Political Animal


January 03, 2013 4:36 PM The Lead Hypothesis

By Ed Kilgore

If you’re really tired of contemporary politics and want to read something very different with vast political implications, check out Kevin Drum’s fascinating article for MoJo on the growing evidence that violent crime and all sorts of behavioral problems are highly associated with the existence (and persistence) of lead in the environment. As someone who spent years working in the crime policy area and exploring some of the more conventional theories for how to reduce violence and incarceration, Kevin’s piece has hit me like a thunderbolt, and I’ll be mulling it over for a while.

Note the summary and appreciation of Drum’s piece at Ten Miles Square by Mark Kleiman, who has forgotten more about the intersection of science and crime policy than I’ll ever know.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • boatboy_srq on January 03, 2013 5:05 PM:

    Another reason for the GOTea to oppose the EPA and any and all environmental rulemaking. It's obvious to them that contaminants in the home/school/workplace/whatever aren't the cause of delinquency or criminal behavior - it's either Satan's work, or the number and quality of those among the US citizenry who are Unworthy of Salvation.

    /snark (for those who can't detect such for themselves)

  • Rich on January 03, 2013 5:15 PM:

    Provaocative perhaps, but not very scientific. Correlation isn't causation and from whta i can get out of the public use links (some of the articles aren't available), they haven't done much to control for other factors that would correlate with correlate with the same locations (e.g., poverty). Many of teh underlying ideas have been a round for a long time--biological determinists around IQ talkked about this 40 odd years ago.

  • Mimikatz on January 03, 2013 5:25 PM:

    This is a tremendously important article and deserves a wide audience. We could save a ton of money and reduce crime and our prison system for relatively little. Everyone should read it.

    Read the whole piece, including the second page. It has a very strong scientific basis. It is one of the most important pieces I'vej read and upends many things you "know" are true.

  • smartalek on January 03, 2013 7:08 PM:

    Though I confess to not having clicked any of the links in the MoJo piece, it seems to me that the studies comparing the correlations across states with differently timed and structured de-leading regimes would serve pretty well to tease out any confounding effects from economic status, even if there was no other mechanism by which to specifically control for wealth/income effects... And though the article never specified any other such deliberate controls, it didn't say there were none, either.
    I'd like to think that I have a pretty good BS detector, even in fields at which I'm not expert, and there were clearly identifiable aspects of the studies referred to that were clever, and elegant.
    Perhaps not proof -- but definitely compelling, if not yet 100% convincing.
    Thank you for the link.

  • exlibra on January 03, 2013 8:13 PM:

    Who'd'a thunk that growing up in a poor country (commie Poland), where only the party officials could afford cars, might have been the saving grace?

  • exlibra on January 03, 2013 8:39 PM:

    Odd thought... Could growing up in a lead-infested neighbourhood become a mitigating circumstance in future criminal cases?

  • Yellowdog on January 04, 2013 12:06 AM:

    Even if crime is not a downriver effect of lead exposure, there are still plenty of negative long-term effects that are not in doubt. Look at school achievement, for instance. We know this stuff is harmful, and we have known it for a long time. If you could magically create something to harm a child's whole life before it really got started, it would look a lot like lead. Kudos to groups like the National Center for Healthy Housing that have been fighting the battle against lead exposure for years. (Go to nchh.org for more information.).
    And if you could not already predict it, the GOP thinks lead paint regulation and research are bad ideas. They managed to cut CDC lead funding this year dramatically--even when we are learning that lower levels than previously thought are harmful. Kids, folks. Poisoned kids... If you have any doubt about the moral vacuum at the deadened heart of the GOP, look no further for proof.

  • Doh on January 04, 2013 8:20 AM:

    I'm also fairly sceptical of econometrics/freakonomics-type analyses, especially for big claims like this, but in this case there is a lot of hard science that supports the underlying mechanisms (that lead affects behavior).

    I think he's a little glib in deciding that the only important sources of lead are soil and paint in windows, but I agree that pretty much anything that reduces lead exposure is a good thing.

  • paul on January 04, 2013 9:22 AM:

    so what does this mean about the effects of lead on the behavior of the upper echelons?

  • Rick B on January 04, 2013 10:33 AM:

    Kevin Drum pointed out an interesting surprise in the lowering of crime rates as a result of removing lead from gasoline and from the air. It turns out that the higher murder rates in the big cities over smaller towns is not the result of the immorality of big cities. When lead is removed from the atmosphere the murder rate in big cities and smaller towns drops to roughly the same level.

    Sorry, Preachers. It's not big city immorality. It's the larger number of gasoline-burning cars in the big cities. Remove the lead, you have removed the lead-caused murders. That's a real experiment when cities remove lead at different times.

  • Z on January 04, 2013 2:21 PM:

    This is arguably a foreign policy issue as well. The countries where leaded gas is STILL used include Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Yemen, Algeria, Burma and Gaza.