I’ve never felt nostalgic about “Mean Streets” New York, even if I don’t particularly like what’s replaced it, with runaway gentrification and a tourist-trap Times Square. When I was a child growing up in Queens during a rougher time in NYC history, incinerators spewed “black snow” over us when we played outside. The grade school I went to and apartment building we lived in were coated in asbestos until it was removed at some point. Usually really nice neighbors would stagger down the street completely drunk a couple times of week or get into fights when they were high, when they weren’t busy working or trying to care for their families.
These things come back to me sometimes. Like when I learned that fellow Queens native Stephen Jay Gould suffered from mesothelioma or when the news first broke that Flint children were essentially being raised on lead water or when the opioid crisis took hold.
In “Too Many Americans Live in a Mental Fog,” a wise Bloomberg View column, Noah Smith wonders about the silent costs of environmental problems, drug use and poverty. It’s a topic that’s discussed infrequently in the public realm since it’s easier (though costlier) to react to effects than causes. Occasionally someone will write an article about the far higher percentage of past traumatic brain injuries among convicts and wonder about causality, but that’s the exception. I’d love to read a study that traces the outcomes of those who play several years of tackle football in childhood and those who don’t.
Smith looks at the situation mostly from the economic costs of a brain-addled populace in the time when America has become chiefly an information culture, but successfully treating the foundational issues would relieve personal pain as well as better us broadly in a globally competitive business world.
In the 21st century, rich countries’ economies depend more and more on knowledge industries like technology, finance and business services. Even outside of those industries, almost every worker now has to know how to use office-productivity software, interact with websites or perform other complex tasks. In this new world, humans are being asked to think all the time.
That means U.S. policy makers need to be looking at better ways to upgrade the mental capabilities of the labor force. Unfortunately, a number of things interfere with Americans’ ability to think clearly.
The biggest threat to clear-headedness comes from drugs. The twin epidemics of opioid-painkiller dependence and heroin abuse destroy people’s lives and harm productivity. There is a strong correlation between opioid use and unemployment, and it’s no great stretch to assume that the former helps cause the latter. A recent Goldman Sachs report concluded that drug abuse resulted in large productivity losses throughout the economy. Even when opioid and opiate users stay at their jobs, they probably become less productive.
A second, much-discussed problem is lead pollution. A flood of research is finding that even small amounts of lead exposure in childhood can lead both to worse academic performance later in life, and to more criminal behavior. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that American children are far more exposed to lead than most people realize. Lead paint contaminates soil, lead pipes contaminate drinking water, and a variety of commercial products from cosmetics to electronics contain bits of lead. The U.S. is allowing its people to be poisoned with heavy metals, and both their intelligence and their self-control is being degraded as a result.
But drugs and lead aren’t the only forces preventing Americans from being able to think clearly. Poverty is another.•