After last week, it's hard to argue that this is hyperbole. The news that America's white working class between the ages of 45-65 has dramatically falling life expectancy, alone against nearly the entire world, received a surprising (to me) bit of coverage. When I first read it, I assumed it would be just another footnote story that I would write about here, but would be ignored everywhere else. But it received a surprising amount of coverage: even Paul Krugman wrote about it. I suspect a large part of that was due to the fact that it was research by the most recent economics "Nobel" laureate Angus Deaton and his wife, so it was harder to ignore than if it had been from some unknown researcher.
Often times you hear about a "dieoff" due to our situation. I think this study confirms beyond a doubt that the dieoff is already happening. Yet, consider that, before this study became popularized, you would have never heard about it in the mainstream press. Still doubt the collapse is real?
It's not people dying in the streets, though, unlike some of the more feverish TEOTWAKI peak oil predictions. From the research, elevated levels of suicide and drug abuse are the prime culprits. It's the million little deaths that go unnoticed in the obituary columns of decaying communities all across this formerly prosperous nation. Someone overdosed in a back alley. Or a meth lab exploded. Or maybe they were killed in a car accident, or decapitated while driving their motorcycle too fast. Or they were shot by police. Or they are dying of liver failure by age 40. Or, increasingly, they are ground down slowly by the many chronic diseases such as diabetes that are symptomatic of the chronic stress and horrid (yet highly profitable) junk food diet of most Americans. It's a dieoff all right, but it's never framed as such. You can see it all around you: the overcrowded jails filled with unemployed people, the overcrowded hospitals filled with sick, obese people, the folks standing on the medians and freeway offramps with cardboard signs and living their cars, all while the media just goes on reporting about spectator sports and celebrity gossip as though nothing bad is happening. Ignorance really is bliss.
The obvious analogy here is Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, as many people writing about the study have pointed out: The Dying Russians (New York Review of Books). But there was no "collapse" of the United States. Or was there? Instead, we're told by the media and politicians that everything in every way is getting better and better for everyone. Just look at the latest iPhone! Television screens are huge! Even the very poor have indoor plumbing! And you can Google anything you like, so what are you complaining about, loser?
Everything is famed as personal failure, thus the dieoff is just a million stories of individual failure with no overall pattern. Nothing to see here, move along. Study and "work hard" (whatever that means), and you'll be okay. Certainly that fear is behind the epidemic of overwork, presenteeism and grinding hours of unpaid overtime Americans are putting in at work in the hope of not being next. It's like being the model prisoner in a concentration camp, though. Ask the turkeys this month if being a good turkey had any effect on their ultimate fate. The Parable of the Happy Turkey (Global Guerrillas)
Up until now, Americans have been happy turkeys. Thus, they cannot comprehend what is happening to them. In America it is taken for granted that the ultimate locus of control is on the individual, and that there is no such thing as society. That belief has been heavily promoted over the past thirty years, along with the "create your own reality" and other assorted positive thinking nonsense (thanks Oprah!), and I think we can see why.
And since we see this always as personal failure and are not allowed to see it as systemic failure, the poor and formerly middle classes take it out on themselves instead of the system. After all, America is the land of opportunity; if you don't "make it' (whatever that means), you have no one to blame but yourself! Of course it is not true; the musical chairs job market and winner-take-all economy means that only a tiny number of people even have a shot at the middle class anymore, and a lot of that is due to geography, pre-existing social connections and luck.
They don't have to kill you if they can get you to kill yourself.
And although framed as a tragedy, I wonder if to some extent this behavior on the part of working class males is a logical response to living in the kind of society that the United States has become. In a society that has no use for them anymore and where they have no sense of purpose and no hope for the future, it seems like suicide is a rational response. After a certain age, you realize that you have been sorted to the "losers" pile. If you live in the vast suburban flatland of Middle America, you likely live in a decrepit house somewhere in the anonymous miasma of strip-mall suburbia, buy disposable plastic crap made in China from baleful fluorescent-lit Dollar Stores, drive an older model pickup truck or SUV with a bad muffler and bad brakes over potholed streets and under rusty bridges, while all the jobs around you aside from the hospital and the university (which are mainly female-staffed) are minimum wage, dead-end jobs where you have to smile and wear a uniform. You realize you're never going to meet the girl of your dreams since hypergamy is still baked into female mating choice, despite what some feminists claim. You realize you will never get that that great job that will allow you to be upwardly mobile and live in relative ease and comfort, and life is a bitter, hard struggle relieved only by the occasional joint and video games. Or you're divorced and paying child support to your former wife who's managed to keep herself presentable enough to hook up with one of the few remain
I mean, who wouldn't kill themselves or anesthetize themselves with drugs and booze in an environment like this?
I once read an online commenter say that the rich are the beta testers for the lifestyles we will all be living in the future (and thus no restraints must be put on their wealth accumulation if we are to experience that future). But that commenter had it wrong. Rather, it is the poor--those living on less than a few dollars a day; those who live in ghettos marred by gangs and drug abuse; those with their heat, water, and streetlights turned off, who are the beta testers for the lifestyles that most of us will be "enjoying" in the near future. As William Gibson said, the future is already here, just not evenly distributed.
Given the above, I can't help but think of the "Rat Park" experiment. Rats in a cage, when given a choice between water and drugs, would overdose themselves to death on the drugs, neglecting even basic self-maintenance. But a cage is a boring, repetitive, stressful environment for a rat, so you might expect the animals to anesthetize themselves with whatever was on offer. But rats living in an environment specifically designed to be pleasant and give the rats what they needed to thrive did not overdose themselves to death; they preferred healthier behaviors instead. It's worth noting that most of the drugs we use today have been known for hundreds or even thousands of years, but were not abused by the native peoples who discovered them. That is reserved for modern, "advanced" societies. The Rat Park experiment (io9)
I once wrote that if you wanted to intentionally design a social environment to drive a primate insane, you would develop something pretty much identical to modern-day America (advertising, chronic stress, inequality, separation from nature and each other, boring, repetitive work, constant surveillance, and on and on...). It's pretty obvious how Rat Park parallels life in twenty-first century America with its ubiquitous television, concentration-camp schools complete with metal detectors, freeways and cul-de-sacs and landscapes of Applebees™ and Walmarts; along with a steady diet of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. It's hardly an environment designed for human flourishing, is it? Rather, it is designed to maximize "economic growth" at all costs. The results of that experiment are as plain to see as they are predictable.
Most people who are still relatively comfortable are content to write off the people who are living in deprived circumstances among them right now, especially in the United States where so many of those poor are African-American. But more and more, whites are experiencing what they had previously dismissed as "black problems" due to their racist attitudes: the hopelessness and despair, the unemployment, the sociological pathologies; the drug abuse, divorces, domestic violence, youth gangs and so on. It's not race, it's environment, as Rat Park showed. Given a certain environment, an animal--any animal--will behave a certain way. Its totally predictable. We know this, but why do we pretend it is not true? Instead we reliably chalk it all up to "the Cult of Personal Failure."
But this leads to an even larger question, one that gets to the heart of our modern predicament. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of society are we creating where so many people see death as preferable to living in such a society? In what kind of a society do people see life as so miserable that they prefer to kill themsleves, either slowly or immediately? That is, why is this the end result of hundreds of years of supposed "progress?"
Fundamentally, how do you feel about this society? Do you feel good about this society? Do you feel good about the school-to-prison pipeline? Do you feel good that there are more prisoners than small yeoman farmers? Do you feel good that it is a felony to show us how our food is produced? Do you feel good about students mortgaging their future for jobs that won't exist by the time the bill comes due? Do you feel good about hospitals treating chronic diseases taking the place of farming and making things as basis of the America's rural economies? Do you feel good about police armed with body armor and and tear gas? Do you feel good about wall-to-wall advertising preying on our weakness and insecurities? Do you feel good about the atmosphere of incessant adversarial competition against everyone else for the shrinking pool of jobs on offer which pay enough to afford rent?
If so, why?
This puts a crimp on the Panglossian "everything in every way is getting better for everyone," rhetoric that you hear so often in the media. What I find amusing is that this rhetoric used to come from the Left--that the welfare state would eliminate poverty, racism, that everything was under control and circles of cooperation would get larger and larger, and so on. But now, I mostly hear the Panglossian rhetoric coming primarily from the Right, whose preferred God is the unregulated "free" market. It's in the Right-wing propaganda now that I constantly hear how wonderful everything is, and that those who are complaining are either delusional misfits or just jealous. Here is a prime example from the Right-wing National Review:
Good news abroad, and good news at home: In 1990, there were 2,245 murders in New York City. That number has fallen by 85 percent. Murders are down, often dramatically, in cities across the country. The overall rate of violent crime has fallen by about half in recent decades. U.S. manufacturing output per worker trebled from 1975 to 2005, and our total manufacturing output continues to climb. Despite the no-knowthings [sic] who go around complaining that “we don’t make things here anymore,” the United States continues to make the very best of almost everything and, thanks to our relatively free-trading ways, to consume the best of everything, too. General-price inflation, the bane of the U.S. economy for some decades, is hardly to be seen. Flexible and effective institutions helped ensure that we weathered one of the worst financial crises of modern times with surprisingly little disruption in the wider economy. Despite politicians who would usurp our rights, our courts keep reliably saying that the First Amendment and the Second Amendment pretty much mean what they say. I just filled up my car for $1.78 a gallon.
The world isn’t ending.
The world is healthier, wealthier, and less hungry mainly because of the efforts of millions of unknown investors, entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, bankers, etc., all working without any central coordinating authority....There is much left to do: We have unsustainable fiscal situations in the Western welfare states, irreconcilable Islamist fanatics originating in points east but spread around the world, environmental challenges, and that tenth of the human race that still needs lifting out of hardcore poverty. But we have achieved a remarkable thing in that unless we mess things up really badly, in 50 years we’ll be having to explain to our grandchildren what a famine was, how it came to be that millions of people died every year for want of clean water — and they will look at us incredulously, wondering what it must have been like to live in the caveman times of the early 21st century.Liberal Democracy and Free Markets, Take a Bow (National Review) Or better yet, strap on flight suit and hang up a "Mission Accomplished" banner.
Yes, for the folks on the Right, it truly is a Golden Age. There are a few flaws in the ointment like those pesky welfare states and all that but, hey, gas is cheap! Can't you just feel the bright, shiny future ahead? Here's a another sampling from The Wall Street Journal:
The trajectory of the world doesn’t justify this pessimism. People are living longer on every continent. They’re doing less arduous, backbreaking work. Natural disasters are killing fewer people. Fewer crops are failing. Some 100,000 people are being lifted out of poverty every day, according to World Bank data.
Life is also getting better in the U.S., on multiple measures, but the survey found that 55% of Americans think the “rich get richer” and the “poor get poorer” under capitalism. Sixty-five percent agree that most big businesses have “dodged taxes, damaged the environment or bought special favors from politicians,” and 58% want restrictions on the import of manufactured goods.Has the World Lost Faith in Capitalism? (WSJ) Silly people, how dare they "lose faith!" Once we stamp out every last vestige of "socialism" we can restore that faith.
So what's going on here? Listening to the Right, one gets the appearance that things have never been better, and that people are just totally irrational and determined to complain no matter how good they have it, despite voluminous scientific literature portraying optimism bias as the default cognitive condition for most people.
I think it stems from two areas - the Neoliberal experiment has clearly been an unmitigated disaster, so the literature constantly has to portray a rosy picture for those still living in the elite ideological bubble by cherry-picking data: Cheer - Inequality is Falling Globally!! (and similar nonsense) (Pieria). It's much like the "happy peasant" literature that prevailed on the eve of the French Revolution and during early Industrialism to convince upper-class readers that their efforts were actually for the good of all, not just themselves; it's just that the feckless peasants were too short-sighted to realize it. The elites, for some reason, have a need to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the free-market fundamentalism they subscribe to is making everyone--not just them--better off. Perhaps it is a remedy for cognitive dissonance and a guilty conscience.
The second agenda might be to cover up the agenda of eliminationism referred to above.
Going back to the original topic, it's fairly clear that getting rid of the lower classes is, as The Joker put it in The Dark Knight, "all part of the plan."
Now that might seem a bit paranoid, but consider this - the governors of many states are withdrawing basic social protections for their poorest citizens, and actually paying for the priviliege! Here' Kevin Drum:
...the states that refuse to expand Medicaid are denying health care to the needy and paying about $2 billion for the privilege. Try to comprehend the kind of people who do this.
The residents of every state pay taxes to fund Obamacare, whether they like it or not. Residents of the states that refuse to expand Medicaid are paying about $50 billion in Obamacare taxes each year, and about $20 billion of that is for Medicaid expansion. Instead of flowing back into their states, this money is going straight to Washington DC, never to be seen again. So they're willing to let $20 billion go down a black hole and pay $2 billion extra in order to prevent Obamacare from helping the needy. It's hard to fathom, isn't it?Red States Spent $2 Billion in 2015 to Screw the Poor (Mother Jones)
Last week, McClatchy documented the unnecessary pain being inflicted on red state residents by their elected Republican representatives...Roughly 260 million Americans (roughly 85 percent) already have health insurance provided by their employers, the government or through individual policies they purchased. In places like Oregon, Colorado, New York, California and other, mostly Democratic states, governors and state legislators accepted the expansion of Medicaid to provide free health insurance for those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty (FPL). For those earning between 138 and 400 percent of the FPL, the Affordable Care Act's subsidies will help them purchase insurance in the private market. But in the states where Republicans said "no" to the expansion of Medicaid, the picture is much different. As the AP explained the coverage gap:Health Insurance "Coverage Gap" Coming To A Red State Near You (Crooks and Liars)
Nearly 2 in 3 uninsured people who would qualify for health coverage under an expansion of Medicaid live in states which won't broaden the program or have not yet decided on expansion.
The resulting Republican body count is staggering. Thanks to the GOP's rejection of Medicaid expansion, 1.3 million people in Texas, 1 million in Florida, 534,000 in Georgia and 267,000 in Missouri will be ensnared in the coverage gap.
That's right, Republican governors are blowing a hole in their budget just to remove social protections for the poor. Often times, "unaffordability" is cited as a justification, but clearly this is not at work here. It's pure ideology. But what is that ideology? Here's more detail:
American conservatives for the past several decades have shown a remarkable hostility to poor people in our country. The recent effort to slash the SNAP food stamp program in the House; the astounding refusal of 26 Republican governors to expand Medicaid coverage in their states -- depriving millions of poor people from access to Medicaid health coverage; and the general legislative indifference to a rising poverty rate in the United States -- all this suggests something beyond ideology or neglect.
The indifference to low-income and uninsured people in their states of conservative governors and legislators in Texas, Florida, and other states is almost incomprehensible. Here is a piece in Bustle that reviews some of the facts about expanding Medicaid coverage:
In total, 26 states have rejected the expansion, including the state of Mississippi, which has the highest rate of uninsured poor people in the country. Sixty-eight percent of uninsured single mothers live in the states that rejected the expansion, as do 60 percent of the nation’s uninsured working poor.
These attitudes and legislative efforts didn't begin yesterday. They extend back at least to the Reagan administration in the early 1980s...
Most shameful, many would feel, is the attempt to reduce food assistance in a time of rising poverty and deprivation. It's hard to see how a government or party could justify taking food assistance away from hungry adults and children, especially in a time of rising poverty. And yet this is precisely the effort we have witnessed in the past several months in revisions to the farm bill in the House of Representatives. In a recent post Dave Johnson debunks the myths and falsehoods underlying conservative attacks on the food stamp program in the House revision of the farm bill.
This tenor of our politics indicates an overt hostility and animus towards poor people. How is it possible to explain this part of contemporary politics on the right? What can account for this persistent and unblinking hostility towards poor people?Why a war on poor people? (Understanding Society)
Let's restate this to be clear to make sure the point is not lost: these states are willing to lose money in order to make sure their poor die quicker. Clear enough? And we're not even talking about things like the outright cold-blooded murder of the homeless by police, the breaking up of homeless encampments, the mass incarceration, and return of debtors' prisons, and so on. It's expensive to be poor in America. We do everything by the Matthew Effect from jobs to education, and wonder why class mobility is nonexistent. Yet we're still told that everyone wants to be an American, that it's the land of opportunity, and that things have literally never been better.
Thrown in jail for being poor: the booming for-profit probation industry (Guardian)
Much of the well-funded efforts of plutocrats and their allies has been to repeal the Affordable Care Act (which was designed by Right-wing think tanks), not to reform it or replace it with something more effective, but to return to the predatory status quo ante. Now, businessmen may be greedy, short-sighted and sociopathic, but they are not stupid. They surely know that the American System is wildly more expensive than any other place on earth, but they are willing to lose billions of dollars in profit just to make sure people don't get health care! Think about that. A European friend said to me once that he didn't understand why American businesses seemed to want sick, insecure employees who either don't have access to health care, or are worried about going broke trying to pay for it. It seemed totally irrational to him. But it's only irrational if you don't understand the underlying ideology of eliminationism. Some societies actually want to kill off their own people, as Nazi Germany and other tragic examples have shown.
And it's of a piece with the withdrawal of mass education that Blacker documents in his book. The elites are disinvesting from society in every way because they just don't need us anymore. And their propaganda mills are dedicated to making sure the blame is squarely placed on individuals so that we will internalize learned helplessness which has prevented any effective resistance. Or their mills are insisting that it's just not happening, and everybody is really better off, as we saw above, except for a few churlish losers who have no one to blame but themselves (and are probably looking for a handout).
Who turned my blue state red? (NYT). A great explanation of America's crab mentality.
I've featured the analogy of horses that some economists use before. Human beings may have found other jobs (which is debatable), but the population of horses just went down in line with the work that was available for them to do. I think it's obvious that this is a good analogy for what's happening.
...Similarly, one could just as easily have said, a century ago, that: "Fundamental economic principles will continue to operate. Scarcities will still be with us.... Most horses will still have useful tasks to perform, even in an economy where the capacities of power sources and automation have increased considerably..."
Yet demand for the labor of horses today is vastly less than it was a century ago, even though horses are extremely strong, fast, capable and intelligent animals. "Peak horse" in the U.S. came in the 1910s, I believe. After that there was no economic incentive to keep the horse population of America from declining sharply, as at the margin the horse was not worth its feed and care. And in a marginal-cost pricing world, in which humans are no longer the only plausible source of Turing-level cybernetic control mechanisms, what will happen to those who do not own property should the same come to be true, at the margin, of the human? What would "peak human" look like? Or--a related but somewhat different possibility--even "peak male"?Technological Progress Anxiety: Thinking About "Peak Horse" and the Possibility of "Peak Human" (Brad DeLong)
Off to the glue factory with the middle class, then. As long as it's kept diffuse enough, it will never be picked up on; "Work Makes You Free" hangs in the air over our heads instead of over the entry gates. Perhaps we should just inscribe it on the Gateway Arch.
So, all told, the self-destructive habits of the middle-aged white poor are hardly irrational. Rather, it seems to be to be the most rational response to the type of world we've created. The only question is, why do so many of us apparently want to stay on this path?