Irving Underhill Irving Trust Building, Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York 1931
Last night, I made it back to Athens, still half a cripple, but there must be someone in this city who knows how to stick needles in the appropriate muscles, right?!, paid the rent for the Social Kitchen big house/nerve center late this morning, a tough 1 mile walk for my leg muscles -they kill me!-, still, that’s done, and hoping to get back to writing articles very soon, but having an ouzo right now just to make sure I blend in with the Romans. One can never be too sure.
Ergo: first here is, once again, our dearly beloved New England-raised friend from New Zealand, Nelson Lebo III, touching on a theme that will be found to have legs once the world sees Janet Yellen has no clothes on (and I DO understand the problem with that visual) :
Nelson Lebo: “Our already horrendous suicide rate hit a new record high last year.” The news of New Zealand’s suicide rate did not surprise me when I heard it on the radio earlier this week. Anyone who pays attention to global trends could see this coming. “Psychotherapists say we need a wide-ranging review into the mental health system before there are more preventable deaths” reported Newstalk ZB.
At lighter moments I joke that the best thing about living in New Zealand is that you can see worldwide trends that are heading this way, but the worst part is that no-one believes you. This is not a lighter moment. Suicide is a serious issue and one that is growing dramatically among my peer group: white middle-aged men.
The first people to notice the emerging pattern in the United States were Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case. The New York Times reported on 2nd November, 2015 that the researchers had uncovered a surprising shift in life expectancy among middle-aged white Americans – what traditionally would have been considered the most privileged demographic group on the planet.
The researchers analyzed mountains of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other sources. As reported by the Times, “they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids. The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.”
The most amazing thing about this discovery is that the Princeton researchers stumbled across these findings while looking into other issues of health and disability. But as we hear so often, everything is connected. A month before releasing this finding Dr. Deaton was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics based on a long career researching wealth and income inequality, health and well-being, and consumption patterns.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences credited Dr. Deaton for contributing significantly to policy planning that has the potential to reduce rather than aggravate wealth inequality. In other words, to make good decisions policy writers need good research based on good data. Too often this is not the case. “To design economic policy that promotes welfare and reduces poverty, we must first understand individual consumption choices. More than anyone else, Angus Deaton has enhanced this understanding.”
Days before hearing the news about New Zealand’s rising suicide rate I learned of another major finding from demographic researchers in the United States. For the first time in history the life expectancy of white American women had decreased, due primarily to drug overdose, suicide and alcoholism. This point is worth repeating as it marks a watershed moment for white American women. After seeing life expectancies continually extend throughout the history of the nation, the trend has not only slowed but reversed. Data show the slip is only one month, but the fact that it’s a decrease instead of another increase should be taken as significant milestone.
Please note that the following sentence is not meant in the least to make light of the situation, but is simply stating a fact. The demographic groups that are experiencing the highest rates of drug overdose, suicide and alcoholism are also the most likely to be supporters of Donald Trump in his campaign for the U.S. Presidency. It does not take a Nobel Laureate to observe a high level of distress among white middle-class Americans. Trump simply taps into that angst.
As reported by CBS News, “The fabulously rich candidate becomes the hero of working-class people by identifying with their economic distress. That formula worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Today, Donald Trump’s campaign benefits from a similar populist appeal to beleaguered, white, blue-collar voters – his key constituency.”
I don’t blame most Americans for being angry. That the very architects of the global financial crisis have only become richer and more powerful since they crashed the world economy in 2008 is unforgivable. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen and the chasm has now engulfed white middle-aged workers. As the Pope consistently tells us, wealth and income inequality is the greatest threat to humanity alongside climate change.
Instead of going down the Trump track for the rest of this piece, I’d rather wrap it up by bringing the issue back to Aotearoa (New Zealand) and my small provincial city of Whanganui. To provide some background for international readers, the NZ economy relies significantly on dairy exports and many dairy farmers hold large debts. Dairy prices are known for their volatility, and recently the payouts have dropped below break-even points for many farmers.
Earlier this month Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy announced that the government would invest $175,000 to study innovative, low cost, high performing farming systems already in place in New Zealand. Stuff.co.nz reported, “The government is set to pick the brains of New Zealand’s top dairy farmers in an effort to help those struggling with the low dairy payout.”
That is great news, but the government’s investment in researching the best of the best farmers is a pittance when compared with what is spent addressing issues of depression and suicide prevention among Kiwi farmers. Isn’t this a case of putting the cart ahead of the horse, or treating symptoms instead of causes?
Research shows that financial stress contributes significantly to the increasing suicide rates here and abroad. We know that innovative farmers who use low-input/high-performance systems are more profitable that their conventional farming brethren. Would it then be a stretch to conclude that depression and suicide is much lower among these innovative and profitable farmers? At the same time, research shows that wealth and income inequality in our more urban centres contribute to anti-social behaviours such as crime, domestic abuse and illegal drug usage.
Angus Deaton, the Nobel-winning economist, would argue that in order for policy planners to address these issues effectively they must understand the underlying causes and resultant costs. Thankfully, we do see glimmers of that from central government instead of the usual neoliberal claptrap. Credit must be given to Finance Minister Bill English for his actuarial approach to some social issues rather than the inaccurate dogmatic position often adopted by the right.
But closer to home for me, such enlightened policy planning has yet to reach our city by the awa (river). To start off, the Council’s rates structure is stunningly regressive, clearly taking significantly higher proportions of household wealth from low-income families than from high-income families. If we believe the research in this field (ie, The Spirit Level, etc) wouldn’t we expect the widening gap between rich and poor to result in even more anti-social behavior in our city that already suffers from reputation problems nationwide?
Secondly, the council’s vision documents and long-term plan are nearly devoid of intelligent strategies to address the underlying issues of anti-social behaviour, depression, poor health, and domestic problems that afflict our community. The Council pours mountains of money into an art gallery and arts events while providing token services and events for low-income families.
Will it take our own Trump or Sanders running for office to stimulate a populist revolt against regressive policies that potentially do more harm than good to our community? What will it take for us to finally get it? I first wrote about these issues in our city’s newspaper, the Chronicle, two and a half years ago… but, apparently, no one believed me. Welcome to provincial New Zealand!