Last year I wrote about a paper that looked at the relationship between childhood lead poisoning and violent crime rates in a whole new way. James Feigenbaum and Christopher Muller compared cities from the early 20th century that installed lead water pipes with those that installed iron pipes, and found that cities with lead pipes had higher homicide rates. Today, Josh Marshall alerts me to the fact that Feigenbaum and Muller have now published a final draft of their paper. The basic results are below:

As you can see, the effect is consistently positive. "Based on the lowest and highest point estimates," the authors conclude, "cities that used lead pipes had between 14 and 36 percent higher homicide rates than cities that did not." They present further versions of this chart with various controls added, but the results are largely the same. Overall, they estimate that cities with lead pipes had homicide rates 24 percent higher than cities with iron pipes.

As a check, they also examine the data to see if lead pipes are associated with higher death rates from cirrhosis and infant diarrhea, both of which have been linked with lead poisoning:

As expected, we observe large, positive, and statistically significant relationships between a city's use of lead pipes and its rates of death from cirrhosis and infant diarrhea. Unexpectedly, we find that cities that used lead water pipes had higher rates of death from scarlet fever and influenza. Cities that used iron pipes, in contrast, had higher rates of death from circulatory disease, cancer, and cerebral hemorrhage. We know of no scientific literature to motivate these latter relationships.

So it looks like lead really is the culprit, and it really is associated with higher crime rates.

Click on my post from last year to get more details about both the strengths and weaknesses of this paper. As with any retrospective study like this, there are reasons to be cautious about the results. However, the main strength of this study is unquestionably important: it verifies the lead-crime link in an environment completely different from all the other studies done to date, which examine gasoline lead exposure from 1960-2010. It's yet more evidence that lead really did play a role in the great crime wave—and the subsequent crime decline—of the second half of the 20th century.

UPDATE: The original version of this post used the wrong chart. It's now been corrected.

Weekly Flint Water Report: April 23-29

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 450 samples. The average for the past week was 5.50.

What's the Best Way to Talk About Racism?

Over at Vox, we're having a battle of the charts. Matt Yglesias says this is the one chart you need to understand Donald Trump's popularity in the Republican Party:

But no! Dara Lind says this is the one chart you need:

Needless to say, there's no real disagreement here. Both writers are suggesting that Trump is winning because he appeals to a Republican Party base that thinks white people are getting screwed and doesn't much like all the non-white people they think are doing the screwing. So they're all pretty happy about Trump's wall and his proposed Muslim ban and his endless griping about "political correctness." At its core, Trump's appeal is fundamentally racist.

I think it's safe to say that nearly all liberals believe this. There's voluminous evidence beyond just these two charts, after all. But here's my question: what should we do about it? This has been bugging me for a while.

If we attack it head on—"Republicans are racists!"—it accomplishes nothing. Or worse than nothing: it pisses off our targets so badly that they'll never hear another word we say. Besides, it's all but impossible to prove that racism is at the core of any particular belief, and doubly impossible to do so in the case of any particular person. It's also really easy to go overboard on charges of racism once you get started.

Alternatively, knowing that this is a political loser, we can skirt the direct charges of racism and focus instead on tangentially related topics. The upside is that we have at least a chance of winning over some voters who aren't too far gone. The downside, obviously, is that we're avoiding the elephant in the room. How do you fight racism if you're not willing to talk directly about it?

I don't have a good answer. Accusing people of racism is the fastest way to shut down a conversation and ensure implacable opposition. Avoiding racism is the fastest way to make sure nothing serious ever gets done about it. So what's the right approach?

Donald Trump Accuses...Someone of Something

A few days ago I was checking out at the supermarket and saw the cover of the National Enquirer telling me that Ted Cruz's father was linked in some way with the assassination of JFK. I briefly wondered whether this would help or hurt Cruz with the tea party crowd and then forgot about it. But Donald Trump is on it:

“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said Tuesday during a phone interview with Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don't even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”

“I mean, what was he doing — what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting?” Trump continued. “It’s horrible.”

Very presidential, no? But it reminds me of a New York Times piece this weekend headlined "Experts Warn of Backlash in Donald Trump’s China Trade Policies." Gee, no kidding. I'm glad the Times was on this.

And yet, what are reporters supposed to do? Trump tosses out absurdities on a daily basis, and we can either ignore them or we can give them more oxygen by writing earnest explanations of why he's wrong. It's a lose-lose proposition. Tomorrow he'll declare that teaching arithmetic in grade school is a waste of time since we all have calculators on our cell phones. Mobs of Trump supporters will start carrying around signs saying "No More Times Tables!!!" and a week later, when no one cares anymore, we'll get a barrage of op-eds laying out in gruesome detail all the academic research explaining why kids should still learn arithmetic these days. I imagine this is going to happen approximately weekly from now until the first week of November.

Strange days.

There's not much more to say about the Republican primary. The polls now show Donald Trump with a commanding lead in tomorrow's primary in Indiana, and he's got a big lead in California too. It's all over but the shouting.

Earlier today, in the course of linking to a Ryan Cooper post about Bernie Sanders, I mentioned that I thought Cooper was "very, very wrong about the history of health care reform too, but I'll leave that for another time." Well, why not now? Here is Cooper:

Democrats as a party were not "working their fingers to the bone" trying to get universal health care through this entire time [i.e., since 1993]. For two whole presidential elections the party's nominees ran on measly little half-measures they barely mentioned....ObamaCare — a basically mediocre program that is still a big improvement on the status quo — reflects its political origins. It's what milquetoast liberals had settled on as a reasonable compromise, so when George Bush handed them a great big majority on a silver platter, that's what we got. It was Bush's failed presidency, not 30 years of preemptively selling out to the medical industry, that got the job done.

That's pretty brutal. But let's go back a little further. Here's a very brief history of health care reform over the past half century:

1962: JFK launches effort to provide health care for the elderly. It is relentlessly attacked as socialized medicine and Kennedy is unable to get it passed before he dies.

1965: Following a landslide victory, and with massive majorities in both the House and Senate, LBJ passes Medicare and Medicaid.

1971: Richard Nixon proposes a limited health care reform act. Three years later he proposes a more comprehensive plan similar in scope to Obamacare. Sen. Ted Kennedy holds out for single-payer and ends up getting nothing. "That was the best deal we were going to get," Kennedy admitted later, calling his refusal to compromise his biggest regret in public life. "Nothing since has come close."

1979: Jimmy Carter proposes a national health care plan. The Senate takes it up, but Carter is unable to broker a compromise with Kennedy, who wants something more ambitious.

1993: Bill Clinton tries to pass health care reform. He does not have a gigantic majority in Congress, and fails miserably. Two years later Newt Gingrich takes over the House.

1997: Clinton and Ted Kennedy pass a more modest children's health care bill, SCHIP, with bipartisan support.

2009: Barack Obama gets a razor-thin Democratic majority for a few months and eventually passes Obamacare, which expands Medicaid for the poor and offers exchange-based private insurance for the near-poor.

This is what politics looks like. Every single Democratic president in my lifetime has tried to pass health care reform. Some of them partially succeeded and some failed entirely, but all of them tried. The two main things standing in the way of getting more have been (a) Republicans and (b) liberals who refused to compromise on single-payer.

Contra Cooper, George Bush did not hand Obama a "great big majority." Democrats in 2009 had a big majority in the House and a zero-vote majority in the Senate. That's the thinnest possible majority you can have, and this is the reason Obamacare is so limited. To pass, it had to satisfy the 40th most conservative senator, so that's what it did.

There's been a long and ultimately sterile argument over whether Obama could have gotten more. I think the evidence suggests he got as much as he could, but the truth is that we'll never know for sure. And it doesn't change the bigger picture anyway: thousands of Democrats—politicians, activists, think tankers, and more—have literally spent decades working their fingers to the bone creating plan after plan; selling these plans to the public; and trying dozens of different ways to somehow push health care reform through Congress. For most of that time it's been a hard, grinding, thankless task, and we still don't have what we ultimately want. But in the end, all of these hacks and wonks have made a difference and helped tens of millions of people. They deserve our respect, not a bit of casually tossed off disparagement just because they didn't propose single-payer health care as their #1 priority every single year of their lives.

Gregory Ferenstein, in the course of arguing that super-rich donors are about equally split between Democrats and Republicans (although the Republicans donate more in absolute dollars), points out that the super rich in Silicon Valley are almost exclusively Democrats. Why?

I think the more likely explanation is that the nation’s new industrial titans are pro-government.

Google, Facebook, and most Internet titans are fueled by government projects: the Internet began in a defense department lab, public universities educate a skilled workforce and environmental policies benefit high tech green industries. The CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, is a fan of Obamacare, which helps his entrepreneurial drivers keep their health insurance as they transition between jobs.

In other words, the Democratic party is good for emerging industries and billionaires recognize it. Donald Trump is a candidate known to go after major figures in tech; a trend that may further the Democrats friendship with new industrial titans.

Perhaps more importantly, I’ve argued that the modern emerging workforce of Silicon Valley, urbanized professionals, and “gig economy” laborers all represent an entirely new political demographic redefining the Democratic party to be more about education, research and entrepreneurship, and less about regulations and labor unions.

There's something to this, but I suspect culture has a lot more to do with it. Most of these folks have spent their lives marinating in social liberalism, and being situated in the Bay Area just adds to that. So they start out with a visceral loathing of conservative social policies that pushes them in the direction of the Democratic Party. From there, tribalism does most of the additional work: once you've chosen a team, you tend to adopt all of the team's views.

Beyond that, yes, I imagine that tech zillionaires are more than normally aware of how much they rely on government: for basic research, for standards setting, for regulation that protects them from getting crushed by old-school dinosaurs, and so forth. And let's be honest: most of the really rich ones have their wealth tied up almost entirely in capital gains, which doesn't get taxed much anyway. So endorsing candidates who happen to favor higher tax rates on ordinary income (which they probably won't get anyway) doesn't really cost them much.

For most folks in Silicon Valley, even the super rich, there's very little personal cost to supporting Democrats. Combine that with an almost instinctive revulsion at both troglodyte Republican policies and the Fox News base of the party, and there just aren't going to be many Republican supporters in this crowd.

Jonathan Chait argues that the appeal of Bernie Sanders isn't truly rooted in his ideology:

It is certainly true that Sanders pushed the debate leftward, by bringing previously marginal left-wing ideas into the Democratic discussion....But to understand the Sanders campaign as primarily a demand for more radical economic policies misses a crucial source of his appeal: as a candidate of good government.

American liberalism contains a long-standing tradition, dating back to the Progressive Era, of disdain for the grubby, transactional elements of politics....Candidates who have fashioned themselves in this earnest style have included Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Howard Dean, and Barack Obama. These candidates often have distinct and powerful issue positions, but their appeal rests in large part on the promise of a better, cleaner, more honest practice of politics and government.

I've made much the same argument myself, so you'd think I'd agree with Chait. But after hearing from a lot of pissed-off Bernie supporters over the past few days, I'm not so sure anymore. For example, here is Ryan Cooper explaining why non-Boomers like Bernie's ideas:

Though I can't speak for everyone, I'd wager that young people are attracted to those ideas because they know what it's like to graduate with a crushing load of student debt or to have a baby in a country with no paid leave but which also expects both parents to work full-time. Or maybe they can just feel that the bottom half of the income ladder is getting a raw deal. They're not idiots in thrall to a political charlatan.

I've gotten an awful lot of responses like this. The gist is usually a combination of (a) my "statistics" about the state of the economy are totally bogus, and (b) I'm too fat and contented to understand what life is like for anyone less fortunate than me. But here's the thing: most of these responses seem to come from folks who themselves have student debt or low incomes. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'd fully expect these folks to appreciate Bernie's message. But they're not arguing for good government, they're arguing for policies that would help them personally. That's your basic transactional politics, no matter how you dress it up.

POSTSCRIPT: I think Cooper is very, very wrong about the history of health care reform too, but I'll leave that for another time.

Hey, do you remember that breathless CDC study from a couple of years ago showing a dramatic drop in obesity among 2-5-year-olds? I was pretty skeptical about it, and today I learn that I was right to be. I basically figured that it was a noisy sample that didn't make sense, but according to a new look at the data it's worse than that: the data is noisy, and that allowed the CDC researchers to cherry pick a starting point that made it look like there was a huge drop.

Roberto Ferdman provides a new chart based on the new study. Take a look. If you start in 2003, as the CDC study did, it looks like there's a big drop. The prevalence of obesity among girls goes down 2.1 percentage points, and among boys it goes down a whopping 6.1 percentage points.

But if you include data going back to 1999, which is the true beginning of this data series, the improvement is distinctly more modest: a drop of 1.1 percentage points for girls and 1.7 percentage points for boys. And those drops aren't even statistically significant.

The original study was always suspect because the alleged drop for 2-5-year-olds wasn't matched in any other age group. And sure enough, a fresh look at the rest of the data continues to show rising obesity for every other age group. Suddenly the results for 2-5-year-olds look perfectly in sync.

It's one thing if this newer study shows different results because it includes 2013-14 data. But deliberately excluding the starting point of the data series is the real culprit, and that's inexcusable. The authors of the original study have some explaining to do.

This article about Flint is heartbreaking, but not quite for the obvious reason:

Health care workers are scrambling to help the people here cope with what many fear will be chronic consequences of the city’s water contamination crisis: profound stress, worry, depression and guilt.

....Diane Breckenridge, Genesee Health’s liaison to local hospitals, said she had seen “people come into the hospitals directly related to breakdowns, nervous breakdowns, if you will....Most of it’s been depression or suicidal ideation directly linked to what’s going on with their children,” she added. “They just feel like they can’t even let their children take a bath.” Children, too, are traumatized, said Dexter Clarke, a supervisor at Genesee Health, not least because they constantly hear frightening things on television about the lead crisis, including breathless advertisements by personal injury lawyers seeking clients.

....Too often now, Nicole Lewis cannot sleep....To help her nerves, she recently installed a home water filtration system, paying $42.50 a month for the service on her main water supply line. She also bought a blender to make her sons smoothies with lead-leaching vegetables, like spinach and kale.

But still her mind races, especially late at night. Her 7-year-old was just found to have attention deficit disorder, she said. Her 2-year-old is already showing athletic promise, but she wonders whether lead exposure will affect his ability to play sports.

These people desperately need to be told the truth:

  • What happened in Flint was a horrible, inexcusable tragedy.
  • Residents have every right to be furious with government at all levels.
  • But the health effects are, in fact, pretty minimal. With a few rare exceptions, the level of lead contamination caused by Flint's water won't cause any noticeable cognitive problems in children. It will not lower IQs or increase crime rates 20 years from now. It will not cause ADHD. It will not affect anyone's ability to play sports. It will not cause anyone's hair to fall out. It will not cause cancer. And "lead leaching" vegetables don't work.

For two years, about 5 percent of the children in Flint recorded blood lead levels greater than 5 m/d. This is a very moderate level for a short period of time. In every single year before 2010, Flint was above this number; usually far, far above.

The choices here are sickening. On the one hand, nobody wants to downplay the effects of lead poisoning, or even be viewed as downplaying them. On the other hand, feeding the hysteria surrounding Flint has real consequences. The residents of Flint should not be tormented about what's going on. They should not be flocking to therapists. They should not be gulping Xanax.

Of course, at this point Flint residents probably don't believe anything the government tells them, and for understandable reasons. So maybe it's time for someone they trust a little more to begin telling them the truth. I'm looking at you, Rachel Maddow.