Deep Thoughts

Did Heavy Metal Brain Damage Cause the 1960s?

January 23, 2013

Multiple Pages
Did Heavy Metal Brain Damage Cause the 1960s?

As part of my continuing series on the causes of the 60s, let’s consider Kevin Drum’s revival (”America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead”) in Mother Jones magazine of the recurrent theory that lead poisoning leads to the decline of civilization.

When I was young, it was popular to blame the decline and fall of the Roman Empire on the ancients’ fondness for this soft and versatile metal. (Have you ever noticed that nobody is much interested in how the Roman Empire managed to last so long?)

That exposure to this heavy metal can be dangerous to humans has been recognized since the days of Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder. But lead was so useful in so many ways that more than a few American municipalities proudly named themselves after their lucrative lead resources. Leadville, Colorado is America’s highest elevated incorporated city. There are several Galenas, one of which is a tourist town in Illinois. There’s a Smelterville, which sounds like a city made up for The Simpsons but is actually a real place in Idaho.

Ironically, Drum stands the dominant narrative about the 60s on its head. Instead of the 60s representing enlightened emancipation from the shackles of 50s conformist culture, Drum finds the 60s, with their rising rates of crime and illegitimate births, to be the result of brain damage.

“If there are connections between lead poisoning and crime, there’s gold to be made in unraveling them.”

Known side effects of lead poisoning include lower IQ and reduced impulse control, which are in turn associated with poor decision-making, such as becoming a criminal or a single mom.

The lead-crime theory is, in essence, uncomplicated: Lead was added to gasoline between the World Wars, and a generation or so later, Central Park was full of muggers. Spiro Agnew couldn’t have come up with a funnier diagnosis of the 60s than what Drum has talked an increasing number of liberals into believing.

The theory is almost as malleable as the metal. If crime is high among blacks in a car-dependent Sunbelt city, it’s because particles from leaded gasoline are still in the soil. But if crime is high in an old industrial city where poor blacks mostly took public transportation, it could be due to lead paint.

Drum and Nevin attempt to blame lead poisoning for much of the difference between black and white crime rates. Nevin, for example, notes that the notoriously violent Robert Taylor Homes were built near Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway. (Ironically, one reason why mid-century liberals in Chicago had favored the construction of gleaming new housing projects was because of the tragic deaths of tenement toddlers who ate chips of lead paint they had peeled off the decaying walls.)

Yet one of the more obvious differences between Chicago’s black and white areas is the heavier traffic in the expensive, safe zones. People who can afford cars tend to move away from black slums, leaving them bleak. In the Chicago area, race and class palpably determine the homicide rate. For example, compare the next-door neighbors Oak Park and Austin west of The Loop. The Eisenhower Expressway runs through Oak Park, but not through Austin. Yet the homicide rate is several dozen times worse in Austin.

Drum, who lives in Irvine, at least should be familiar with Southern California, where South-Central is fairly light in traffic compared to the jammed freeway interchanges of upscale West LA and Sherman Oaks.

And across the country, the densest neighborhoods are typically the various Chinatowns, which suffer little street crime and enjoy high math scores.

Yet as far as Theories of Everything go, lead-caused-the-60s-crime-wave is one of the less derisible. Lead is bad for you, and it might have had noticeable effects on society as a whole.

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.

Exactly how deleterious this metal is at low levels, at what ages, and through which modes of transmission remains murky. This doesn’t mean that lead wouldn’t cause increased crime by lowering IQ, all else being equal. But perhaps lead poisoning also diminishes crime by making its victims more sluggish, lacking in the initiative to go out and commit felonies.

On the other hand, perhaps lead pollution can help explain a little of the differences we see in black homicide rates between cities.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I was widely denounced for pointing out that the bad behavior visible on television wasn’t necessarily representative of average African Americans. You shouldn’t assume the typical black would behave as badly as New Orleans’s blacks, who had been more homicidal than most other cities’ blacks for years, even before Katrina.

This was especially true of the Crescent City’s flood-prone and poverty-stricken Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood. Back in 2005, I speculated that the traditional high crime rates of New Orleans’s blacks were due to the city’s let-the-good-times-roll culture being unsuited for African Americans, who need more socially conservative cultures.

Yet perhaps lead plays a role in New Orleans as well. Heavy metals would tend to build up in the Lower Ninth Ward’s below-sea-level soil.

Notoriously, scientific papers end with a pronouncement that More Research Is Needed. It’s been six years since I first pointed out some of the flaws in the papers upon which Drum relies. Yet for all their weaknesses, they remain the state of the art in thinking about the impact of lead pollution on crime, a subject with interesting implications for real-estate investors.

If the ongoing decline in lead in the environment will cause crime rates to drop in the future, then more slums become plausibly gentrifiable. Consider the vast expanse of South-Central Los Angeles, with its superb climate and ample parking. If black and Hispanic crime rates drop in the future, South-Central could begin to look attractive to adventurous white and Asian gentrifiers.

But if a stronger link is someday established between lead pollution and criminal activity among children, that might make some currently gentrifying neighborhoods less attractive, with unfortunate implications for investors.

So if there are connections between lead poisoning and crime, there’s gold to be made in unraveling them.

 

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