Sorry, I Don’t Know Why Murder Rates Are Up In a Bunch of Big Cities


I’ve gotten enough requests to comment on this piece from the New York Times that I guess I’d better do so:

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing. Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.

The reason I haven’t said anything about this until now is that I had nothing to say. I have no more idea what’s driving this increase than anyone else.

But what about lead? Here’s the problem: gasoline lead explains one thing and one thing only. And that thing is the huge violent crime wave of 1960-1990 followed by the equally huge drop of 1990-2010. But that’s over. What we’re left with now is the baseline level of violent crime, which obviously wouldn’t be zero even if there were no lead in the environment at all. And the causes of this baseline level of violent crime are all the usual suspects: poverty, race, drugs, policing, guns, demographics, and so forth. A more detailed explanation is here. At this point, lead is a very small contributor to the crime level.

It’s also worth pointing out that crime figures, and murder figures in particular, are extremely noisy. Lead explains long-term shifts. It doesn’t explain short-term spikes or (in most cases) differences from one city to another. The current increase in murder rates could be due to lots of things, or it could just be the usual noise in the numbers. Maybe they’ll go right back down next year.

But I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that lead is playing no particular role in this, either good or bad.

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