Despair, American Style

From The New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/opinion/despair-american-style.html?_r=1

Paul Krugman
November 9, 2015

A couple of weeks ago President Obama mocked Republicans who are “down on America,” and reinforced his message by doing a pretty good Grumpy Cat impression. He had a point: With job growth at rates not seen since the 1990s, with the percentage of Americans covered by health insurance hitting record highs, the doom-and-gloom predictions of his political enemies look ever more at odds with reality.

Even more striking are the proximate causes of rising mortality. Basically, white Americans are, in increasing numbers, killing themselves, directly or indirectly. Suicide is way up, and so are deaths from drug poisoning and the chronic liver disease that excessive drinking can cause. We’ve seen this kind of thing in other times and places – for example, in the plunging life expectancy that afflicted Russia after the fall of Communism. But it’s a shock to see it, even in an attenuated form, in America.

Yet the Deaton-Case findings fit into a well-established pattern. There have been a number of studies showing that life expectancy for less-educated whites is falling across much of the nation. Rising suicides and overuse of opioids are known problems. And while popular culture may focus more on meth than on prescription painkillers or good old alcohol, it’s not really news that there’s a drug problem in the heartland.

But what’s causing this epidemic of self-destructive behavior?

If you believe the usual suspects on the right, it’s all the fault of liberals. Generous social programs, they insist, have created a culture of dependency and despair, while secular humanists have undermined traditional values. But (surprise!) this view is very much at odds with the evidence.

For one thing, rising mortality is a uniquely American phenomenon – yet America has both a much weaker welfare state and a much stronger role for traditional religion and values than any other advanced country. Sweden gives its poor far more aid than we do, and a majority of Swedish children are now born out of wedlock, yet Sweden’s middle-aged mortality rate is only half of white America’s.

You see a somewhat similar pattern across regions within the United States. Life expectancy is high and rising in the Northeast and California, where social benefits are highest and traditional values weakest. Meanwhile, low and stagnant or declining life expectancy is concentrated in the Bible Belt.

What about a materialist explanation? Is rising mortality a consequence of rising inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class?

Continue reading at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/opinion/despair-american-style.html?_r=1

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