Lead, Evil, and Corporate Free Speech

Kevin Drum, who’s been doing Pulitzer-quality science and policy reporting on the behavioral effects of environmental lead, has yet another item today, once again reporting a new paper by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes of Amherst, who’s been doing the fancy number-crunching on the topic. No real surprise: in addition to greatly increasing rates of criminal behavior, lead exposure also increase the risk of other consequences of poor self-command, such as early pregnancy. Kevin draws one of the right morals of the story: that biology matters, while liberals and conservatives tend to unite in blaming everything on society, economics, and culture:

It’s a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn’t just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn’t related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn’t suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn’t suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down. Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline. This doesn’t mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. Maybe poverty makes a difference, maybe single parenting makes a difference, and maybe evolving societal attitudes toward child-rearing make a difference. But they probably don’t make nearly as much difference as we all thought. In the end, we’ve learned a valuable lesson: don’t poison your kids. That makes more difference than all the other stuff put together.

But there’s another moral to be drawn.  The toxicity of lead has been known for at least a century. The introduction of tetraethyl lead into gasoline in the 1920s sparked a controversy, which the automobile industry, the petroleum industry, and Ethyl Corporation (a GM/Esso joint venture) won, using the usual mix of dirty tricks including lying and threatening scientists with lawsuits. A similar battle was fought over lead paint in the 197os, with the lead-paint vendors in the bad-guy role, and over lead emissions from smelters, with the American Iron and Steel institute trying to destroy Herb Needleman’s scientific career.

Then, mostly by the accident that leaded pain fouled catalytic converters, the battle was rejoined over lead in gasoline, with the old pro-toxin coalition fighting a drawn-out rearguard action to delay regulation as much as possible.

As far as I know, not a single executive, lobbyist, or scientist working for any of the companies that were making money by poisoning children and causing a crime wave spoke out in favor of public health and safety. Why should they? After all, they were just doing their jobs and paying their mortgages, and Milton Friedman had proclaimed that the only social responsibility of business was to make money (and that anyone who believed otherwise was a closet socialist): a morally insane proposition still widely repeated.

All of which makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s preface to The Screwtape Letters, explaining his image of Hell as the realm of the Organization Man:

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in … sordid “dens of crime.” … It is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

The plutocrat majority on the Supreme Court has ruled that, whatever the facts, as a matter of law using money to influence the outcome of elections does not constitute “corruption,” because “there is no such thing as too much speech.”  Soon it will probably rule that the companies can cut the comedy and make contributions directly from corporate coffers to campaign accounts, but by now the rules are so leaky that it hardly matters anymore. As a result, quiet men (and women) in pleasant offices, who have not only neatly-trimmed fingernails but utterly clear consciences – men and women most of whom would be psychologically incapable of injuring a child with their own hands - will continue to poison other people’s children (with environmental toxins, unhealthy foods, alcohol, tobacco, and, shortly, cannabis), call anyone who tries to interfere a socialist, and use everything short of explicit bribery to get their way.

And that, my friends, is what’s at stake this year, and in 2016, and – unless we’re very lucky – in every election for the rest of my lifetime.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.