Puzzling the other day about the Prime Minister’s extraordinary performance – tears at her official scheduled press conference, purporting to apologise on behalf of all New Zealanders for a single (awful) crime committed by a single private individual (and could we have imagined such a performance from Margaret Thatcher, Helen Clark, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Angela Merkel or any serious male leader?) I was wondering whether she was about to cry in public about the many other murders that happen each year in New Zealand – 45 to 50 in a typical year.
But when checking out that number, I found a nice time series prepared by the Police reporting the number of New Zealand murders annually since 1926, drawn from a search of their records. As they note
Note that counting rules for murder statistics have changed over time (i.e. cases vs offences vs victimisations). Therefore, trend for homicide statistics over a long period (especially before 2007) should be interpreted with caution.
In other words if you want to compare the 2016 murder rate with that in 1926 you have been warned: the numbers may not be calculated in quite the same way. But shorter-term movements should still be meaningful, even allowing for a bit of year-to-year fluctuation. Fortunately, mass killings (eg Aramona) don’t happen every year.
This was the resulting graph (I hope they are right about zero murders in 1958, but it seems unlikely).
I’ve circled a few surges that caught me by surprise:
- the first was the apparently significant increase in the murder rate during the Great Depression – by far the worst economic downturn and social dislocation in New Zealand in the last century,
- the second was late in World War Two (those years don’t include the Stanley Graham shootings in 1941),
- and the third was the period of rapid economic change and, latterly, very high unemployment over the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Are these surges just coincidental- something largely random that masquerades as a pattern? I don’t know, and I don’t know the literature at all in this area. There were certainly global forces at work in the rise of violent crime in the 1970s and 80s, and in the subsequent decline, but it does look uncomfortably like a story in which – at least in New Zealand – big economic dislocations and high unemployment were associated with higher murder rates. I once wrote a speech for Don Brash – as Governor – in which we associated higher suicide rates with such dislocations (and hence why we needed good stable macro policy). I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about it – without evidence it probably over-egged the pudding – but perhaps we were closer to the mark than I’d thought?
In terms of international experience, on a quick look I found this chart
The US data are easiest to read, and they don’t show the spikes we see in the New Zealand data (it is a much bigger population, and so perhaps the New Zealand picture is just a small sample problem). In Canada there is some suggestion of a spike in murder rates during the Great Depression, but not in Australia (where the depression was severe) or England and Wales (where it was not so bad).
I’m convinced good monetary policy has an important role to play in helping to avoid – and limit – really bad economic dislocations. High unemployment is quite scarring enough – costly to individuals and to society as a whole – but if it was associated with higher murder rates then doubly so.
Anyway, on such weak evidence I”m not trying to make strong arguments. But I thought it was an interesting, somewhat surprising, chart, and perhaps experts have dug more deeply into these patterns.
Meantime, there many other gross failures of policy – ones that are the direct responsibility of government – that we see and hear no emotion from the Prime Minister about. Prime Ministerial tears should, of course, be reserved to the privacy of the Prime Minister’s own home, but some genuine passion and energy about reversing the house price scandal or the decades of productivity underperformance – both of which are likely to have cost lives, and certainly represented huge lost opportunities – would be welcome. Or, rather nearer the justice system – but this time the even more hands-on direct responsibility of central government – there was the gross abuse one young New Zealander suffered (and still suffers) from the Crown in this episode, highlighted in this post.