The occasion for this report is the news today that the rise in death rates, or the lowering of life expectancy — two ways of looking at essentially the same thing — has now extended from males in the United States to everyone in the United States.
“US Life Expectancy” says the British Broadcasting Company today, “declines for the first time in 20 years.”
This follows on the well-regarded report, by Deaton and Case, of declining life expectancy among subpopulations of the United States, reported last year.
Your Intrepid Reporter has said before, and will probably repeat himself after this morning, that the trends visible in the Soviet Union, an imperial power whose populace no longer believed its preached ideology, are good predictors of trends here in the United States, another empire whose people no longer believe. Allow me to talk a bit about the Soviet Union, twenty to forty years ago.
For some time, in the 1980s, the life expectancy of residents of the Soviet Union had been declining; alarm had spread from epidemiologists there to Kremlinologists in the United States. Studies appeared giving rich detail. Here are a few (I am apologetic about the low level of detail, but I’ll describe the scales in my text).
The Russian male death rates are at the top here, in every case; the U.S. males, with whom they should be compared, are about double the female rates, the lowest rates, and are little black circles. Absolute values have a multitude of causes, and I don’t plan to discuss that: let’s simply note that, from 1970, where the data begin, you can see that the death rates of Russian men consistently increase, year by year, until 1985, about seven hash marks on the horizontal scale from the left. Neoplasms, which means cancer, are pretty stable for everybody, and do not vary, except a general rise among Russian men and CEE men (which term I won’t decipher). Respiratory diseases buck the trend of increase in Russia, decrease in U.S. — they are declining in Russia and increasing in the U.S.
Looking at circulatory diseases and violence and accidents, that is the pattern, though: in contrast to the steady decline in death rate among U.S. males, we see increasing heart attacks and self-destruction in Russia until 1985, when there’s suddenly a great change for the better.
At the time, 1985-1988, this was the “opening up” of the Soviet Union, which was described by the Russian word “glasnost.” Hope increased, and death rates dramatically dropped. Gorbachev took credit for a major improvement in the health of the nation. Until the collapse, which let me remind you took place in 1991.
As far back as the 1950s, in the novel of Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, intelligent observers spoke of heart attacks caused by the hopeless situation of living in Soviet reality. (I apologize for not providing a specific reference; but believe me it’s in the book.)
One more chart, just to show the overall trend. Here are Soviet death rates for males, by age, from 1970 to 1993 again. You see that in general only infant mortality (shown here as age zero) declines; at every other age there is an increase in mortality until 1985. Until the outbreak of hope for change for the better in the future.
Now, here in the United States, the Deaton-Case study of 2015 spoke of alcoholism and diabetes striking down middle-aged men. I put it to you that, analogously to the late Soviet times, we are witnessing the loss of hope. Diabetes is caused by sugar imbalance; sugar imbalance is accentuated by obesity; obesity has been exploding for the last 35 years. Since Ronald Reagan presided over the turn to a backward-looking society. Since the break in wages going up when productivity did.
You can return, Dear Reader, to the chart at the top of this post. That is the indicator of the increase in mortality, the decrease in life expectancy, which is exercising our editorial writers’ brain cells this morning. We are much fatter than ever. And that is our American way of coping with the loss of hope that things are ever going to improve.
Until the collapse, however it comes, of the American Empire.
Update 16 December 2016: According to this headline, Michelle Obama believes the United States (which she calls “America,” a common taking of the part for the whole) has lost hope.
Update 5 January 2017: The point documented above is, that the U.S. has lost its core belief in the progressive amelioration of our lives. That loss presages a revolution, historically. The Green Party of the United States’ nominee for Vice-President of the U.S., Ajamu Baraka, quotes this morning the publisher of Black Agenda Report, Glen Ford, to the effect
“When the narrative at the heart of a system of rule falls apart, when the flow of history runs counter to the story told by those in power, then we know the entire edifice is crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. The political crisis arrives when the people sense that the prevailing order is built on a foundation of oppressions and lies. The rulers panic, scrambling to reweave the matrix of fables and myths that justify their waning supremacy. At such points in history, the truth is up for grabs – and a change of regime is in the offing.”
Update 25 January 2017: Another testimony to the same phenomenon is the statement by this veteran of the armed forces, William J. Astore, writing on Tomgram.
It’s no secret that Donald J. Trump takes pleasure in bullying people he sees as weak and vulnerable. It’s all out in the open. He’s mocked the disabled. Boasted of grabbing pussy whenever he desires. Called for torture. Suggested that terrorists’ families should be murdered. All this, and much more, seems to have won him admiration in certain quarters in this country.
Why? Because increasingly Americans are submerged in a violent cesspool of our own making. As a man who knows how to stoke fear as well as exploit it, President Trump fits into such an atmosphere amazingly well. With a sense of how to belittle, insult, and threaten, he has a knack for inflaming and exploiting America’s collective dark side.
But think of Trump as more symptom than cause, the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual disease that continues to eat away at the country’s societal matrix. A sign of this unease is America’s most popular superhero of the moment. He even has a new Lego movie coming. Yes, it’s Batman, the vigilante alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, ultra-rich philanthropist and CEO of Wayne Enterprises.