Human costs of big dislocations?

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

murder us

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.

9 thoughts on “Human costs of big dislocations?

  1. I am entirely neutral about Jacinda’s tears. I had no tears at my loved parents funerals yet I get tears with some music and for some reported crimes; for example whenever the Kahui twins are mentioned tears come to my eyes as does that photo of Nia Glassie as a smiling toddler. Failure to have emotions under control is one symptom of dementia but this is the way I have always been and Jacinda is too young for dementia.

    The important issue is whether emotions alter our decision making. Our emotions do lead us to decide what is important and what is not but then we need to put them aside and think clearly, dispassionately. So public emotion so long as it is genuine is something we should tolerate with slight embarassment. It is when it leads to policy based on virtue signalling that we need to be concerned.


  2. Jacinda Ardern has a heightened sense for publicity. She could sense New Zealanders feeling rather guilty that a young Brit on holiday gets killed right in central city, carried the body out to the car without being noticed by the throngs of people walking around and surrounded by police in every corner.

    Nobody really cared when a young Japanese tourist got murdered and stuffed in a cupboard or a floating suitcase in the Auckland harbour stuffed with a dead chinese student or even a dead chinese spouse sat in a boot of the family car whilst police searched everywhere else not noticing the parked car in front of the house for weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The mind boggles as to where the killer was able to find a carpark near to Citylife hotel and then to carry a body to the lift and then into the car, past the reception. He must be quite a strong chap or used a large suitcase?. A dead weight is rather heavy to move. A suitcase above 30kg is considered a health and safety issue and require 2 people to lift.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately, Jacinda Arderns publicity stunt may set the 26 year old suspected killer free. Stirring up more public interest with her crocodile tears could result in the suspect not getting a fair trial with more and more people searching for the name of the suspect and as a result breaches of name suppression.


  3. I suspect, though I haven’t seen it discussed, that a big contributor to crime generally was the coming of age of the baby boomers.
    Crime is mostly a young man problem. The higher proportion of crime age young men (15 to 30) in the population must therefore contribute to a higher crime rate with murder being at the extreme of anti social criminal behaviour. The 70’s and eighties high crime rates were coincident with a larger proportion of the crime age cohort. Likewise, our higher proportion of elderly now must reduce the crime rate.
    It looks like poverty is not much of a contributing factor; inequality and lack of legitimate routes to status are the big one.
    Our current propensity to encourage victim-hood mentality is a really bad idea in that it can only fuel negative, toxic resentment. Cain and Able on a national scale.
    Anyway, here’s some further thoughts.


  4. I’d be interested on your in depth thoughts one day on a universal job guarantee. Could a conservative support it?

    A state as employer of last resort programme at the minimum wage.

    If involuntary unemployment and social dislocation go hand in hand with great suffering and even murder, why not support the right-to-work (presumably while waiting for monetary policy to kick in and improve things in the private sector)?

    Income support is not enough, I believe, for mental health. People need routine and structure. And to contribute in some way and socialise. Some productivity is surely better than zero productivity?

    Would you support such a programme under any circumstances?

    If such a programme had been available in the early 90s, might outcomes have been better for many families whose jobs were suddenly restructured away in the name of efficiency?


  5. Michael how much sway does the government have. Eg Mike Hosking is saying we shouldn’t be afraid of the UN (Migration Pact). These media people seem to say all the right things on cue?

    Liked by 1 person

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