Thursday, July 10, 2014

Stings, Seizures, Restitution: Are they cost-effective? And who should pay?

Thinking hard about better policymaking to protect archaeological sites requires understanding the costs associated with pursuing different policing strategies, and the benefits they yield in the form of deterring future looting. As this article indicates, the sexiest strategies -- restitution and sting operations -- can be very expensive: 
Zimmerman opines that such investigations, both immediately and long term must be very costly. There were well over 100 people involved for a week in the initial stages of the Miller case,” he noted.
Processing of such items takes time according to Zimmerman. Indeed theSalt Lake Tribunestory notes that it could take years to determine the origin of such artifacts and work with tribes on repatriation. In the meantime, such collections must be properly stored and maintained.
Northern did not provide a budget for the Miller investigation. He noted that typically the FBI doesn’t provide “dollar for dollar information about its activities.”
He did agree, however, that the work is costly.
In this (unusual) case, simply caring for the seized materials is a huge cost, on top of the investigation expense. 100 FBI agents working for a week = approximately 2 man-years of FBI salary, around $100K.
To be clear: This does not mean that such operations should never be undertaken. In fact, a certain number of these kinds of actions, as well as restitution demands against museums and dealers, are absolutely necessary in order to raise public awareness (which generates new tips that reduce the costs of future investigations, and makes potential wrongdoers think twice). But it does point to the need to think about other possibly more cost-effective uses of taxpayer money, i.e., by investing in better site protection, monitoring, park-ranger-hirings, use of volunteers, the establishment of prizes to incentivize these various efforts, etc..
Just as important, it points to the need to think about ways to find more funding to make it possible to do more of all these things. Collectors and dealers often argue that no additional laws are needed to stop looters, suggesting that countries simply need to enforce the laws they already have on the books. But enforcement costs money: site guards cost money; remote monitoring costs money; sting operations cost money. The question collectors, dealers, auction house execs, and museum directors need to be asked, then, is where the money should come from to cover these costs. 
The answer is not hard to arrive at, and it is not "from general tax revenues." Tax the trade. 

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