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"America's Real Criminal Element: Lead" by Kevin Drum

Under Valuation Economics, crime can be defined as "the unauthorized appropriation,
destruction of, or access to wealth". This also implies that a change in the
distribution of wealth can have a profound effect on forms and rates of criminal
behavior. This makes the importance of changes in income secondary to
changes in the wealth which can be accessed for the same number of dollars. New and
emerging forms of wealth (and related crimes) can have a profound impact on rates of
crime without any change in income at all.
     The Valuation Economics Definition of "Crime"

I'm sure that lead in gasoline and paint is not good for anyone, and lead abatement is definitely something I want to be for, rather than against, but the definition of crime that I give above indicates that lead poisoning is a facet of a larger problem.

As I point out in "The Little Red Schoolhouse" the problem of concentrated wealth and poverty that we see in the modern U.S. is exacerbated by the funding of public school districts. Urban, suburban, and rural districts alike are effected by this historic choice. While this may seem good news for the richer districts, this is not beneficial even to them in the larger sense, as poorer students in richer districts often do not do well, and the society of which such districts are a part suffers immeasurably from the effects of poverty and neglect that blight the other districts.

There are other forces at work in history, however, which add to the problem even more. The establishment of GI mortgage tract housing in the suburbs caused a vast shift of wealth away from urban and rural neighborhoods to the suburbs. This fundamental shift in wealth availability is likely to have caused a great many consequences, only a handful of which can be considered positive, and in the balance seem rather overshadowed by the far more numerous and far larger negative effects.

The concentration of poverty in many school districts, their schools, and the surrounding neighborhoods created nearly insurmountable obstacles to proper education, employment, and quality of life in a society that was rapidly becoming industrialized. This is the next matter to consider for the period in question: the increasing industrialization and geographic mobility that made these trends even more potent.

Factories, cars, buses, freight trucking, and other products of a galloping industrial economy put a huge strain on the population that had been accustomed to an entirely different way of life. While all of these industries produced unprecedented levels of wealth for a great portion of the American people, it also created a growing gulf of educational attainment, opportunity, income, and access to wealth. The beginning of "trickle-down" economics in the '80s seemed to be the last nail in the coffin for some, especially family-owned farms, where borrowing at increasing interest became unsustainable.

So how is it then that crime decreased so rapidly in the early '90s? The medium is the message: a giant truckload of information technology became available all at once. Internet access, cable television, early cellphones -- it seemed that everything that could be wanted and imagined suddenly sprang into existence from thin air! We've found ourselves whipsawed between the positive and negative influences on our economy ever since. Now we find ourselves struggling to unburden ourselves from the legacy left to us by a history that was as much formed by guesswork and inertia as by any planning and governance that was responsive in a timely manner.

While lead poisoning may explain some of the damage done, I think that I've begun to make the case that concentrated poverty, a huge shift in access to wealth, and a great loss in the effectiveness of public schooling deserves deeper examination as the more elegant theory to explain the pattern of increasing (and now decreasing) levels of criminal activity. Beyond the ability to explain changing levels of crime, it also explains the difficulties we still have in public education, as this problem is enforced by mandatory school attendance and a continuing lack of ability to address the disparate wealth of school districts.

I'd like to thank the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the Prize Committee in anticipation of my Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. (That's a joke -- I think. P:D)



  • GI tract housing circa 1945
  • Even greater shift in wealth amongst neighborhoods
  • Industrialization and geographic mobility
  • Huge increase in access to wealth across all communities in the '90s
  • Explain modern school under-performance? This does, and lead increasingly does not; elegance in causal explanations; higher correlation rates?

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