Krugman: Why Is White America Killing Itself?

"There is a darkness spreading over part of our society. And we don’t really understand why."

Today, Paul Krugman digs into a new disturbing trend in the American social landscape, recently announced in a new paper by two economists, "showing that mortality among middle-aged white Americans has been rising since 1999." Krugman writes:

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.

The op-ed gets more interesting when Krugman gets into the why, which is certain to made right-wing heads explode!

So what is going on? In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.

That sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, but the truth is that we don’t really know why despair appears to be spreading across Middle America. But it clearly is, with troubling consequences for our society as a whole.

In particular, I know I’m not the only observer who sees a link between the despair reflected in those mortality numbers and the volatility of right-wing politics. Some people who feel left behind by the American story turn self-destructive; others turn on the elites they feel have betrayed them. No, deporting immigrants and wearing baseball caps bearing slogans won’t solve their problems, but neither will cutting taxes on capital gains. So you can understand why some voters have rallied around politicians who at least seem to feel their pain.

At this point you probably expect me to offer a solution. But while universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on would do a lot to help Americans in trouble, I’m not sure whether they’re enough to cure existential despair.

A fairly brave piece of analysis for the often milquetoast New York Times.

Read it all here

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