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.