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More Great News About How Much Safer Our World Is

Here in the West, we are all benefiting from an unprecedented, steady drop in many kinds of social dysfunction, including crime and teen pregnancy. And it's likely to continue. The explanation, I'm increasingly convinced, is the fact that the West outlawed lead in gasoline in the early 1970s. Kevin Drum, who's been on this beat for a while, points to a new study finding a strong correlation between lead reduction and drops in teen pregnancy. For those new to this debate, it turns out that exposure to lead in early childhood permanently damages the brain in ways associated with impulsive conduct in later life. So if lead levels go down, we would expect a drop in impulsive behavior with about a 15-18 year lag. And that's just what we see, in many different areas, right now:  

The neurological basis for the lead-crime theory suggests that childhood lead exposure affects parts of the brain that have to do with judgment, impulse control, and executive functions. This means that lead exposure is likely to be associated not just with violent crime, but with juvenile misbehavior, drug use, teen pregnancy, and other risky behaviors. And that turns out to be the case. Reyes finds correlations with behavioral problems starting at a young age; teen pregnancy; and violent crime rates among older children.

It's a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn't just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn't related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn't suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn't suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down.

Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.

This doesn't mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. 

Obviously, correlation does not itself prove causation, etc. etc. But every time the lead-crime hypothesis has been tested, as far as I'm aware, the results have suggested a link. So, our societies are getting safer and safer, all due to a wise environmental policy decision we made 40 years ago (in the U.S., under President Richard Nixon!). Which, at the time, was of course fought tooth and nail by our friends, corporate lobbyists.

Can anyone point me to German studies on this? I'd really be interested to see whether a similar argument can be made here.

Comments

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Johannes

Didn't Germany/Europe use leaded gas well into the 1980ties?

And what about levels of crime, teen pregnancy etc. in the 20ties through early 60ties? Are there any correlations to rural/urban dwelling places, density of automobiles etc.? Wasn't lead paint claimed as a culprit as well at some stage?

In any case I should be wary to bring extraneous chemical causes into that as long as many obvious societal (or maybe biological-racial) causes seem to be quite efficacious.

Andrew

Interesting points. Of course, you have to insert a caveat every third or fourth sentence saying lead doesn't explain everything, but it sure seems to explain a lot. As for the link to Japanese air pollution, the article linked doesn't mention lead, and there are good reasons to suppose the problem in Japan was much smaller. The problem was much less severe outside the USA, as this paper (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/sipa/envp/louchouarn/courses/env-chem/Pb-Rise&Fall(Nriagu1990).pdf) points out, specifically mentioning Japan:

"Quantitative information on the worldwide consumption of leaded gasoline is hard to obtain. Since the Europeans and the Japanese used smaller, more efficient engines, it is not surprising that the United States accounted for over 80% of the leaded gasoline sold prior to 1970."

M. Möhling

Drum makes it clear that this is a hatchet job against the broken windows theory. Steve Sailer, no surprise, is not so sanguineous about Drum's theory:

The problem is coming up with ways to test the theory. A half-dozen years ago, I blogged (”Lead Poisoning and the Great American Freakout”) about the research that Drum finds so convincing today. One reality check immediately suggested itself: Back in the late 1960s, densely populated Japan was notorious for automobile-induced air pollution. Yet crime didn’t rise in Japan. The country remained an orderly, intelligent, non-impulsive culture.

That’s one strike against the theory. Another problem is that Jessica Wolpaw Reyes’s attempt to correlate small differences from when American states began phasing out leaded gasoline in the 1970s to when crime began declining in the 1990s isn’t convincing to many besides Drum. Reyes came up with statistically significant results for total violent crimes, but not for homicides (the most accurately counted crime), nor for property offenses.

Yet two strikes isn’t bad for a causes-of-crime theory. It holds up better than the famous Freakonomics abortion-cut-crime surmise.

He has some ideas on missing research that could be done:

My suggestion, both from the perspective of disinterested research [MM: that's Sailer fun] and as a PR strategy, has been for Drum to focus upon specific locations that were severely polluted by lead due to mining, industry, or dumping. The EPA maintains a handy list of some of the worst lead pollution Superfund sites. What has happened to crime rates in these locales over time? For instance, correlate the EPA graph above with crime rates in Smelterville and see what you get.

To give a literary example, the single most insanely violent novel I've ever read is Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, which is based upon his experiences as a Pinkerton man in Butte, Montana, a center of violent strikes and repression. Butte was the biggest, most polluted mining town in the United States, with substantial lead and gigantic copper mining activities right in the middle of town. Did metal poisoning contribute to the craziness of action described in Hammett's book?

One of his commenters suggests:

However, the Bunker Hill smelter complex processed ores much richer in lead and is well documented to have contributed to lead-poisoning (elevated BLLs) in the area well into our own time.

The bottom line is that if you are looking for a BLL – violence linkage, Bunker Hill is more likely to yield results than Butte.

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