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Middle America Turns Out the Lights

Amazingly, we agree with Krugman about middle-class suicide.

By Petrarch  |  November 12, 2015

Notorious Enron adviser Paul Krugman is a man so consistently and so profoundly wrong that, when he says something not obviously absurd, it make you stop and take notice.  Where's the mistake hiding?  Are we misunderstanding the point he's attempting to make, perhaps?

In creating this startling contradiction, Prof. Krugman has written about a study that has the Internets abuzz: white, middle-class, middle-aged Americans are offing themselves at record rates.

There has been a lot of comment, and rightly so, over a new paper by the economists Angus Deaton (who just won a Nobel) and Anne Case, showing that mortality among middle-aged white Americans has been rising since 1999. This deterioration took place while death rates were falling steadily both in other countries and among other groups in our own nation.

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.

As you might expect, Prof. Krugman immediately presents an elephant-shaped straw man to knock down:

If you believe the usual suspects on the right, it’s all the fault of liberals.  Generous social programs, they insist, have created a culture of dependency and despair, while secular humanists have undermined traditional values.  But (surprise!) this view is very much at odds with the evidence.

Aside from questioning whether there really are any serious conservatives giving this explanation for this particular problem, he's generally right in dismissing it.  There are places like Sweden where the welfare cocoon is far softer and harder to escape, taxes are higher, and religion is even further along the death spiral than it is here, yet which don't have rising suicide rates.  Sweden has an enormous and rising problem of rape by Muslims, but even innocent Swedish victims of rape are not committing self-murder more frequently than in the past.

Maybe it's due to the reduced financial circumstances as America's economy continues not to recover?  The Washington Post offers a comparison graph with several different countries, several of which have been suffering economically as well (particularly France) - yet America is the solitary outlier with a suicide rate rising instead of falling.  Once again, Prof. Krugman is correct in dismissing this alternate, apparently commonsense theory.

Given that this article is appearing the New York Times, you could be excused for expecting the problem, like virtually everything else, to be blamed on racism.  But no:

Hispanic Americans are considerably poorer than whites, but have much lower mortality. It’s probably worth noting, in this context, that international comparisons consistently find that Latin Americans have higher subjective well-being than you would expect, given their incomes.

That's right: Prof. Krugman virtuously passes up a perfect opportunity for a racist dig at white people and a chance to blame all social ills on poverty.  How could he resist the chance for a two-fer?  Yet he did.

Prepare yourself for more shocks:

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.

Amazing! Prof. Krugman's mooted explanation is exactly the one we lean towards: Americans are so emotionally wrapped up in the idea of the American dream that they have a hard time thinking life worth living in its manifest absence.

It's long been noted that human being have a much harder time losing something they already have than not getting something they never expected in the first place.  People also have the worst time of all not getting something they didn't have but fully expected to receive.  It would seem that crushing disappointment is even harder to handle than expected failure, and that's as good a description as any for how America is feeling just now.

There can also be no doubt that middle America's despair and frustration is a large source of support for non-politicians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.  Prof. Krugman doesn't mention it, but the same feelings are powering Bernie Sanders' candidacy on the left, the point being that both sides equally despise and distrust their respective elites and traditional so-called leaders.

Most striking of all, the omniscient Prof. Krugman actually admits that he doesn't really know the answer!  We can't recall seeing this admitted previously, in the Times or anywhere else.  Ronald Reagan would be in admiration, for as he observed,

It isn't so much that liberals are ignorant. It's just that they know so many things that aren't so.

The fact is, Paul Krugman doesn't think any of our solutions will work - deporting illegals, cutting capital-gains taxes - and of course he's right: our problems are so grave that those solutions alone will not, as the slogan goes, Make America Great Again.  The best hope we have is that deporting illegals and cutting taxes - not necessarily even capital-gains ones - might buy us some time to turn things around.

Still, isn't that worth having?  At least it's better than Prof. Krugman's prescription of even bigger government and even higher taxes, which would shortly put us under as it has done much of Europe.