Thursday, September 24, 2015

Comparing Whole Countries on Murder Rates Is Often Misleading

We often see the United States compared to a variety of other countries in terms of life expectancy, murder rates, and more. But, it's a bit dishonest to compare a country the size of Portugal, for example, with the United States.Portugal has ten million people and is not geographically diverse. The United States has more than 300 million people, and is extremely diverse in its geography.

So, it makes much more sense to compare the particular states within the US with foreign countries, and most people tend to underestimate the diversity in factors such as life expectancy and murder rates among states.

For example, the murder rate in Oregon (2.0 per 100,000) places it about 160th among 218 countries measured. That's quite low, and well below the US overall rate of  4.7 (per 100,000), which places it at 91st in the world. In other words, there are many places in the US that are well below the national murder rate, including Iowa, Wisconsin, and Colorado. If we were use this more detailed analysis, we would find that, in spite of claims that the US is a relatively high-crime country, much of the US is actually quite moderate, or even low, in this regard.

Were we to do this, we would then be asking ourselves not why the US murder rate is what it is. We would be asking ourselves what it is about Maryland, Louisiana, and South Carolina that are driving up the US murder rate.

Indeed, this should be done for other large countries as well. Mexico is a large country, so it's of little value to simply speak of the murder rate in Mexico as high. The question is this: where is the murder rate high in Mexico?

If we look at this analysis from The Economist, we find that the murder rate in much of Mexico is on a par with Costa Rica and the Bahamas.  And almost no one ever says "don't go to the Bahamas, or you'll be beheaded!" The perception of Mexico is as a high-crime area, and the Bahamas are seen as a serene place to vacation. But the answer is really more complicated than that.

The murder rates in Mexican states vary so widely that Yucatan state has a murder rate equivalent to the very low-crime country of Finland, while Chihuahua state has a rate equivalent to El Salvador, one of the alleged murder capitals of the world.

And if you want to take a vacation soaking up some sun in Cabo? No problem, amigo, because the murder rate in Baja California Sur is lower than the murder rate in Texas.

The overall murder rate is 18, but note the diversity:

 Source: The Economist.

And here are two wonderful maps I came across, which appear to be from an earlier version of the UNODC Global Study on Homicide.  Russia is another case where it's obviously useless to talk about the country-wide murder rate.