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Howard Steven Friedman

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World's Deadliest Wealthy Countries

Posted: 04/ 4/2012 10:18 am

Before diving into any detailed analysis of government data, I usually hear the voice of one of my professors telling his favorite statistics joke. It went something like this, "Statisticians are brilliant people. They can analyze raw data, develop complex models, draw causal inferences and make bold projections of the future. They do this fearlessly, without concern for the minor issue that the data itself came from the fellow down the hall who wrote down whatever he felt like so he could get paid." Analyzing government data isn't quite as bad as that joke, but statisticians do need to be concerned about the danger of "garbage in garbage-out" in any work that do.

So how do these concerns about data quality relate to identifying the world's deadliest wealthy countries? It starts with the fact that the data for crime is notoriously fraught with quality issues. Criminologists use the phrase the "dark figure of crime" to describe the amount of crime that goes unreported or undetected. This "dark figure of crime" represents the gap between the true crime rate and the rate found in official reports.

Knowing that the "dark figure of crime" is so large, I decided to focus on homicide rates in this article. Why homicide? For starters, it is a critically important measure of crime since it is perhaps the most extreme of possible crimes, the taking of a life. More importantly, it is considered to be one of the more reliable crime statistics.

So which wealthy countries have the highest homicide rates? Of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the countries with the five highest homicide rates are, in order: Mexico (highest), Chile, Estonia, the United States and Turkey (fifth highest). Anyone looking at that list would likely call out the fact that these countries, while all being in the OECD, are not equally wealthy. In fact, the United States has a GDP per capita that is more than twice that of any of the other top four most deadly OECD countries. A simple scatterplot, where each data point represents a different country and the US is displayed prominently, gives a clearer picture of how America stands. The graph below shows that for the OECD countries, the US has one of the highest rates of GDP per capita (a rough, but commonly used metric of wealth). You will also quickly see that the US is a major outlier in the general observation that wealthier countries tend to have lower homicide rates.

2012-04-03-homicides.jpg
Why does the United States have a much higher homicide rate than most other wealthy countries? There are a multitude of explanations, from economic disparities, to inequalities in education and careers opportunities, to America's history of violence and racial issues. One important factor driving America's homicide rate is gun ownership since firearms are used in the majority of American homicides. America's gun ownership rates are vastly higher than that of other wealthy countries. In fact, only one OECD country has a rate that is even half as much of America's gun ownership rate. At the same time as America has such a high gun ownership rate and homicide rate, it also has an incarceration rate that is about seven times higher than the median rate for OECD countries and is one of the only wealthy countries in the world to conduct executions.

In summary, America's homicide rates, incarceration rates and gun ownership rates are all much higher than other wealthy countries. While the data associated with crime is imperfect, these facts all point to the idea that America is more violent than many other wealthy countries.

These thoughts about crime were summarized by friend from Australian who remarked, "I don't know why you Americans are so violent, but don't blame it on the Brits since Australia, New Zealand and Canada sure don't have your issues."

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