Murder rates in the US--What's happening behind the scenes?


This semester, I have two classes with a guy from Bath, New York. Today, on our trek from one class to the next, we got to talking about our hometowns. He told me that Bath has been your typical "small town" for years, a quiet, safe area in the country where most of the residents are middle class whites. But, recently, it hasn't been nearly as quiet. Despite very minimal crime history, in the last few years, Bath has seen two horrific stabbings--a young father took the lives of his ex-girlfriend and their newborn, and a teenager come dangerously close to murdering his friend.

This got me thinking, why the influx of murder? Is Bath a special case, or could it be part of a problem spanning the entire country? If this is a national issue, what is causing it? I'm going to split this topic into two posts. In this one, I will consider a source claiming that there is indeed a national increase in multiple-person murder (massacre) and that it stems from the economy. In the next one, I will consider an opposing source.


According to Peter Turchin, an author and professor of mathematics at UConn, massacres have increased roughly ten-fold over the last half-century and it's all because recessions make people crazy. He uses statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about the economy and the table above about number of murders to say that with economic downturn comes more murder. He goes so far as to draw this conclusion:

"The implications [of the economic downturn] are obvious, and it is surprising that they are rarely brought up in the context of massacres. As their economic prospects deteriorate, many breadwinners find themselves under unendurable pressure to maintain the socially expected level of consumption. Under these conditions, people -- whose psychological problems would be borderline in the gentler economic climate of the 1950′s -- today "go postal." So the harsher the economic conditions, the greater the numbers of those whose latent psychological problems develop into full-blown psychosis."

This seems plausible, right? Before we agree with Turchin, let's back up a second. There are a few major holes in his investigation.

1.     1. No regard for the population increase. The table he refers to does not account for the increase in population that our country has experienced in the last few decades, it merely reports the number of massacres in the USA in a given year. It is very likely that, under ceteris paribus, an increase in people would bring an increase in murder. He should have found a graph that charted massacres per capita.

2.     2. Reporting bias. The only studies he cites are from The New York Times. Of course this is a reputable news source, but it does not offer all sides of the story.

3.     3. Unrepresentative sample. Turchin implies that he is taking into account solely the massacres reported by the New York Times. This is a national paper that focuses on larger regions and larger stories in the US. It is extremely unlikely that they have reported every single massacre to occur here over the specified time period. Therefore, he cannot use this data to generalize about all massacres.

For these reasons, I find it difficult to hop on board with Turchin. I do not think it is fair to rule his ideas out altogether, but I would need to see other, more comprehensive analysis that supported his claim in order to believe it myself.  Check out my next blog for more on this topic.

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