a bounty of their work, with more details in an upcoming post. If you prove that their work is fraudulent, poor science or otherwise wrong, I should pay you. Both because you’re saving me from making a bad grant, and because of the intrinsic value of any knowledge you produce in the course of writing a critique.

Another version of this is subsidized bets. A researcher makes a claim, they admit that they’re not entirely sure if it’s true, but they’re willing to assign concrete credence to it. So you find a partner on the other side, and commit publicly to payout if you’re wrong. Unsurprisingly, the authors above have pages detailing their betting history, as do others like Stephen Malina and Bryan Caplan.

But as with bounties, I don’t think we can expect researchers to bet as much as would be optimal. Grant makers who fund those researchers, and even more importantly, grant makers who rely on their research, should fund bets. For example, GiveWell relies on a lot of findings from development economics. They should ask the authors of those studies to make bets on the probability that their findings will replicate in the future, and fund those bets. (I.e. A study shows that deworming increases income by X%, GiveWell publicly offers to bet anyone $100,000 that deworming does actually increase income by at least X%.)

Nick Whitaker writes about Sane Charity, highlighting the issue that in general, nonprofits are not really accountable to anything except their own donors. There are no market forces, you can’t short a non-profit, etc. I think having donors, nonprofits and researchers place bounties, bets and open prediction markets on their beliefs would be a good start.


[1] See for a particularly egregious example, Torres’:

the billionaire libertarian and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who once gave the keynote address at an EA conference, has donated large sums of money to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, whose mission to save humanity from superintelligent machines is deeply intertwined with longtermist values.

You Can Get Fluvoxamine

[TLDR: I paid $95 for a 10 minute video consultation with a doctor, told them I was depressed and wanted fluvoxamine, and got my prescription immediately.]

I’m not a doctor, and this isn’t medical advice. If you want information on the status of fluvoxamine as a Covid treatment, you can see the evidence base in the appendix, but interpreting those results isn’t my business.

I’m just here to tell you that if you want fluvoxamine, you can get it.

Years ago, some of my friends were into downloading apps that would get you a 10 minute consultation with a doctor in order to quickly acquire a prescription for medical marajuana. Today, similar apps exist for a wide range of medications, and with a bit of Googling, you can find one that will prescribe you fluvoxamine.

What’s required on your end? In my case, $95, 10 minutes of my time, and some white lies about my mental health. Fluvoxamine is only prescribed right now for depression and anxiety, so if you want it, my advice is to say that:

  • You have an ongoing history of moderate depression and anxiety
  • You have taken Fluvoxamine in the past, and it’s helped

And that’s basically it. Because there are many other treatments for depression, you do specifically have to ask for Fluvoxamine by name. If they try to give you something else, say that you’ve tried it before and didn’t like the side effects (weight gain, insomnia, headaches, whatever).

One more note, and this is critical: unless you are actually suicidal, do not tell your doctor that you have plans to commit suicide, to hurt yourself or others, or do anything that sounds like an immediate threat. This puts you at risk of being put involuntarily in an inpatient program, and you don’t want that.

Finally, you might ask: isn’t this super unethical? Aren’t you not supposed to lie to doctors to get drugs? Maybe, I don’t know, this isn’t medical advice, and it’s not really ethical advice either. I think the only real potential harms here are we consume so much fluvoxamine that there isn’t enough for depressed people, or that doctors start taking actual depressed patients who want fluvoxamine less seriously. As far as I can tell, there isn’t currently a shortage, as to the latter concern, I couldn’t really say.


Again, this isn’t medical advice. You shouldn’t take any of these results or pieces of news coverage as evidence that fluvoxamine works and that the benefits outweigh the costs. I’m literally only adding this to cover my own ass and make the point that fluvoxamine is a normal mainstream thing and not some weird conspiracy drug.

Here’s the Lancet article, and the JAMA article.

Here’s Kelsey Piper at Vox:

One medication the TOGETHER trial found strong results for, fluvoxamine, is generally used as an antidepressant and to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it appears to reduce the risk of needing hospitalization or medical observation for Covid-19 by about 30 percent, and by considerably more among those patients who stick with the 10-day course of medication. Unlike monoclonal antibodies, fluvoxamine can be taken as a pill at home — which has been an important priority for scientists researching treatments, because it means that patients can take their medication without needing to leave the home and without straining a hospital system that is expected to be overwhelmed.

“We would not expect it to be affected by which variants” a person is sick with, Angela Reiersen, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis whose research turned up fluvoxamine as a promising anti-Covid candidate, told me.

And here’s a Wall Street Journal article headlined “Is Fluvoxamine the Covid Drug We’ve Been Waiting For?” with subheading “A 10-day treatment costs only $4 and appears to greatly reduce symptoms, hospitalization and death.”:

A small randomized control trial last year by psychiatrists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis was a spectacular success: None of the 80 participants who started fluvoxamine within seven days of developing symptoms deteriorated. In the placebo group, six of the 72 patients got worse, and four were hospitalized. The results were published in November 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association and inspired a real-world experiment.

…The three fluvoxamine trials were conducted while different variants were circulating, so there’s no reason to think the drug wouldn’t work as well against Omicron

Here’s Scott Alexander:

It decreased COVID hospitalizations by about 30%… I and many others take Luvox pretty seriously. At this point I’d give it 60-40 it works.

Here’s Derek Lowe.

Here’s the Johns Hopkins guidlines which recommend fluvoxamine for “Ambulatory Patients Early in Disease at Risk of Developing Severe COVID-19”. It also notes that this might be a bad idea if you’re pregnant.

And that’s it. Again, not medical advice.