The Economist has an interesting piece of analysis that shows a direct correlation between the violence rate within a country and police brutality. Here is what the article had to say “Why are some cops so likely to kill? Partly because they fear for their own lives, or for those of bystanders. In general, the more murderous the country, the more deadly are its police (see chart). American cops shoot more people than police in other rich countries largely because more people shoot at them. They are 36 times deadlier than German police officers, but also 35 times likelier to be killed on the job.”
This got me curious and some quick analysis into the topic challenged many of my own assumptions on the causes of violence and therefore police brutality. Here is some of what I found
High income and strong institutions have little correlation with violence — In general stronger GDP/capita implies better institutions such as schools, social protection programs, hospitals, infrastructure, police etc. But there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between GDP/capita and violence (using homicide as a proxy). What is clear from the graph above is that violence doesn’t relate to the quality of institutions, and it isn’t an American problem either.
But violence is a function of inequality — When comparing GINI coefficients (a measure of income inequality) vs homicide rates we see a clear pattern. Countries with higher inequality have more homicides. Colombia is nearly 3 times as rich as Ghana but over 10 times as many people are murdered in Colombia for a given population. One can debate causation vs correlation here but it is difficult to find a situation where increased violence causes increased inequality except perhaps in completely lawless nations which are run by gangs that enrich themselves through violence. No such nation shows up at the top of this graph.
Could history be the cause of inequality — Here is where it gets really interesting. While there is a lot of evidence that growth in GDP/capita increases inequality in most countries, inequality levels might start at different points. The red dots in both graphs above represent countries in North and South America. The Americas have the highest rates of homicide in the world with only South Africa and tiny Lesotho (which is engulfed by South Africa on all sides) to keep them company.
So why do the Americas have high levels of inequality and violence? My theory is the Atlantic slave trade. These countries were built by two distinct groups of people — one that toiled under slavery and another that benefited massively from those that toiled. The gap between these two groups has never disappeared. This theory also explains why South Africa is in the same terrible league as the Americas. Apartheid. While other African countries largely expelled European settlers upon gaining independence, South Africa continues to exist with descendants of different racial groups co-existing with their inherited inequalities.
In fact, more telling are the countries in the Americas that have the lowest level of inequality and violence — at the bottom of the pack are Canada, Aruba, and Chile — countries with the lowest levels of slavery during the Atlantic slave trade. Most slaves were taken to Brazil and the Caribbean islands which are unsurprisingly global leaders of violence and inequality today. Brazil, for instance, accounted for 40% of the slave trade to the Americas. Last year Brazilian police killed 1,814 in Rio De Janerio alone compared to 1009 police killings in all of the US. Even within the US, the southern slave holding states of yesteryears see about three times the police violence as their northern counterparts over 150 years after slavery ended.
It is frightening to think that inequality, violence and police brutality are inherited as a result of history. But what is clear to me is that police brutality will exist as long as violence exists. And violence will continue as long as inequality exists.
None of this justifies police brutality. While the police need to have better systems to reduce brutality, to hack at its roots, we need to figure out how to increase an average black American family’s income from $41,000 and reduce the average white family’s income of $71,000 so they both meet somewhere in the middle. Its the one thing we are not talking about during these protests. Perhaps the best way for privileged Americans to show their support for #BlackLivesMatter is to advocate for a wealth tax or an inheritance tax.
I am no economist, but I would point to the Noble winning economists Ester Duflo’s and Abhijit Banerjee’s arguments on wealth tax, increased income tax rates on the 1%, and basic income as potential solutions to tackle inequality. Give their incredible book — Good Economics for Hard Times — a read.