Kevin Drum writes: When I started research for this story, I worked my way through a pair of thick criminology tomes. One chapter regaled me with the “exciting possibility” that it’s mostly a matter of economics: Crime goes down when the economy is booming and goes up when it’s in a slump. Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t seem to hold water — for example, crime rates have continued to drop recently despite our prolonged downturn.
Another chapter suggested that crime drops in big cities were mostly a reflection of the crack epidemic of the ’80s finally burning itself out. A trio of authors identified three major “drug eras” in New York City, the first dominated by heroin, which produced limited violence, and the second by crack, which generated spectacular levels of it. In the early ’90s, these researchers proposed, the children of CrackGen switched to marijuana, choosing a less violent and more law-abiding lifestyle. As they did, crime rates in New York and other cities went down.
Another chapter told a story of demographics: As the number of young men increases, so does crime. Unfortunately for this theory, the number of young men increased during the ’90s, but crime dropped anyway.
There were chapters in my tomes on the effect of prison expansion. On guns and gun control. On family. On race. On parole and probation. On the raw number of police officers. It seemed as if everyone had a pet theory. In 1999, economist Steven Levitt, later famous as the coauthor of Freakonomics, teamed up with John Donohue to suggest that crime dropped because of Roe v. Wade; legalized abortion, they argued, led to fewer unwanted babies, which meant fewer maladjusted and violent young men two decades later.
But there’s a problem common to all of these theories: It’s hard to tease out actual proof. Maybe the end of the crack epidemic contributed to a decline in inner-city crime, but then again, maybe it was really the effect of increased incarceration, more cops on the beat, broken-windows policing, and a rise in abortion rates 20 years earlier. After all, they all happened at the same time.
To address this problem, the field of econometrics gives researchers an enormous toolbox of sophisticated statistical techniques. But, notes statistician and conservative commentator Jim Manzi in his recent book Uncontrolled, econometrics consistently fails to explain most of the variation in crime rates. After reviewing 122 known field tests, Manzi found that only 20 percent demonstrated positive results for specific crime-fighting strategies, and none of those positive results were replicated in follow-up studies.
So we’re back to square one. More prisons might help control crime, more cops might help, and better policing might help. But the evidence is thin for any of these as the main cause. What are we missing?
Experts often suggest that crime resembles an epidemic. But what kind? Karl Smith, a professor of public economics and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has a good rule of thumb for categorizing epidemics: If it spreads along lines of communication, he says, the cause is information. Think Bieber Fever. If it travels along major transportation routes, the cause is microbial. Think influenza. If it spreads out like a fan, the cause is an insect. Think malaria. But if it’s everywhere, all at once — as both the rise of crime in the ’60s and ’70s and the fall of crime in the ’90s seemed to be — the cause is a molecule.
A molecule? That sounds crazy. What molecule could be responsible for a steep and sudden decline in violent crime?
Well, here’s one possibility: Pb(CH2CH3)4. [Continue reading…]