(Sunday Thought) Life Expectancy is the Barometer of Society, and It’s Falling

As this article points out, COVID-19 isn’t the only thing shortening American lives. This past decade, life expectancy in the US began declining for the first time in generations.

This reversal, which COVID only exacerbated, is arguably the biggest news story in the country, or should be, because as the ultimate lagging variable, life expectancy encapsulates everything that’s wrong, from perpetual war to the opioid crisis (and what it implies about our quality of life) to the decoupling of the upper and lower classes in the trickle-down era.

From the link: “For two to three decades, life expectancy has been improving much more rapidly for higher earners than for lower earners, and 2020 has probably made these gaps worse.”

Unlike some on right and left, I doubt the cause is any specific moral or economic decline. Rather, sometime in the latter 20th century, we hit the wall of diminishing returns on the economy of abundance.

Extreme deprivation is not healthy, either for individuals or society. There’s a reason people in the ancient world were much shorter, for example, and more prone to disease. Child labor, malnutrition, poor sanitation, domestic abuse, slavery, and other severe deprivations bound both the soul and the economy in debilitating ways.

You can’t foster innovation without education and property rights, so giving individuals what they want — access to education, ownership of their labor — is good for the whole, or at least significantly better than what we had under a feudal economy.

Similarly, you can’t have an efficient and effective labor force (or army) if they’re constantly dying of cholera, or if caregivers are all getting TB and there’s no one to watch the kids. Hence, public sanitation and a hospital system.

The reforms of the industrial era, however hard-won, were in a sense “easy” because what was good for both society and the individual was also what individuals desperately wanted — an end to deprivation: clean water, good food, rule of law, access to health care and education, a place to live, a decent job.

And for a while, it worked. Abundance bred more abundance. Paying people a living wage meant they didn’t have to worry about where their next meal would come from and could concentrate on activities with positive downstream effects, like actual parenting or seeking an education for themselves or their children, which stimulated well-being, further increased productivity, etc.

At the lower end of the scale, then, consumption isn’t bad. No one faults you for consuming the meal that saves you from starvation.

At the other end, Twinkies are now so cheap that I can effectively eat as many as I want, even though the cumulative effect of that is probably to shorten my life.

The industrialized world has reached the point where what’s good for us — both as individuals and society — is no longer what feels good. And I’m not just talking about eating healthy. I’m talking about everything, from energy policy to marriage to education.

It used to be that going to college — on the GI Bill for example — was not only a ticket to personal advancement, it was also good for society as a whole. After the war, we needed scores of technically capable office workers to fill the ranks of the post-industrial economy.

But skilled labor is expensive. It costs a lot more to hire (and retain) a software developer than a factory worker, and by the 1980s, the ruling class realized that if they could flood the market with skilled labor, they could drive down real wages and keep productivity improvements for themselves.

And that’s exactly what happened. In 1990, the first Bush administration created the H-1B visa program, which allowed employers to import a rotating pool of skilled labor from overseas. Domestically, the Clinton administration made sure financing for college become too liquid, which triggered massive inflation in higher education. But rather than allow the market to correct the imbalance, in the early 2000s, the second Bush administration made student loan debt non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. At the same time, changes in both technology and policy pushed manufacturing jobs overseas, which left capable workers little choice but to run the college debt gauntlet, or else take low-paid service jobs increasingly filled by unskilled immigrants.

Similar stories can be told about almost any aspect of society over the past 40 years. (In the 1950s, everyone dreamed of a spacious home in a suburb not too far from the city. Now, the breadth of urban sprawl keeps us locked in commutes so long they are having measurable effects on our mental health, not to mention the environment.) There is not the space to recount them all here. The important point is that, for the first time in modern history, the changes that must be made are not the ones we already want as individuals. We can’t “abundance” our way out of our problems. We can’t solve them by doing what already feels good.

This is a completely novel problem and the fundamental reason democracy is struggling in the 21st century. Just as we have not ever, in the history of our species, asked the bulk of people to marry as equals, or to treat marriage as something more than an economic arrangement, so too we have not ever asked the bulk of people to voluntarily agree to self-restraint. And so we’ve stagnated.

Crises of debt, drug addiction, veteran suicides, housing, health care, and more continue to accumulate and drive down life expectancy, which had been growing consistently through the modern era. Any change we make will no longer be one that “feels good.” So instead, we treat the world as a sitcom, where every crisis, from the housing collapse to Covid, breeds a moral that we choose to forget before the start of the next episode, when everything goes back exactly as it was before.