Today we Americans have the lowest life expectancy of any of the world’s 22 richest nations. Even people in un-wealthy Slovenia live longer than most of us do.
It wasn’t always like this.
Forty years ago, we lived as long as people in other rich countries. During the 1970s, our life expectancy — a fundamental measure of thriving societies — was growing by an impressive four months each year.
Then, after the 1980s, something mysterious happened. American lifespans shrank while those in other rich nations grew.
Even before the pandemic killed more than one million of us, our average national life expectancy had dropped to more than two years below those of the worst performers among those 22 richest nations. Yet a minority of American adults over 25 had an 84-year life expectancy, among the world’s longest. They’re the one-third of us with college degrees.
But two-thirds of Americans — the working class without college degrees — live eight-and-a-half fewer years than those with college degrees. Oops.
The short lifespan of most Americans is unyielding proof that our nation has somewhere taken a very wrong turn. This should set hair aflame and alarm bells ringing in the halls of Congress.
Regrettably, Congress is indisposed.
Life expectancy for most Americans, those without college degrees, has fallen dramatically since its peak in 2010 — “an unfolding disaster that has attracted little attention,” according to Princeton University economists Anne Case and Nobel economics laureate Angus Denton, authors of “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism”
History holds multiple clues for unraveling this mystery.
In 1990 American wealth was equally split between those with and without college degrees, the Federal Reserve says. Today, college graduates own three-quarters of our wealth.
Two-thirds of Americans “have become increasingly excluded from good jobs, political power and social esteem,” Case and Denton write. Corporations have gained power at the expense of unions, and workers have lost wages to excessive health care costs, globalization and automation.
The gap in Americans’ life expectancy “shows the U.S. economy is failing working class people,” Case and Denton rightly argue. “The GDP may be doing great but people are dying in increasing numbers, especially less educated people.”
The “economy” they speak of was introduced by the socially regressive “Reagan Revolution” in the 1980s.
It set the table for the travails of today’s working class by weakening business regulations that protect the public from financial and physical harm and by launching a government war against workers in labor unions.
Government investments in education, science and health that fueled growth of a vibrant middle class fizzled out.
Instead, Congress too often prioritized corporate welfare over the health and well-being of the nation’s citizens and failed to protect the public from abuse by rapacious banks, drug and health care industries and social media corporations.
When the Supreme Court absurdly ruled in Citizens United that a corporation’s money equals free speech by humans, it stripped political equality from ordinary citizens. They have less money than corporations to buy political representation.
Unlike citizens in other rich nations, Case and Denton point out, American lives are shortened by Republican-controlled state legislatures that pass corporate-friendly laws on minimum wages, unions, guns and environmental pollutants.
The falling health and fortunes of most Americans today contrast sharply with their lives at the end of the 1960s, writes New York Times columnist David Leonhardt in “Ours Was the Shining Future.”
The United States had not invested in scientific research, so it entered World War II flat-footed, at a technological disadvantage against Germany. It took the general who defeated Hitler — a fiscally conservative Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower — to see the wisdom of tripling government investment in scientific research. (President Biden’s infrastructure spending pales by comparison.) Democratic president Lynden Baines Johnson subsequently launched programs directly focused on ending poverty.
“A well-functioning capitalist economy depends on large [government] investments in research that the free market, on its own, usually will not make,” Leonhardt reminds.
Government investment helped improve living conditions, spurring the United States to become the most broadly prosperous country the world had ever known, Leonhardt adds. By the end of the 1960s, all incomes had risen markedly — but most for the poor and middle class.
But under the anti-government Reagan administration, investments in the nation’s future all but ended. Taxes paid by the wealthy plummeted, as did the government-sponsored research that had spurred the dramatic post-war improvements in living standards.
Today, unlike other rich nations, our roads, bridges, railroads, air traffic and transportation systems have atrophied, Leonhardt laments. Until the mid-1900s, Americans were the best educated people on earth. But that’s no longer true for Americans under 50. Federal government spending on education stopped rising in the 1970s.
The suffering of less-educated Americans is not a necessary price that must be paid for progress by the rest of us, Case and Denton write. “Indeed, we find it hard to imagine that an educated elite can proposer indefinitely without a better future for everyone else,” they rightly warn.
Um … See Jan. 6, 2021.
Forty years of foolishness has brought the United States to this pitifully diminished state. Meanwhile other rich nations successfully do what today’s myopic Republicans ask us to believe is impossible: They run capitalist economies that prioritize the well-being of all their citizens.
Solveig Torvik lived through all of this.