Murder rates in the US--What's happening behind the scenes? (Part 2)


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Before reading this blog, you should definitely check out my last blog. It's about murder. Kinda dark, I know, but I was interested in whether or not murders are on the rise and what the causes behind murder trends might be. I examined a source claiming that there is indeed a national increase in multiple-person murder (massacre) and that it stems from the economy. The source I'm addressing in this blog is one that says murders in general (single or multiple-person) are not actually increasing at all and that there is no relationship between murders and the economy.

I found an article on Corrections: Page One, a site that re-examines economic news articles, that makes a pretty bold statement based on the graph below.

Murders Per Capita in the United States over Time.jpg

"It's unclear why a reasonable person would think that murders rise during bad economic times, beyond some primitive association of poverty and criminality. Certainly, all evidence is to the contrary. The graphs below show the trends in homicide rates over time (first in per capita rates, and second in per capita percentage changes in crime). Nothing in these trends supports the Time's 'predictions that a bad economy would inexorably lead to higher [murder rates].'"

"Nothing in these trends"... Really? Then why do the three highest peaks of the murder line fall in the gray areas representing a recession? Maybe this article needs some correcting itself. This graph definitely does not prove it all, but I believe that it provides some evidence supporting the theory that the economy plays a role in murder rate. If we're still confused about the economy's influence, what else might explain the fluctuating murder rates?

1.       Civil rights movement. The line steadily increases through the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 70s. It seems reasonable that this social upset could increase the number of murders. I would be interested in looking further into this as well.

2.      Copy-Cat Effect. By the 1960s, 90% of US homes owned televisions. With easier access to news, it is possible that some people caught wind of murder and the 15 minutes of fame it can bring to the perpetrators. I'm not so sure about this one, but maybe contributes to the general increase in murder rate between the sixties and nineties.

So what's the answer, then? I don't know. I think I agree with University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. In his 2004 Journal of Economic Perspectives article, he argues that "the impact of macroeconomic variables on crime such as murder is theoretically ambiguous." There are probably tons of factors that go into murder rates in the US. We may never reach a solid answer. But, since we are dealing with something so serious as murder, there should be more research done about the causes. Alluding to my first blog, this may help us to dull the spikes of violence in places such as Bath, NY.

4 Comments

These two blogs were very interesting. I like how you challenged the ideas and offered a series of arguments that could be a part of the opposition. It made the posts more interesting.
Personally, I think the idea that the recession has increased murder makes sense. I took a criminology class last year, and I remember the professor saying that crime comes about when people lose sight of their morals because they want something so bad. For example, if someone's sister is killed, that person will feel obligated to kill the person that killed their sister, regardless of the fact that murder is wrong.
People lose sight of their morals in order to do what they feel they have to do.
In an article by James Murray on his blog "Murder, Mayhem, and Medicine," Murray discusses why people kill. He says a lot of the time, people have social disorders. But there are many reasons why people commit murder.
http://jamesjmurray.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/murder-the-true-definition/

Thinking through the lens of SCI 200, I think the major issue you're running into is the inability to do a true experimental study. The peaks of murder rates coinciding with the depressions seems to be strong evidence of a correlation. But as you noted, that doesn't necessarily rule out third variables.

Of course, the ideal situation would be for a controlled experiment. But that would require creating a control group in stable economic condition and one that the scientists would steal money from and sit back and wait to see which group killed more people. There are some obvious ethical issues with this, so this may always been "theoretically ambiguous". Great job discussing this though!

Sierra, I'm glad you found my blogs interesting! I definitely agree with you that there may be a link between economic problems and increased murder rates. As I addressed in the first half of my analysis, Turchin (http://freakonomics.com/2008/09/17/why-are-killing-rampages-increasing-a-guest-post/) makes a conjecture that the pressure to uphold socially expected levels of consumption even during a recession brings some people's latent psychological issues to the surface and amplifies them to the point of psychosis. Your article says that scientists believe the three main reasons leading people to kill are genetics, brain malfunction, and abuse, and a combination of the three is very likely. Turchin's idea about economic stress seems to fall under the "combination" category. Here is a website that measures the Economic Stress Index... maybe it can be used for more than just economic and governmental analysis. Maybe it is a step toward saving lives. http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/_national/stress_index/

Mark, I thought about that too! Because of the obvious ethical constraints of this topic it nearly impossible for scientists to ever come to a 100% proven conclusion. Even if it was possible to conduct a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment, they would still not be able to absolutely prove the connection due to the ever-present possibility of chance. In regard to your example experiment, I do not think stealing money from one group would simulate the case of an economic crisis. Yes, they would have less money, but there are many other factors that an economic crisis can influence. (Here are a few! http://www.moneycrashers.com/effects-recession-families/) How do we know that the murder rate is not related to one of those other factors? All in all, it seems like we will never be able to boil down all the confusion surrounding the murder rates to a true answer.

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