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Get The Lead Out…And Slash Violent Crime Rates

January 7, 2013
America's Criminal Superpredator?

America’s Criminal Superpredator?

Every once in a while you come across a magazine article that brilliantly summarizes and popularizes heretofore obscure academic research, reframes an entire public policy arena, and (if there’s any justice) leads to dramatic, and dramatically good, changes in the years ahead.  Kevin Drum’s story in the new issue of Mother Jones on “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead” is such an article.  If you don’t read any other politics/policy article this week, this is the one to read.

Drum argues convincingly that “tetraethyl lead, the gasoline additive invented by General Motors in the 1920s to prevent knocking and pinging in high-performance engines” is the primary culprit for the mid-20th century U.S. rise in violent crime and that its removal from gasoline is the primary reason for the subsequent long-term decline in violent crime, beginning in the early 1990s.

The whole article is packed with gems of long-form journalistic writing:

“Experts often suggest that crime resembles an epidemic. But what kind? Karl Smith, a professor of public economics and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has a good rule of thumb for categorizing epidemics: If it spreads along lines of communication, he says, the cause is information. Think Bieber Fever. If it travels along major transportation routes, the cause is microbial. Think influenza. If it spreads out like a fan, the cause is an insect. Think malaria. But if it’s everywhere, all at once—as both the rise of crime in the ’60s and ’70s and the fall of crime in the ’90s seemed to be—the cause is a molecule.”   …[snip]…

“In a 2000 paper (PDF) (economist Rick Nevin) concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.” (emphasis added)

After citing several other researchers and studies, Drum writes “Put all this together and you have an astonishing body of evidence. We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.”

The primary sources of lead poisoning today are contaminated soil (particularly in cities where there are more cars) and paint dust from the windows of old houses.  Drum does a rough cost-benefit analysis and comes to the following conclusion:  “Put this (i.e., costs of soil remediation and removing lead paint, benefits of further reductions in violent crime and of increased lifetime earnings from decreased lead-induced brain damage) all together and the benefits of lead cleanup could be in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. In other words, an annual investment of $20 billion for 20 years could produce returns of 10-to-1 every single year for decades to come. Those are returns that Wall Street hedge funds can only dream of.”   …[snip]…

“If you gave me the choice, right now, of spending $20 billion less on prisons and cops and spending $20 billion more on getting rid of lead, I’d take the deal in a heartbeat. Not only would solving our lead problem do more than any prison to reduce our crime problem, it would produce smarter, better-adjusted kids in the bargain. There’s nothing partisan about this, nothing that should appeal more to one group than another. It’s just common sense. Cleaning up the rest of the lead that remains in our environment could turn out to be the cheapest, most effective crime prevention tool we have. And we could start doing it tomorrow.”

For additional goodies on lead, crime and related issues that didn’t make it into the magazine article, check out some recent posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) on Drum’s excellent blog.

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From → City Life, Politics

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