Here are some recent comments at the NY Times regarding lead in fuels and air pollution, how people are getting smarter, the role of religion in politics, and why the concept of energy independence is really a sham. (More)
In It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World, Nick Kristof celebrates the fact that humans have gotten more intelligent over the past century. In response to Mr. Kristof’s reference to the removal of lead from gasoline playing a role in such increase in intelligence, Winning Progressive explained that the removal of lead from gasoline and paint is also credited with helping to significantly reduce crime over the past few decades:
I was glad to see you identify the removal of lead from gasoline, which occurred only thanks to the strong advocacy of environmentalists, public health professionals, consumer safety groups, and others in the 1960s and 1970s, as playing a role in increasing levels of intelligence.
A growing body of science shows that the removal of lead from gasoline and the removal of lead paint from houses has also played a key role in the dramatic drop in crime that has occurred throughout the U.S. over the past 30 years.
Lead is a neurotoxin that damages or hinders the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which provides humans with impulse control. When that area of the brain is damaged or underdeveloped, people become more aggressive and impulsive. By reducing lead exposure, we’ve reduced such prefrontal cortex damage and, according to a number of convincing studies, helped create the 30-70% drops in crime experienced throughout the country.
Of course, more work remains to be done as many houses, especially in older and poorer neighborhoods throughout the country, still have lead paint that is impairing children’s development. Every dollar spent on lead paint removal is estimated to save $17 to $221 in societal costs. But the fiscal scolds have succeeded in slashing the CDC’s lead paint prevention budget from $29 million to $2 million for 2013.
In Social Science Palooza III, David Brooks provided a seemingly random sampling of the findings of recent social science research. Winning Progressive commented on one such study, which found that state court judges in Washington State hand out harsher sentences in criminal cases as the judges get closer to election day:
Evidence that judges hand out harsher sentences around election time provide yet another reason why judges should be appointed, not elected.
The election of judges undermines the judiciary and our system of government in two ways. The first is that, in our system of checks and balances, the judiciary is supposed to serve as a check on the power of the other two branches. One of the critical checks that the judiciary provides is making sure that the other two branches do not unjustly trample the rights of groups that are not in the majority. But if judges are elected, they become just as susceptible to majority will as the executive and legislative branches are and, therefore, judicial protection of the minority becomes largely a non-starter.
Secondly, courts lack any real enforcement power for their rulings, except what comes from the moral authority they gain from being seen as independent and neutral arbiters of the law. But if judges are ruling with an eye out for their next election, they aren’t engaging in such neutral enforcement of the law and their credibility goes out the window.
While our federal court system, with its lifetime appointments, is far from perfect – see, for example, Bush v. Gore – it is widely understood to be a fairer and more professional forum than state courts. And part of the reason is that most state court judges are worried about re-election.
In The God Glut, Frank Bruni interviewed former Senator Bob Kerrey, who is a rare agnostic public official, and addressed concerns about increasing officially sanctioned religious proselytizing at the West Point military academy, as reported by former West Point cadet Blake Page. Winning Progressive offered some thoughts on the role of religious belief in politics:
I am a technical agnostic – I don’t think there is a god, but I don’t have enough faith to be able to definitively say that there absolutely is not a god – but I readily acknowledge that religious belief does and should play a role in politics for many people.
For example, religious belief has always been a prime motivator of the civil rights movement, the social justice work of people like Dorothy Day, and of groups opposed to war and the death penalty. In many, many areas, religious belief has been a force for social good. I am motivated by secular humanistic values, but if other people are motivated by religious belief to help society, that’s great.
Where problems arise is when people try to use politics to impose their religious beliefs to limit the rights of others, whether it is on issues of choice, marriage equality, or access to contraception. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, then don’t have one, but don’t try to use the power of the state to prevent other people from having them.
And certainly we shouldn’t be using government to indoctrinate people in religious faith. That is especially so when it comes to the military. History has shown us time and time again that the combination of religion with military power is a dangerous mixture. Let’s make sure we don’t go any further down that road here.
In American Bull, Roger Cohen offers a significantly misguided argument that increased domestic natural gas and oil production will create energy independence for the US that will lead to a geostrategic shift by ending the “political dependency and expediency” that results from our reliance on Middle East oil. Winning Progressive responded as follows:
Mr. Cohen, I hate to rain on your parade, but this whole energy independence thing is mostly a sham.
For one thing, we are not nearly as directly reliant on oil from the Persian Gulf as people think. 38% of our oil already comes from the US. Another 20% comes from Canada, and 7.5% comes from Mexico. That’s 65% that comes from North America, compared to only about 12% that comes from the Persian Gulf. So, it is hard to see how increasing the portion that comes from the US to 50% would lead to any major change.
Second, with regards to price and the need to stay involved in the Middle East, it doesn’t matter all that much where we get our oil from because the oil market is an international one. As such, major changes in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere will impact our oil prices even if we aren’t purchasing directly from countries there.
Finally, what we need to be focused on is reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels regardless of whether it is domestic or foreign. If we achieve “energy independence” simply by drilling, fracking, and mining more, the impact on the climate and the environment will be disastrous. Instead, we need to be prioritizing efficiency, and the development or renewable sources of energy. If we don’t, any energy independence “victory” will be hollow and short-lived.