Cancer Is Good For You (Asthma Too)

June 9, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1950s, as the evidence on smoking was becoming undeniable, someone suggested that the cigarette companies were about to launch a new ad campaign: “Cancer is good for you.”

It was a joke, of course. But how about “A really bad is recession is good for your marriage”? No joke. The National Marriage Project has released a report with a section claiming that the current economic crises has produced “two silver linings” for marriages. Philip Cohen at Family Inequality eviscerates this report with the level of snark that it deserves.

A bad recession is good for crime too, or so says the title of James Q. Wilson’s article in last Sunday’s Wall Street Journal:
Hard Times, Fewer Crimes*

And now welcome the next cancer-is-good-for-you entrant, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, which spends millions each year lobbying against clean-air legislation. Last month, Peabody was the object of Coal Cares, a clever spoof Website

(Click on the image for a larger view. Or go to the Website.)

What appears in this recent screen grab as “Patriot Coal” was, in the original version, “Peabody Coal.” For some reason,** the creators of the Website changed it. But it was Peabody’s press release in response that makes them the clear winner of the Cancer-Is-Good-For-You competition.
The United Nations has linked life expectancy, educational attainment and income with per-capita electricity use, and the World Resources Institute found that for every tenfold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer.
The spurious logic – the implied fallacy of composition, fobbing off correlation as cause – is so obvious that it could easily be part of the Coal Cares spoof. But no, it was for real, at least while it lasted. Unfortunately, Peabody removed the document before we could award them the CIGFY trophy.

What the UN data actually show is not surprising: Richer countries produce more electricity. They also have better health, education, and income. The message Peabody wants us to get takes the global and misapplies it locally, and it reverses cause and effect If you want to be long-lived, educated, and rich, live near a coal-driven power plant.

Cancer, asthma, and heart disease are all good for you.

*I don’t know if Wilson wrote that headline. Unlike the post-hoc logic the title suggests, Wilson does not argue that the recession caused the decrease. But he does imply that the recession did not exert any upward force on crime.

**Peabody is no stranger to lawsuits, and while they are usually the defendants, their massive legal guns can also shoot from the plaintiff side.


Philip Cohen said...

That's awesome. I think someone needs to produce a graph showing how increasing energy consumption increases life expectancy.

Philip Cohen said...

Sorry, couldn't resist:

Jay Livingston said...

That settles it. Now that I'm getting on in years, I'm going to start asking Santa for a lump of coal. Or maybe a few hundredweight.

PCM said...

Authors don't write the headlines.

I think that headline is fair as a descriptive (ie: times are hard and crime is down). Wilson doesn't say that crime is down because times are hard.

We need to move beyond the overly simplistic root-causes-based belief that poverty causes crimes.

Certainly eliminating poverty would reduce crime. But we know there are plenty of poor people (and poor countries) who don't go out mugging and murdering (Of course to state that is equally simplistic).

The problem is that when people believe the (classic sociological) root-causes equals crime equation, they tend to take police (and, somewhat strangely, culture) out of the crime prevention picture. That's dangerous.

Time and time again we see evidence disproving the casual causal link between economics and crime. We should know better by now. "Experts" should no longer be surprised that street crime isn't linked to the official national unemployment rate. And sociologists should rejoice at any chance to debunk economists who think they can explain everything with economic rational choice.

Root causes matter. They need to be studied. They need to be addressed in policy. But we (sociologists) do ourselves a disservice if we stick to outdated theories of crime prevention. Wilson wrote a good piece.

PCM said...

You know, as one of the so-called "experts," I've spent a lot of time thinking about why crime has gone done. I wish I had a pat answer. I don't think it's prison. I don't think it's abortion. I do a good chunk of it is better policing. But I know that doesn't explain it all.

Wilson makes an interesting observation that Canada has seen equal declines in crime.

Maybe there is one simple explanation, something that actually has macro trans-national impact: lead paint.

And this could also explains the other mystery that keeps me up at night: why didn't Baltimore follow national trends?

It turns out there are still of lot babies licking lead windowsills in Charm City. Far more so than in other cities.

"By the 1990s... the city had the highest concentration of lead poisoned children in the country."

Jay Livingston said...

Wilson implied or says outright that economic hard times have no impact on crime. It’s like looking at all the data on changes in numbers of cops for most of the 20th century and concluding that police have no impact on crime.

The relation between economic changes and crime is complex and not direct, but it’s not nothing. If it were nothing, you (as a cop but especially as a civilian) would feel just as safe in any poor neighborhood as you do in any well off neighborhood.

Also, Wilson is a bit disingenuous. He says that “writers” have relied on the concept of culture to explain crime, but that it “creates a problem for social scientists like me.” The principle writer associated with the cultural explanation is a guy named James Q. Wilson (Thinking About Crime), who, confusingly, shares his name with the social scientist who wrote the WSJ piece. There are also “writers” (me, for instance, in my ancient textbook) who question Wilson’s cultural explanation for changes in crime rates in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I would have offered a more extensive reaction to Wilson, but this post was about coal, not crime.

PCM said...

Wait a second... we're dealing with the same James Q. Wilson. Are you joking or is one of us terribly confused? (I was actually a bit flattered he called himself a social scientist.)

Jay Livingston said...

No joke. It's the same JQW. As I said, he's being disingenuous. Either that or he's schizophrenic/multiple-personality.

PCM said...

Got it...

Jay, we're pretty much in agreement. Of course reducing poverty would would reduce crime (which isn't quite the same as saying a better economy would reduce crime).

But in terms of public safety, there are many poorer places I'd prefer to live it, like my own county (Queens) compared to wealthier Prince George County (Maryland).

Of course money matters, but in terms of crime it matter less than a lot of people want to believe.