The 2020 murder surge wasn't about Covid
Covid was global, the crime wave was only in America
Paul Krugman wrote a column last week on public perceptions of crime versus crime realities with some analogies to and implications for public perceptions of the economy.
I’m in agreement with probably 80 percent of what he writes. But I think the remaining 20 percent exemplifies why liberals have a hard time securing the public’s trust on this issue, which exacerbates the misperceptions that Krugman is nervous about. The stylized facts about crime he is working with are that murder (and non-fatal shootings, but murder is the best-measured offense) went up a lot in 2020 and up a bit more in 2021. We then had a decent murder drop in 2022 and another one in 2023 that is now on track to leave the 2023 murder rate lower than the 2020 rate. Dark Brandon reversed the Trump crime wave.
So what happened in 2020?
I think most people are aware that George Floyd was arrested and then killed by a police officer in Minneapolis while several of the officer’s colleagues stood around and watched. That touched off a massive and multi-dimensional social upheaval about race and racial equality that had a particular locus of concern around questions of policing and criminal justice. And then crime spiraled out of control.
Or as Krugman puts it:
Unlike the somewhat mysterious decline in crime in previous decades, this crime wave wasn’t too hard to explain. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a lot of isolation and disruption, plus a lot of psychological stress, making it plausible that some Americans became disconnected from the social bonds that usually keep most of us law-abiding.
In other words, he not only thinks the 2020 crime wave had nothing to do with Floyd and the post-Floyd reaction, he thinks this is so obviously the case that he doesn’t even need to argue about it. The causes of the 2022-2023 murder decline, according to Krugman, are obvious — the virus went into remission. The only question is why don’t people realize murder is down.
My view is that there are, actually, a lot of valid and unanswered questions about why murders spiked in 2020, and almost all of those questions center around Floyd and the Floyd fallout. The reason there’s a fair amount of mystery is that it’s challenging to pin down exactly what about the Floyd fallout was responsible for the large increase. There were, in fact, a handful of cities that took steps to defund their police departments, but most places didn’t do this, and the crime increase was very widespread. Similarly, the handful of “progressive prosecutors” scattered around the country are not nearly numerous enough to explain the broad national trend. But I do think there’s evidence that it had something to do with Floyd and the post-Floyd fallout.
Failing to recognize that is bad across multiple dimensions. One is that it’s substantively important to try to understand exactly what went wrong and how we can do better. But the other is that progressive discomfort with acknowledging the facts here speaks to some of the broader epistemic issues in mainstream left of center politics.
Covid was global, the crime surge was not
Figuring out causality is always hard, because our evidence is almost always correlational and (as people on the internet are happy to tell you) correlation is not causation. So one obvious task when a hypothesis is based on a time-series correlation (crime went up during Covid disruptions) is to check for a cross-sectional correlation. After all, Covid was an international phenomenon. So if Covid disruptions caused murder to rise, we’d expect to see murder up everywhere.
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