Loss of Identity & the Rising Death Rate

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Have you heard what’s been happening to the death rate among middle-aged, white Americans? According to a study by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, it’s been rising. You might have missed the story, but earlier this month, the results of that study were all over the news. Why the interest? Well, for one thing, one of the authors of the study, Angus Deaton, received the Nobel Prize in economics in mid-October, so his work has been attracting more media attention than usual. But even if the author had been Joe Schmoe, the study would have received a lot of attention because it’s just plain newsworthy. Death rates have been on the decline for decades, so we’ve come to expect them to fall. But a rising death rate? That’s a “Man Bites Dog” story.

One striking finding of the Case-Deaton study is that while the death rate for middle-aged whites rose, death rates fell among members of every other ethnic, racial, and age group in America, as well as every demographic group—including middle-aged whites—in every other wealthy nation. Even more noteworthy, the death rate in the U.S. didn’t rise for all middle-aged whites. A certain subset was primarily responsible for the climbing death rate. Which subset? The one comprised of middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education. Within that subset, the death rate rose about 22 percent between 1999 and 2013, and the increase, according to Case and Deaton, “was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.”[1]

Given the demography of the subgroup and the causes of death, the report’s results have become, as Ross Douthat put it in The New York Times, “the latest ideological Rorschach test in the debate over how to save the American working class.”[2] From the left have come proposals for raising middle- and working-class wages in the private sector; providing jobs in the public sector; raising taxes on the wealthy to provide the funds for those government jobs; and creating a stronger safety net. From the right the calls have primarily been for a return to traditional family values, lowering tax rates, reducing regulations, and ending welfare-state paternalism. Both left and right leave questions unanswered, however. The left-wing fails to explain why death rates are falling among middle-aged blacks and Hispanics while rising among whites; the right-wing fails to explain why Europe’s middle-aged whites are immune to the supposed ill effects of welfare-state paternalism. So although both sides offer plausible explanations, their answers are incomplete. What’s missing is a bridge that links the two sides and provides a complete, coherent answer.

What could that bridge be?

Humbly, I offer the following candidate: Lost identities.

I hope you’ll bear with me. This will take some explaining.

Let’s start by noting that the United States is largely a nation of immigrants. When the ancestors of today’s middle-aged whites left their native lands and came to the U.S., they severed many of the connections that had defined their identities. To feel more at home, the first generation of immigrants tended to settle in ethnic enclaves. There they were able to connect with others who shared their culture, religion, traditions, memories of their former homelands, and so on.

With each successive generation, the descendants of European immigrants assimilated more and more into American society. Many moved out of ethnic enclaves, out to the suburbs, even out of state. Some turned their backs on traditions and customs. They quit going to church, married outside their religion, and celebrated secularized versions of Christmas and Easter. In pursuit of the American Dream, they worked hard and spent what they earned. But because they were generally too busy for much of anything other than working and spending, the web of connections that had given earlier generations multidimensional identities frayed. Few cared or even noticed. Proud members of the consumer-class, they didn’t look back. They just kept working and spending, comfortable with their narrow identities as consumers and confident in the expectation that their incomes would grow until they were ready to retire.

But toward the end of the 20th century, a funny thing started happening to the descendants of European immigrants, at least to many in the subset that lacked a college education: They lost their jobs to robots at home and low-wage workers overseas. Because few found new jobs with pay and status comparable to their old jobs, the identities they had forged as workers and consumers fell apart.

Many in this group were proudly individualistic—Reagan Democrats. But, as Swarthmore Psychology Professor Barry Schwartz has explained: “[T]he modern emphasis on individual autonomy and control may be neutralizing a crucial vaccine against depression: deep commitment and belonging to social groups and institutions—families, civic associations, faith communities, and the like.”[3]

To put it another way, when we have deep commitments and belong to a network of groups, multiple elements comprise our identities, so we can lose an element or two and still retain a strong sense of self. But when we streamline our lives for the sake of speeding our way to the American Dream, our self-images depend on our jobs and our consumption. If we become unemployed and lose our ability to show the world who we are through our jobs and possessions, we’re more likely to suffer from depression. And when we’re depressed, we’re more vulnerable to various forms of self-medication (alcohol and drugs) and suicide.

So conservatives seem to be correct in thinking that the diminution of familial, traditional, cultural, and religious commitments is a relevant factor in the rising death rate among less-educated, middle-aged whites. At the same time, the left is correct, no doubt, in arguing that the loss of the ability to maintain middle-class levels of consumption is a relevant factor as well.

The explanatory factor—the bridge connecting the left and the right—is, therefore, loss of identity.

lack of familial, traditional, cultural, and religious commitments, in the face of job loss >>> loss of identity

unemployment and the inability to maintain expected levels of consumption >>> loss of identity

loss of identity >>> depression >> alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide >>> higher death rates

And it’s the loss of identity that leads to depression, which leads to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide, which lead, in turn, to higher death rates.

Conversely, the retention of identity might be a partial explanation for why death rates among middle-aged blacks and Hispanics have continued to fall. Decades after whites moved to the suburbs in droves, many blacks and Hispanics continue to live in ethnic or racial enclaves, and many maintain traditional, cultural, and religious commitments, and those commitments help to bolster their identities through rough times.

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Although conservatives and liberals offer different explanations for the rising death rate among less-educated middle-aged whites, both sides agree that unemployment and underemployment are contributing factors. In addition, both agree that increasing the rate of economic growth is the way to reduce unemployment. While they differ over how to go about increasing the growth rate, they’re united in their belief that growth is the answer. Growth has worked in the past, so they assume that it will work in the future. By now, there are some excellent reasons for thinking they’re wrong, however. The next blogpost will explore those reasons.

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P.S. It may take me a week or so to write the next blogpost because over the next week I’ll be busy with a book sale. (Please check it out at: http://www.amazon.com/ITS-Unconventional-Examination-Environmental-Predicament-ebook/dp/B0128CEBMA

In the meantime, here’s a two-word hint for you to contemplate concerning one of the main reasons why growth is not the answer: Environmental Overshoots.

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[1] Case, Anne, and Angus Deaton. “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century.” PNAS Early Edition. November 2, 2015.

[2] Douthat, Ross. “The Dying of the Whites.” New York Times. November 7, 2015. http://nyti.ms/1khlLKq

[3] Schwartz, Barry. 2004. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: HarperCollins, p. 212.

 

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Another Wake-Up Call

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Yesterday, November 10th, the International Energy Agency released its annual analysis of trends in energy supply and demand, World Energy Outlook 2015. According to the report, the world is shifting from fossil fuels to lower-carbon sources of energy, but the change is occurring too slowly to prevent a dangerous increase in the Earth’s average temperature. The report states:

Despite the shift … more is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. There are unmistakable signs that the much-needed global energy transition is underway, but not yet at a pace that leads to a lasting reversal of the trend of rising CO2 emissions…. The net result is that energy policies, as formulated today, lead to a slower increase in energy-related CO2 emissions, but not … the absolute decline in emissions necessary to meet the 2° C target.[1]

Reading reports like this one, day after day, I’ve become convinced me that we—as individuals—had better wake up and get involved. Today’s energy policies, which reduce emissions via technologies, regulations, and markets, can only do so much. To address climate change adequately, each of us must take responsibility for our own greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce them.

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[1] International Energy Agency. World Energy Outlook 2015: Executive Summary, p. 7. (Emphasis added.) http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/WEB_WorldEnergyOutlook2015ExecutiveSummaryEnglishFinal.pdf

Pity Poor Exxon . . . . . . . . . . . Not!

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Last week, a number of environmental and civil rights groups launched petition drives aimed at encouraging Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate Exxon Mobil. The groups accuse the company of disregarding the results of its own scientists’ research and launching a systematic disinformation campaign to sow doubt about the existence of global warming.

This morning, in “The War Against Exxon Mobil,” Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson defended the oil company against being cast “as the scapegoat for global warming’s dilemmas.” According to Samuelson, environmentalists are engaged in a campaign to deprive the company of its first-amendment rights. “If you care about free speech,” he argues, “you should pay attention to the campaign now being waged against Exxon Mobil.”

. . . The advocates of a probe into Exxon Mobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions. These opinions may be smart or stupid, constructive or destructive, sensible or self-interested. Whatever, they deserve protection. An investigation would, at least, constitute a form of harassment that would warn other companies to be circumspect in airing their views.[1]

In fact, the probe’s advocates are not proposing — essentially or otherwise — that “the company be punished for expressing its opinions.” No doubt, the probe’s advocates would be delighted to hear the company’s actual opinions, because, as evidence uncovered by investigative reporters shows, if Exxon Mobil had expressed its actual opinions, it might have said something like: In our opinion, company profits are more important than scientific evidence; hence, regardless of the scientific evidence, in our opinion, the science isn’t settled; therefore, in our opinion, we should fund groups that will chant, like a mantra, “climate change is a hoax.”

No, the probe’s advocates aren’t attempting to infringe on the first-amendment rights of Exxon Mobil or any other entity. They simply want the oil company to be held accountable for reaping billions in profits while spending millions on a disinformation campaign that successfully delayed action on climate change for decades.

In the meantime, more and more carbon has been pumped into the atmosphere, making the associated problems harder and more expensive to confront. And would you like to take a guess who’s been slated to pick up the bill for the consequences of climate change? You, that’s who! Yes, tax payers — especially future tax payers — will be picking up the bill long after the Exxon-Mobil executives who established the disinformation policy are dead and gone and unavailable to be held accountable.

So three cheers for the groups that are encouraging the U.S. Attorney General to launch a federal investigation. They aren’t posing a danger to free speech, they’re merely attempting to recapture for the rest of us some of Exxon Mobil’s ill-gotten gains.

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[1] Samuelson, Robert, J. “The War Against Exxon Mobil.” Washington Post. November 9, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-war-against-exxon-mobil/2015/11/08/094ff978-84a6-11e5-8ba6-cec48b74b2a7_story.html?postshare=1791447078862248

Atmospheric Greenhouse Gases Surpass Another Milestone

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Even if the 146 nations that have pledged to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions keep their pledges, concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere will continue to rise. And climate change (global warming) isn’t our only serious environmental problem. To deal with these problems effectively, we need to reduce consumption. Why? In part, because our demand for cheap goods motivates manufacturers to produce them cheaply, which translates to more greenhouse-gas and other types of pollution.

Check out this article from The Washington Post, by Joby Warrick, entitled:

Greenhouse gases hit new milestone, fueling worries about climate change

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/greenhouse-gases-hit-new-milestone-fueling-worries-about-climate-change/2015/11/08/1d7c7ffc-8654-11e5-be39-0034bb576eee_story.html

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A FUNDAMENTAL LAW OR A MINDSET WE CAN CHANGE?

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Most of us were brought up believing the best way to ensure our happiness and security was to amass wealth. That belief was passed down from one generation to the next, going all the way back to when large numbers of humans gave up the nomadic way of life and settled down on farms and in villages. So deeply ingrained is that belief, we accept it almost as if it were derived from a fundamental law, like the law of gravity. We don’t question it. We simply take it for granted.

But now, certain people (such as myself) are coming along and saying, Whoa! Wait a minute! Amassing more and more stuff isn’t making us better off; it’s making us worse off. In fact, our overconsumption is beginning to pose a grave danger to the viability of thousands, if not millions, of species—including our own. We must reduce our consumption now!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of us respond to those words with denial. The syllables bounce off us like so many rubber balls. And why wouldn’t they? The ideas underlying them contradict our bedrock belief that wellbeing is tied directly to the things we’re able to buy. And besides, from where we sit, the environment looks pretty good. Yeah, we know about climate change and various kinds of pollution, but those problems seem distant and fixable.

Our attitudes might be different if all of us had the time to follow environmental news, because if we did we would find articles everyday with headlines like the following:

  • From USA Today: “On Four Continents, Historic Droughts Wreak Havoc.”
  • From The Guardian: “Humans Creating Sixth Great Extinction of Animal Species, Say Scientists: Study Reveals Rate of Extinction for Species in the 20th Century Has Been Up to 100 Times Higher Than Would Have Been Normal Without Human Impact.”
  • From The Huffington Post: “2015 Has Been A Year of Record-Breaking U.S. Weather Events: Floods, Droughts, Hurricanes, Fires—and It’s Not Over.”
  • From Weather.com: “South Carolina’s Catastrophic Floods Caused By One of the Most Prolific Rainfall Events in Modern U.S. History.”
  • From The Washington Post: “Iran City Hits Suffocating Heat Index of 165 Degrees, Near World Record.”
  • From Earthsky: “2015 Wildfire Season a Record-Breaker.”
  • From CNN: “Torrential Rain—Up to 20 inches in Spots—Pummels much of Texas.”
  • From Al Jazeera America: “NASA Data Shows Global Groundwater Depletion: Water Is Drawn Faster Than Replenished in Most of World’s Largest Aquifers According to Two Studies.”
  • From Weather.com: “Hurricane Patricia Recap: Strongest Landfalling Pacific Hurricane on Record.”
  • From The Daily Mail: “Mystery of Siberia’s 200ft-Deep Craters Solved: Enormous Holes Were Formed by Methane Eruptions Triggered by Melting Permafrost.”

Since environmental policy is my field, I’ve read hundreds (if not thousands) of such articles over the years. And after observing environmental conditions and studying environmental issues for decades, I know that what we’re doing to address environmental problems is far from enough.

Steven E. Koonin, director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, made a similar observation in a recent op-ed, in The New York Times, entitled: “The Tough Realities of the Paris Climate Talks.” Here’s a relevant passage from his article:

According to scenarios used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global annual per capita emissions would need to fall from today’s five metric tons to less than one ton by 2075, a level well below what any major country emits today and comparable to the emissions from such countries as Haiti, Yemen and Malawi. For comparison, current annual per capita emissions from the United States, Europe and China are, respectively, about 17, 7 and 6 tons.[1]

Koonin doubts we’ll be able to achieve the necessary cuts and argues that adapting to the consequences of climate change—doing things like building higher sea walls and switching to drought-resistant crops—will be essential.

It’s true that adaptation will be necessary, but as we’re adapting we must keep in mind that climate change isn’t the only critical environmental issue we face and that the things we do to adapt to climate change will exacerbate other environmental problems. For example, building higher sea walls and switching to drought-resistant crops will endanger species that depend on there being no sea walls (sea turtles, among others) and non-drought-resistant crops (a multitude of insects and birds).

Ultimately, environmental conditions will force us to reduce our consumption of goods. The more we voluntarily cut back now, the less draconian future cuts imposed by environmental and social conditions will need to be.

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[1] Koonin, Steven E. “The Tough Realities of the Paris Climate Talks.” New York Times. November 3, 2015. http://nyti.ms/1OnQ5zA