Reality watch: Drum’s along the crime scene!


Lead paint and baby steps and the crime rate in Los Angeles: Why are Los Angeles crime rates way down?

We recommend Friday’s post by Kevin Drum—though it’s just a gateway post.

Why have crime rates fallen so far—and not just in Los Angeles? This was the start of Drum’s answer, in which he linked to previous posts on this topic:
DRUM (1/6/12): Don't forget lead! Lead lead lead lead. When is the connection between reduced lead levels and reduced crime levels finally going to penetrate the minds of American journalists? I know it's not sexy and I know everyone wants to ignore it because you can't tell heroic stories about lead, but it's almost certainly the single biggest contributor to crime reductions nationwide.

Plus it's good news: the fact that reduced lead levels have played a big role in this means that a lot of the decline in crime is permanent. Hooray! Get rid of even more lead, as well as other environmental neurotoxins that affect small children, and crime levels will come down even more. Double hooray!
Has the abatement of lead-based paint produced the nation’s large reductions in crime? We don’t know, but Drum has been pointing to serious studies which draw this conclusion for the past several years.

People are inclined to dismiss such a thought. For ourselves, we thought of Kevin’s posts on this topic earlier last week, as we drove past our local elementary school right at dismissal time. We have been struck in recent years by the amazingly orderly, calm demeanor of the kids who attend this school, which is part of the Baltimore City Schools. It seems to us that this school’s dismissals used to be extremely chaotic, in ways which may tend to sadden those who have worked with deserving city kids.

We’ve noticed this (apparent) change in demeanor before. We’ve marveled at how impressive this school’s plaid-uniformed children now seem to be—in our local "supermarket," for example. Last week, for the first time, we thought of Kevin’s posts about lead. Also for the very first time, a crazy thought entered our heads:

Could the ongoing rise in the nation’s NAEP scores be due to lead abatement?

We can’t answer that question, of course. But a few days later, there it was—Drum’s latest post on the topic.

Pseudo-liberals can now get busy examining the ugly racism involved in what we have written. We pseudos are very good at this trick—and we seem to know few others. We skip right over posts like Drum’s; we hurry past posts about low-income kids. Except to the extent that they can be used to help us emit our tribal war cries, we don’t seem to give a fig about such populations.

For people who care about the real world, we’ll recommend two recent columns in the New York Times. And we’ll ask two questions we’ve asked before:

Where is William Raspberry? And how are his baby steps coming?

The columns: On Sunday, Nicholas Kristof wrote this piece about the damage which is sometimes done to children in the earliest years of life, long before they reach kindergarten, before they reach pre-school. This morning, Krugman deals with similar topics, though he puts his remarks into the real-world political context which Kristof tends to avoid. For deserving kids from low-income homes, roadblocks to certain types of success may be found right in the environment. At one time, lead paint may have been one. Kristof and Krugman list others.

Such topics are rarely discussed in the pseudo worlds. This brings us to Raspberry.

Raspberry served for many years as a columnist at the Washington Post. In part for that reason, he once won a Pulitzer Prize. Below, we’ll help you recall his two worst moments; one involved that fine man, Colin Powell. But when he retired from the Post in 2005, Raspberry, a measured and genial man, did a truly superlative thing. He returned to his small hometown—Okolona, Mississippi—to start the Baby Steps program.

For the Baby Steps web site, click here.

Reading Kristof, we wondered again how Baby Steps is doing. It’s odd that no one ever seems to ask. Raspberry was a very major inside player. But given the ways of the pseudo worlds, even he disappears from the scene when he works with low-income children—or as in this case, with the parents of same.

How is William Raspberry doing? How odd! No one ever asks!

Two tragic minutes: One of Raspberry’s bad moments came in February 2003. He joined the stampede at the Washington Post in which major columnists tried to top one another in their praise for Powell's UN presentation. It was so convincing! How could anyone doubt?

That was a very bad moment concerning a press corps saint. In June 2000, Raspberry created a very bad moment concerning a press corps demon. In this remarkable passage, he wondered why Candidate Gore couldn’t get his campaign off the ground:
RASPBERRY (6/12/00): Even the overreaching that Gore is so widely accused of—inventing the Internet, being the model for the movie "Love Story," working on the family farm—may not have as much substance as we believe. Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News is a superb journalist and certainly no flak for the vice president. Here are two paragraphs from Nelson's review in The American Prospect of Bill Turque's biography, "Inventing Al Gore":

"Although he was born, raised and schooled in Washington, he in fact did work cruelly hard on his father's Tennessee farm during the summer. He was part of the inspiration for Erich Segal's 'Love Story.' . . . He did hold the first congressional hearings into pollution at New York's Love Canal.

"And he did in fact sponsor the spending that required the Pentagon to allow the expansion of the Internet from a small defense communications system into civilian life. In explaining his 1989 National High-Performance Computer Technology Act, he presciently told a House committee: 'I genuinely believe that the creation of this nationwide network . . . will create an environment where workstations are common in homes and even small businesses.' "

Even granting Nelson's point that Gore is a victim of the media's "preference for reveling in gossip rather than checking facts," what does it say about Gore himself that you believe the stories of his overreaching? Shouldn't he and his campaign take some responsibility for not getting the truth out? Isn't that at least as important to his electoral prospects as his adoption of sartorial "earth tones"?

More to the point, why haven't he and his campaign staff been able to shift the conversation away from his weaknesses—including his bland personality and his storied "stiffness"—to the Clinton-Gore record and his own proposals?
What a terrible moment! In that passage, Raspberry showed he knew that a war was on—and that it was being staged by his colleagues.

And he blamed the whole thing on Gore and his staff! What don’t they make us stop doing these things? So William Raspberry asked.

Raspberry rattled off every script in his guild’s overflowing arsenal. He even cited the famous stiffness and those alleged earth tones. As he did this, he wondered why Gore didn’t make him stop! That is the way a witch trial works—and it’s how you got to Iraq.

As Yevtushenko wrote:

To each his world is private,
and in that world one excellent minute.
And in that world one tragic minute.
These are private.

Go ahead. Just click here.


  1. The lead reduction notion is very interesting.

    I've always wondered if we're really seeing a culture shift, toward higher standards of obedience to authority and more authoritarian, rule-based life in schools and beyond as well. Unfortunately, that's mostly based on anecdotal information, and I'm much too young to know for myself whether or not there's been such a change!

  2. Actually, the absence of lead in the environment could be quite a thrilling and maddening story fully told, as it would indict the oil industry for imposing generations of violence and misery on society for no good reason and with no accountability.

    Perhaps this is why the media avoid it.

    Or not. It's more likely that these numbskulls are just that -- numbskulls on this subject like any other and no more, as you suggest. Still, if they were to awake to this factor, they might quail at the thought of its implications.

  3. Yes, Bolo, you're much too young to know. (No shame on you, and good for you for freely aknowledging the insufficiency of your knowledge base on the subject.)

    This "obedience to authority" thing kind of comes and goes, but overall, the trend has been and continues to be decreasing obedience to authority. Even during the late '60s and '70s, in the environment of anti-war protests and building occupations on campus, public and semi-public (ie, classrooms, etc.) behavior was otherwise much more routinely orderly than it is today.

  4. It's a wonderful poem, Bob, and in a word-meaning-centered translation, rather than one that tries to be artsy-fartsy about meter and rhyme and trashes the meaning of the words to achieve it. Thanks very much.

  5. I don't buy the argument that lead is a significant cause of crime. Look at the graph at the Kevin Drum link. It shows blood lead levels dropping during the period 1976 - 1980, a period when crime also dropped. However, if the graph were extended back to the 1950's, I believe it would show high blood lead levels, but low crime rates. We are warned that correlation doesn't equal causality. In this case, we don't even have correlation, if a longer time period is used.

    And, of course, during the period 1976 - 1980, many other things were happening that might account for the drop in crime rate.

    They always war,

  6. Maybe high fructose corn syrup and high-res video gaming have created a generation too lethargic for classic street crime.

  7. Didn't the Freakonomics crew ascribe the plunging crime rates to the widespread availability of safe, legalized abortion? I think there's something to be said for that thesis, though we'd struggle to find any major politicians, Democratic or Republican, to advance it, unlike 30-35 years ago.

  8. The Levitt and Dubner have gotten a lot of things completely wrong, including the abortion/crime link:
    While it's very hard to document or "prove", I'd speculate that it's likely that lead, mercury, other toxins, and diets low in critical micro-nutrients (e.g.; Omega-3 fatty acids) have significant effects on cognition in children and, hence, NAEP (and other) test scores.

  9. Saul Bellow's '80s novel "The Dean's December" touches on this topic - one of the characters "discovers" a link between lead levels and crime. Not the main plot of the novel, but an interesting aside. Good book nonetheless.

  10. @Kickbass, the first link says nothing about Levitt's and Dubner's abortion-lowering-crime thesis. Nothing.

    The second link notes that even taking into account Foote's critique, there is something to Levitt's research on this.

    I'm not advocating it, but just saying that it may also point to one of the reasons for the drop in crime.

  11. Sorry Pharaon.
    I probably should have not used the WSJ link.
    This is more helpful:

    I'm not buying the abortion/crime thing at all and see no reason to trust the Freakos re: anything.

    I followed the controversy around Levitt and Dubner's Superfreakonomics climate/C02 chapter rather closely. The gist of it is that they claimed that carbon sequestration was a viable approach to mitigating C02, misrepresenting the work of Ken Caldiera in the process and then dug their heels in when they were taken to task over their shoddy work.

    Here's a starting point if you like: