Lead, Crime, and Politics

Photo Credit: flickr Ben C

In a recent cover article for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum tells a fascinating story about how researchers have uncovered a surprising connection: The sharp increase in violent crime in post-war America, and the sharp decline since the 1990s, may be largely due to one surprising factor – leaded vs. unleaded gasoline.

If true (and the evidence certainly seems compelling), the story of this discovery is important food for thought on many levels, with a number of lessons for communicating effectively on social issues.

Moral vs. material dimensions of an issue

It is all too easy to interpret any public issue in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” at the simplest level.

  • Child abuse is committed by “bad guys” – so there is little that the rest of the community can do beyond policing and imprisoning.
  • Farmers are “good guys” so there is no reason to be concerned about the practices they use to eliminate insects or maximize crop yields.
  • Even the economy is shaped by the choices of “good guys” (who work hard, are loyal to employees, make responsible purchases etc.) and “bad guys” (who spend beyond their means, treat employees cruelly, and so forth).

What these tempting interpretations often miss are the “material” dimensions of the story. How do housing arrangements – which increase or decrease social isolation – end up affecting rates of child maltreatment? How does excessive nitrogen fertilizer affect the ecosystems of downstream lakes, rivers and oceans? How is the economy shaped by laws that make it harder or easier for workers to stick together for their common interests?

The lead poisoning story provides a beautiful illustration of the fact that the “material” dimension, that can seem dry and technical, is often much more important than the simple and appealing moral story about “bad guys” (violent criminals) and the role of parenting, video games, and moral values in creating them.  In fact, the moral story is often deliberately used to distract public attention from the material concerns that policy can address. 

To regulate or not to regulate

One of the most contentious issues in American life is the extent to which citizens ought to regulate business. Even many Democrats – who are more likely to favor active government – are concerned that putting constraints on businesses can hurt profitability and ultimately put people out of work. The link between leaded gasoline and violent crime offers a striking case study of how our communities and our whole society have a deep stake in the choices made by businesses. And a simple collective decision – i.e. the (government-mandated) phase-out of leaded gasoline – had tremendous benefits for all of us.

Connecting the dots

Scientific findings often get pushed out of policy debate. On a range of issues – evolution, global warming, drug addiction and so on – scientists are ignored or even ridiculed by politicians.  This dynamic, once constrained to the most extreme, religious right wing, is becoming increasingly common.  This story provides a clear example of the need to rely on science and facts in policymaking.

However, science gets pushed out of public discourse on social issues not just by anti-science activists, but more often by advocates’ inability to provide a simple explanation that people can hear and embrace. It can’t be stated too many times that if people don’t have a simple grasp of how an issue works, they have little chance of engaging with it constructively. Insiders know this on some level, but often fall short when it comes to offering audiences a clear, common sense picture of the important dynamics at work on a given issue. The leaded gasoline story is a great illustration of how understanding the story that links A to B to C makes all the difference. Not only would understanding of this connection have made a difference in the 1950s, it is a critical connection to communicate now.  As Mother Jones points out, the inability to see the big picture and connect the dots between issues is a significant obstacle to moving forward on dealing with continuing lead exposure.

An ounce of prevention

Policymakers are famously short-term in their thinking.  They focus on today’s crisis, the current economy, this year’s budget.  However, on issue after issue, we know that an investment today will yield significant rewards later.  This story has the potential to remind policymakers of this important lesson.

It’s the environment, stupid

Americans of whatever political stripe find it easy to put “environmental” topics near the bottom of their list of concerns. Even if Americans are generally sympathetic to environmental perspectives, they often think of them as being about plants and animals – somehow disconnected from human urgency.

While it is obvious to insiders and professionals that “the environment” relates to everything from our own health to food output levels to property damage and even loss of life from storms, this is simply not the default perspective of average people.

Advocates face an important challenge in helping the public focus on the infinite ways in which our own wellbeing depends on our physical surroundings including natural systems. What could illustrate this point more viscerally than the connection between the kind of gasoline we burn in our cars and our own odds of being mugged or murdered? Not to mention the fates of the kids whose own lives were derailed by lead exposure, and the significant costs to society related to imprisonment, special education, lost productivity, and so on.