A Bulletin fan (thanks Jim) sent me this link to a an article by Jascha Hoffman in the New York Times, in fact it was from the Magazine section’s Idea Lab this past Sunday and was titled Criminal Element. It’s a very interesting and provocative read, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of economic theory and the kind of oddball ways economics can be used in new ways, in the mold of the recent book Freakonomics. It centers on an idea by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at Amherst College, that eliminating the lead from gasoline caused crime rates to fall in the 1990s.
Reyes found that the rise and fall of lead-exposure rates seemed to match the arc of violent crime, but with a 20-year lag — just long enough for children exposed to the highest levels of lead in 1973 to reach their most violence-prone years in the early ’90s, when crime rates hit their peak.
Such a correlation does not prove that lead had any effect on crime levels. But in an article published this month in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy, Reyes uses small variations in the lead content of gasoline from state to state to strengthen her argument. If other possible sources of crime like beer consumption and unemployment had remained constant, she estimates, the switch to unleaded gas alone would have caused the rate of violent crime to fall by more than half over the 1990s.
What an interesting theory that …. hey, wait a minute. What was that? “[O]ther possible sources of crime like beer consumption!?!” WTF! Since when did drinking beer become a source of crime? Where are those statistics? I’ve heard of hardcore heroin addiction leading to crime to support a drug habit, but beer? I don’t think so. If anybody out there has access to more than just the abstract of the article I’d love to run down where she got this idea. All I can find is that “beer consumption” is one of eleven “state-level variables” listed in the article’s appendix and that the information on “Beer consumption is from the Brewers Almanacs, published by the Beer Institute. It is measured as consumption of malt beverages in gallons consumed per capita.” But how does mere consumption lead to crime? Curiously, there’s no mention of spirits or wine consumption leading to crime, just beer, despite the fact that hard liquor was a permanent fixture at every high school and college party I ever attended. Has the demonization of beer just become so internalized and taken for granted that academia doesn’t even need to justify it? Frankly, I’m flummoxed. Am I missing something or just over-reacting as I’m so often accused? I’ve never resorted to crime to support my beer habit? How about you?