Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good

I was considering the state of the world, both happier and less-than-happier changes. On the less-than-happier side, one piece of data has had me scratching my head for years.

The wealthier are worse off in higher inequality societies than in lower inequality societies, at least in terms of comparable societies where other factors are more similar, specifically when comparing European countries. When great disparities dominate, the wealthy have higher rates of health problems, homicide, etc. It’s not just about the rich saying, screw the poor!  So, what is going on? Why does inequality grow when it is causing so much harm, even to those with the power and self-interest to do something about it?

I’ve sometimes wondered that the self-appointed elite aren’t as smart as they think they are, that they fall prey to cognitive biases just like the rest of us and in some ways to a worse degree. For example, the wealthy tend to be more well educated and higher IQ, while also being more prone to the smart idiot effect—overestimating what they know and not recognizing what they don’t know, which is to say they are so used to being treated as experts (by other wealthy people) that they forget that whatever expertise they may genuinely have tends to be extremely narrow and limited… or, to put it simply, they lack humility and self-awareness, not to mention other-awareness.

That would relate to a study I’ve mentioned before. Supposedly, people in the lower classes are better than those in the upper classes at accurately reading the body behavior and facial expressions of others and using that to perceive the subjective experience of those others. Those who are without power are forced to pay close and careful attention to the world around them to ensure survival, especially in terms of understanding those who hold power over them. Because of this, if you want to know the inner truth of a society, talk to the servants, maids, janitors, nannies, etc for they are the people who see what no one else sees.

From this perspective, those who act destructively may not be doing so on purpose. They know not what they do. That is my normal line of thought. But a different connection popped into my mind. What if on some level they know exactly what they do?

There is yet another study that points to a more general pattern in human nature. The study was set up to allow a choice between socially positive behavior and selfish behavior. It also gave the opportunity to choose how to respond. The researchers found that many people were willing to knowingly sacrifice their own good in order to punish someone who they perceived as having acted wrongly and without proper respect and concern for others. It was as if some people felt certain social norms had been betrayed and that defending them was worth the cost.

It is easy to see how this could be a positive force at times. Our entire legal system, when it works well, is supposed to put bad people away. If there are no consequences to socially harmful behavior, then social trust is undermined and social capital declines. Bad would lead to worse. But it is obviously comes at high cost to punish and imprison people. In this sense, something is being created, a hopefully good society.

Not punishing the guilty would be a moral hazard. We see this where corruption and cronyism dominates. It makes it harder for others to act in socially beneficial ways, because instead of punishing bad behavior it is rewarded. In such a world, an honest person won’t be able to compete with the dishonest and so will find themselves on the short end of the stick, the honest politician not getting elected and the honest businessman going out of business.

The world we have has been made to be the way it is. Social Darwinian meritocracy isn’t just rhetoric for those who genuinely believe in it. I’d argue that most people in power (and those who benefit from their power) do hold the conviction that they deserve their wealth and position (not just the ruling elite but also the middle class and aspiring middle class). From this perspective, they see everyone else as undeserving.

I’ve had arguments with people that go along a strange path. Those who disagree with social programs that help others don’t always do so because they believe they are ineffective. Such people will sometimes admit or consent to the possibility that the targeted populations will actually be helped and their lives improved. But they still think it shouldn’t be done. Those other people deserve their problems and don’t deserve anything to be taken away from the more deserving. All the wealth, power, opportunities, etc are controlled by certain people for a reason. It would be unfair to even out the playing field, to allow the inferior to challenge and possibly harm the social order that is already working so well for the deserving.

It’s not just that these people lack imagination. Sure, the world maybe could be made better for everyone. But then that would eliminate what makes this society so great and superior. In many ways, it comes at an extreme cost to maintain a Social Darwinian meritocracy—police state and mass incarceration for social control and just enough welfare to keep the masses from revolting. It would be cheaper to have a less oppressive and more egalitarian society, but those in power are willing to pay the costs to have it this way, even when the costs personally harm them, just as long as it harms the undeserving even more.

Having a massive permanent underclass isn’t just about keeping people down in a simple sense. Those in power love to lavish praise and resources upon the few people who escape that hell, for the few that escape prove that they are deserving and so prove the system is working. That many deserving people don’t escape is fine, because the perception of moral worth in this society isn’t based on the good of all. The only thing that is required is that some people sometimes are able to move upwards. If that social and economic mobility were easy and more evenly expressed, then to the winners it would seem to be of less value and worthiness. Struggle and suffering is part of the design.

Within this worldview, all the social costs are necessary for the social good. It just so happens that most of the social costs fall on those already disadvantaged, but it even comes with costs to those at the top. A surprising number of people apparently find these costs worth paying, as an investment toward the status quo. The costs aren’t a loss or waste. Anytime a politician tells you that government is inevitably a failure, that government is the problem and not the solution, they are lying and they know they are lying. The system is working just fine, even if the purpose and the beneficiaries are being hidden from public view.

46 thoughts on “Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good

  1. It is interesting that inequality harms the rich too. They become more status obsessed and suffer from other problems. I think that you may be right about the smart idiot impact. Another possibility is simply pure ignorance. How many people who are in the top 1%% have read the Spirit Level?

    Actually, can you link the original studies? I have read similar studies before but cannot remember them.

    There does seem to be a strongly Calvinist sentiment in the US, even in the secular areas. Perhaps that is why the idea of Social Darwinism is still accepted. American Exceptionalism ideology no doubt plays a key role too.

    Since WWII, Social Darwinism has been connected with Nazism in Europe which is why it is more roundly rejected. That is not to say that there is no bad (racism is rising in Europe), but in this regard they are far more socially advanced.

    • Pure ignorance is a factor. It isn’t as if either the education system or the mainstream media talks about this kind of thing often. When it does come up, it isn’t discussed extensively and in detail. Most Americans, of all classes, simply don’t know much of anything about topics like this.

      Still, you’d think the ruling elite would find the time to pick up a book like the Spirit Level. I always wonder why curiosity doesn’t more often get the better of people. I can’t help myself, when it comes to curiosity. It is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to lack much curiosity, but I realize that is the way many people are. The education system and mainstream media don’t encourage questioning and a love of learning. To make it to adulthood with your curiosity intact is a small miracle.

      Original studies? What!?! You expect me to back up claims that I make. I normally would substantiate such things with a link or a quote. But in this case it was just a simple post about some passing thoughts. I own several books about inequality. The problem is it has been years since I’ve read them. If I were motivated enough, I probably could find the source of my claim. I’m not sure I’m that motivated at the moment, though. I’m sorry about that.

      I have wondered about Calvinism before. There is something to that influence, in so many aspects of American life. Social Darwinism, genetic determinism (and its connection to eugenics), a natural social elite that are a Divine Elect, fatalistic Manifest Destiny, Puritan White Man’s Burden, a harsh unforgiving attitude of judgment and punishment, etc. It is a demanding worldview, grim and pitiless. The costs are accepted in a masochistic way and their enforcement upon others is pure sadism. The inevitable result is a permanent underclass of the damned and, to maintain the divine-ordained oppression, an eternal hell of a police state and mass incarceration.

      It is bleak and despairing. It is hard work to create such a world. And it is a cruel god that demands it.

    • The Evangelicalism of the South was introduced and spread by missionaries from New England. The early Old South was a rather Godless place where religion was a formality. The Southern colonies had been places where the Church of England dominated, the opposite of Evangelical populism. There was already a reactionary tradition there, but fundamentalism added to it a moral force of zealotry.

  2. I havr become convinced that this system is defective by design of the very rich who see it as a means to get richer at the expense of the rest of society.

    When we talk of plutocracy that is basically what the oligarchs have become.

    • I tend to see the supposed ‘failures’ as part of the design. Features of the system, not bugs. As such, it isn’t defective. It is all working according to plan.

      I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial sense, just more that those with control and influence have simply been acting on narrow self-interest, which is a normal thing for humans to do. The difference is that until recent history the powerful never before had so much power, and no ruling elite has ever had more power than the present US plutocracy.

      Also, some of the design features were put into place centuries ago, such as with the racial hierarchy and the US Constitution. The creation of the system has been a project that has developed over many generations, and so no single person or group is to blame alone. It has been an inherited set of privileges built on an old legacy of wealth and power.

  3. That may be the case.

    The other is that so many have gone through with the official message and go with the flow, even though they instinctively recognize that something is wrong. Often they are the people hurt the most. Look at all the middle class people who consistently buy what the elite have to say. Apathy has a lot to do with our current crisis.

    • It is a good read. I’ve made that exact same argument before.

      In the US, it is liberal states that pay the most taxes to fund the preventing and solving of social problems. Predictably, those liberal states have fewer social problems: lower poverty and inequality, less child abuse, less teen pregnancies and STDs, fewer high school drop outs (and of course more college graduation), higher average IQs, fewer food deserts, lower rates of obesity and diabetes, etc.

      It is the conservative states that pay not just the least amount of taxes to deal with their own problems. They also depend on federal funding to have the wealthier liberal states to pay for the problems they refused to prevent or solve. Then those conservative states praise themselves as being fiscally responsible. And a few wealthy people throw money at the problems that in many cases could have simply been prevented or alleviated with a fraction of the cost.

      It is truly demented that some wealthy people can make themselves feel good by buying PR through big money donations to solve the very problems that their profit-making helped create. That is the gangrenous rot at the heart of capitalism.

      Anyway, I’ll end with the conclusion from the article:

      “The strategy of getting rich on cheap labor in foreign countries while offering a sop to America’s poor with charity seems to me a wicked form of indirection. If these wealthy chief executives are such visionaries, why don’t they understand the simple fact that what people want is not a handout along with the uplift ditty but a decent job?

      “Some companies have brought manufacturing jobs back to the United States, a move called “reshoring,” but so far this is little more than a gesture. It seems obvious that executives of American companies should invest in the Deep South as they did in China. If this modest proposal seems an outrageous suggestion, to make products for Nike, Apple, Microsoft and others in the South, it is only because the American workers would have to be paid fairly. Perhaps some chief executives won’t end up multibillionaires as a result, but neither will they have to provide charity to lift Americans out of poverty.”

    • Many of the comments sicken me, as usual. Someone going by A. Stanton wrote:

      “Rich people, like the rest us, can always do more, but they already are doing their part and don’t need to be reviled for their trouble.”

      What mind-blowing ignorance. He obviously didn’t even bother to read the article. It doesn’t matter if you go to great lengths to solve a problem that you helped cause in the first place.

      It is plain demented to then praise those rich people when, even with the money they give back, they barely put a dent into the problem that could have been prevented with a fraction of the cost.

      Another commenter, nomad, said:

      “The poor of the US live a pampered life compared with the hundreds of millions of Africans, Indians, and Haitians, for god’s sake. There’s nothing hypocritical in trying to help the real poor of the world.”

      When does the idiocy ever end? So we should help the world’s poor by making Americans as poor as everyone. That way all the working class people of the world can be equally oppressed and desperate, while the rich worldwide are equally filthy rich.

      Meanwhile, there are other commenters who don’t understand how systemic the problem is. Christine McMorrow made the following statement along with some questions:

      “What an indictment of the plunder of big business and it’s self-enrichment through offshoring. But I have an even bigger comment, or rather question: in the author’s travels throughout the impoverished south, why is it that the poor in his region always consistently vote Republican?

      “Why do they keep voting in those who would encourage, through tax laws, the enrichment of China at the expense of the American worker?”

      I’m surprised how many Americans are unaware and ignorant of the fact that we don’t have a functioning democracy. How quick the mostly white middle class Northerner is to blame poor Southerners. The truth, if anyone cared to look for it, is that most Southerners favor the Democrats, but the ruling elite has for generations used various tactics to suppress voting: shutting down polling locations in poor and minority neighborhoods, voter purges that target particular demographics, denial of voting rights to felons through mass incarceration, etc.

      If even a well intentioned commenter such as this is that ignorant, then what hope does she think that the most poor have in fighting such ignorance that maintains the status quo? The ultimate enemy is this very ignorance. This lady, in asking this question, is part of the problem and doesn’t even realize it. Of course, it isn’t entirely her fault. She is merely a victim of miseducation and MSM bullshit. But if she refuses or is unable to take responsibility for her own ignorance, why does she think the desperately poor, the disempowered, disadvantaged and disenfranchised will do any better in fighting against impossible odds?

    • If you look at the average comment though, I would argue that the NYT is actually pretty good. The majority get it and agree with the sentiments of the author.

    • There might be a shift of the kind of scientific research done and where it is done. The US used to be a leader in basic scientific research. But US scientists with private funding will likely increasingly focus on areas that are profitable and marketable: drugs, genetic engineering, technology, and other products. Other countries such as China might become the new leaders for basic scientific research where great discoveries are made that push science forward in more fundamental ways.

    • As I said, MIT issued a report noting the serious challenges facing the US.

      The situation is far more serious I think than many people realize. America’s dominance is (or perhaps I should say was) in no small part due to its leadership in science and technology.

    • What fueled the US funding of science and technology was the Cold War.

      The winding down and eventual ending of the Cold War undermined the patriotic loyalty of man conservatives in supporting America’s greatness. Whatever one ultimately thinks of that ideal of American exceptionalism, many Americans did take it seriously and sought to live up to it.

      The Cold War helped to balance the fear of the other with the hope of creating a better future, motivated by competition. Now with that hope gone, conservatives are consumed by fear. This also brings out the conservative side of many liberals.

    • As I’ve pointed out, progressivism is now more popular than conservatism. Among the growing demographics of minorities, American-style of reactionary/right-wing conservatism finds little support.

      This is simply a return to where Americans were at earlier last century. It used to be that most Americans supported progressivism. The political spectrum used to be pushed so far left that progressivism, in comparison to communism and anarchism, was seen as moderate and mainstream.

      Along with progressivism, economic populism is experiencing a revival. If you look at polls, most Americans support such things as progressive taxation and a strong social safety net. There is a surprising amount of economic populism and progressivism even among Republicans.

      It is only among the political elite that a divide is seen. The American public is a silenced majority. But they will only remain silenced for so long.

  4. The thing that strikes me the most about all of this is the self inflicted nature of America’s problems.

    The problem of anti intellectualism and authoritarianism especially seems to be huge challenge for the future of humanity. The US it does seem has more severe anti intellectual sentiment than other nations.

    • It isn’t all self-inflicted. Maybe not even mostly. Not to excuse complicity. I just wouldn’t underestimate the combined power of corporate media spin, political elite rhetoric, and government propaganda.

      I’ve been reading about the early Cold War era and I was amazed by how much the ruling elites were able to control and shape public perception, especially through control of public education and mass media. It doesn’t lessen responsibility of the public to fight against this, but it is hard to understand what you should be fighting against when you are being kept in the dark.

      I regularly talk to a wide variety of well intentioned and fairly well informed Americans. Even among this group, it can be hard to talk about some issues. I’ve been thinking about sundown towns, racial and class privilege, etc. These type of things are so endemic that they are practically invisible.

      I’ve struggled with understanding this. The US is the most powerful country in the world for reasons far beyond it having the largest military and economy. More importantly, it has the most effective propaganda system ever developed. It is a highly advanced operation, a new soft form of authoritarianism that rarely is felt on the personal level of daily experience… unless you are a poor minority.

      There is anti-intellectualism. But I suspect that isn’t so much a cause as it is a result. To understand the actual cause(s), whatever they may be, we have to dig much deeper to see how the entire social system operates.

    • That article is talking about my generation.

      GenXers are now hitting middle age. I’m on the lowest end of GenX and I will be turning 40 this year. My generation is typically considered to have begun sometime around the early-to-mid 1960s. Over the next decade, the first wave of GenXers will be hitting the 60 year old mark.

      This isn’t exactly news that my generation has had issues with death rates. GenXers had high rates of homicide and suicide going back to their childhoods. We also had the highest rates of lead toxicity.

      On top of that, we had the highest rate of childhood poverty seen since the Great Depression. When we entered adulthood, we had high rates of unemployment. The year I was born was the year wages began to stagnate and have continued to stagnate my entire life.

      GenXers were unsurprisingly the generation most victimized by the War on Drugs and mass incarceration.

      This was, of course, far worse for minority GenXers. But these problems were felt by most GenXers. There had been worsening of social and economic problems from previous generations. At the same time, those previous generations were doing great and the economy was booming in the 1990s.

      Now that GenXers are coming into middle age, they are bringing all of their problems along with them. Starting out life with difficulties sticks with you for the rest of your life.

      So, I wouldn’t exactly say the chickens are coming home to roost. The problems that GenXers have known all their lives haven’t primarily been caused by GenXers. It is more of a case of the sins of the father. Not to claim that white GenXers are blameless, but perspective is important.

    • Also, consider this:

      “The alarming trend, overlooked until now, has hit less-educated 45- to 54-year-olds the hardest, with no other groups in the US as affected and no similar declines seen in other rich countries. […] Case and Deaton found that death rates from drugs, alcohol and suicides had risen for middle-aged white men and women across all educational backgrounds. But Case said the less educated bore the brunt of the trend: for those with a high school degree or a lower level of education, deaths from drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning rose fourfold, suicides by 81%, and deaths from liver disease and cirrhosis by 50%. For this least-educated group, deaths from all causes rose more than a fifth. Only for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher did overall death rates continue to decline.”

      Those mostly effected aren’t the ruling elite and upper classes. These aren’t the people with the most wealth, power, and influence. The poorest whites are being hit the hardest, and these are the very people who are among the least likely to vote and certainly not very likely to be elected to political office. These aren’t the decision-makers.

      As for the wealthy, the article points out that their “overall death rates continue to decline.” So, it is the complete opposite of the chickens coming home to roost. Whether white or black, it is the lower classes who get the worst of it. And the poorer they are, the worst they get it.

  5. I doubt that the wealthiest 1% of Generation X was affected. Perhaps even much wealthier.

    Actually the latest analysis suggests that even the top 95%th percentile of people are now poorer than they were in the past.

    Even the 99.0-99.5%th percentile is starting to feel the pinch.

    • That is true. Inequality is growing larger, even between the mere rich and the filthy rich.

      Still, life is improving in many ways even for the mere rich, although not as greatly as for the filthy rich. The article points out that among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are still experiencing declining death rates in middle age.

      Having a bachelor’s degree hardly signifies someone being filthy rich or even particularly rich. It just probably means such people aren’t poor, but it must be noted that being well educated these days doesn’t necessarily mean one is doing financially well.

      Most Americans would gladly be in the top 95%th percentile, even with it being relatively poorer than in the past.

  6. Graph of interest:

    More Articles:

    The graph is worth many words indeed. Note the positions of Canada, Sweden, and Australia.

    It goes without saying that Canada is often attacked by conservatives as being “socialist”. Australia is even more equal than Canada when measured by Gini index inequality.

    Sweden is the most egalitarian of all.

    • I’d like to see a graph that showed each generation in the US across the decades. The mortality rate of Boomers and Silents might still be comparably low, and it might have been that way across their entire lifetimes. I’d like to see how GenX mortality rates looked during each decade.

      Do the mortality rates for a given generation follow a basic pattern seen in most countries? What is the generational differences in other countries?

      The above graph does show the transition from the Boomer’s middle age to that of GenXers. You can see mortality rates going down for Boomers. Then GenXers hit middle age and it shoots up. It is strange that only the US shows this generational divide. Obviously, something really fucked up has been happening to American GenXers.

  7. It is graphs like these that make me happy that I am living in Canada and not in America.

    We just elected a Liberal government and I hope that he will fight to reverse the changes that have been made under our Conservative government.

    It makes you wonder how a society even more equal than Sweden would do.

    • It should make you glad that you aren’t me, an American GenXer.

      Mortality rates are still probably low for other American generations, though. Boomers and Silents are more economically well off, which is probably a major reason for the difference seen.

      I saw something about changes in Canada. It sounds like good stuff.

      A society more equal than Sweden would instantly transform into the Federation of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

  8. I suspect (and fear) that generation Y could end up with even higher mortality rates than X. That’s especially true in the US.

    Judging by the trends though, as a Canadian, and talking to a few people from Australia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, etc, although there is a global recession, there is still some reason for optimism that the trends may continue for us. We may end up all being less materially wealthy, but the life expectancies are still rising, albeit more slowly than before.

    I would not be as optimistic for the US.

    • A stronger social safety net ensures that average citizens aren’t hit hard by the ups and downs of the economy. That was a lesson Americans learned in the past, but apparently have forgotten. The older generations got theirs and so screw everyone else coming after.

  9. Technically 45-54 is the younger part of the Boomer generation right now.

    That said, if current trends hold, it will be even higher by the time you are in the age range. As I said earlier, likely even more for Generation Y assuming no reversal.

    What I find interesting actually is Canada’s line. Look again. There seems to be a year or two of increasing mortality every couple of years or so but the long-term trend is clear – it’s falling. What strikes me as curious is the huge fall right after the recession. Sweden and Australia did so too around 2008-2009, but slowed by 2010.

    It looks like Canada’s rate of decline has accelerated since 2008? Ugh we need data past 2012 to determine if this is an anomaly or trend.

    • “Technically 45-54 is the younger part of the Boomer generation right now.”

      There are different definitions of generations, in terms of when they begin and end.

      Generation X is typically seen as having begun sometime in the early-to-mid 1960s. Some people have put the starting point of GenX as early as 1961 (William Strauss and Neil Howe of Fourth Turning fame, Jon Miller at the Longitudinal Study of American Youth at the University of Michigan, etc). Others theorize it was a few years later, even as late as 1966.

      (It is similar to the Boomers. It has been pointed out that the birth boom in the US actually began during WWII, not after it. That makes me wonder what the WWII soldiers thought when they got back home to their wives, only to find that the baby boom had somehow begun without their assistance.)

      Anyway, that puts GenX in the range of this data. Those who are 45-54 right now would have been born from 1961-1970. That would include the early wave of GenX and, if using a later starting point, those on the cusp of GenX. Not that it matters all that much. Generations are generalized concepts, a bit fuzzy at the edges.

      All of this would be different for other countries, though. GenX is often defined as when the baby boom ended. Many countries had a baby boom around this time, but they didn’t begin and end at the same time. I’m not sure the baby boom should be the defining feature.

      What are considered the beginning and ending point for generations in Canada? I wouldn’t be surprised if they are similar to how they are defined in the US. European countries would have more varying cut off points.

      However one defines a generation in terms of years, it makes national comparisons difficult. That is why data such as this simply looks at specific age ranges, which will of course be the same across countries. But the usefulness of thinking of generations is that it puts the focus on the entire lifespan of a specific cohort, rather than just a snapshot at a particular age.

      “What I find interesting actually is Canada’s line. Look again. There seems to be a year or two of increasing mortality every couple of years or so but the long-term trend is clear – it’s falling.”

      Minor blips usually don’t mean much of anything. There are too many confounding factors that create random shifts in data. It’s the long-term trend that implies some significant cause(s).

      “It looks like Canada’s rate of decline has accelerated since 2008? Ugh we need data past 2012 to determine if this is an anomaly or trend.”

      I’m always wanting to see more recent data. The lag time of collecting and releasing data can be frustrating. It’s hard to think about these types of things in terms of what is going on in the world.

    • I noticed the Wikipedia article for Generation X has a section for Canada:

      “David Foot, author and University of Toronto professor, divides the generation born after the Baby Boomers into two groups in his book Boom Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift:[52] Generation X, born between 1960 and 1966; and the “Bust Generation”, born between 1967 and 1979.[53] Foot contends that those born between the periods of 1947–1966 were the Baby Boomers, where in Canada they were the largest boom of the industrialized world (relative to population).[54] This large boom complicated the job market for the upcoming generation.[55] However, it is also common in Canada to represent Generation Xers using the date ranges 1961–1981 or 1965–1981.[56][57]”

      In Foot’s model, what most people think of as Generation X, he calls the Bust Generation. He entirely limits what he calls Generation X to the last years of the Baby Boom, what many consider instead to be the beginning years of the generation following Boomers. That is a different way of using the terminology, but it probably just confuses things further. It does point out that the early 1960s may be a bit of a generational no-man’s land.

    • I was looking at some of the articles again. You were correct. It was stated that the shift began after 1998. At that time, the 45-54 age demographic was the Boomers. That makes the dividing line a bit differently. It splits the first and last waves of that generation, and then it continued as the first wave of GenXers entered middle age.

      That maybe challenges the cohesiveness of Boomers as a generation. Older Boomers apparently had similar conditions as Silents and GIs. Whereas younger Boomers experienced major change in those conditions that became more apparent with GenX.

      That fits my parents experience. They both talk about feeling no identification with the Boomer Generation. To their mind, Boomers are defined by the late 1960s and early 1970s when my parents graduated college and started their careers.

      My parents are on the cusp of the Silent and Boomer generations. Which side of that generational divide they fall upon depends on the years used for one beginning and the other ending. The birth rate rise of the baby boom actually began in the late 1930s, even though the two main peaks were in the 1940s and 1950s. The more defining feature of the Baby Boom has more to do with being a basically post-war generation, whether or not the last years of the war are included in the birth years for that cohort.

      However, I do notice that the earliest birth year to experience increasing mortality rates was 1945. When those people were 54 years old, the year was 1999, the first year of the shift. My mother was born in 1945, but this wouldn’t have impacted her much. That was simply when the middle age mortality rates had bottomed out, which is to say they were at a low point. It really wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the middle age mortality rates had more fully climbed back up. And it was only going into the late-2000s that the middle age mortality rates went well above what they were in 1990.

      So, older Boomers wouldn’t have experienced much difference and the shift wouldn’t have yet been apparent. Then again, if we looked at narrower demographics (e.g., poor under-educated minorities), I bet the shift would have been clear by then or even much earlier.

      What is interesting is that these changing conditions had the greatest impact for GenXers. Major social and health problems weren’t as prevalent for Boomers when they were younger, which implies that the changes happened mostly after Boomers were already adults. These changes hit GenXers harder for the reason that it happened in their childhood, when events tend to leave more permanent marks, such as with lead toxicity.

      I see this pattern when looking at other data. For example, the increase in homicide rates was only beginning with the Boomers, although the shift was so minor when the Boomers reached adulthood that no one could have guessed that it would have kept rising to the heights found with during the first part of GenXer’s lives. The first peak of the homicide rates happened around 1974, a year before I was born. That was about the time when the first GenXers were maybe entering teenagehood and when the last of the Boomers were entering adulthood, depending once again on cut-off points.

      That is the key shifting point, younger Boomers and older GenXers. That is when the shift began and showed its first distinct results. However, it wasn’t until all GenXers were entering adulthood and young adulthood that the highest peaks occurred. The last peak for homicide rates happened in the childhood of the oldest Millennials and decreased over the rest of their lives. Only the very oldest Millennials would have much if any memory of this period of high violence. Most Millennials would have only experienced the residual fear of that time through the over-protection of their parents and other authority figures.

      What makes GenX unique is that no part of that generation ever knew anything but that era of high rates of violence, social problems, poverty, health issues, etc. The rates of these things began worsening (for first wave GenXers) or peaking (for last wave GenXers) during their childhoods and didn’t begin to clearly decrease until they all had entered adulthood. That was their entire world, the entire context that shaped who they would become.

      That is what probably should expect from the rising middle age mortality rates. A shift is beginning to be seen with Boomers, most especially younger Boomers. However, if the pattern holds to past patterns, this will worsen until peaking out during the GenX middle age.

      After that, we should see middle age mortality rates go back in decline with Millennials. This would be particularly true if this is related to pollution and heavy metal toxicity, as Millennials had healthier childhoods in these terms, and one would expect healthier childhoods to translate into healthier middle ages. This is is even more likely considering Millennials supposedly have lower rates of drug addiction and alcoholism than GenXers and Boomers.

      What this shows is that GenXers have experienced the results to a greater degree for trends that they didn’t cause. There is no way to blame GenXers when these changes began either before they were born or when they were still children. The older generations that created these conditions, however, didn’t experience the direct consequences of their own actions. It didn’t need to be intentional, but the real world effect is that the costs get externalized from one generation to the next, sometimes with a lag time of multiple generations before results become apparent.

  10. If the trends hold, then falling below 150 deaths per 100,000 is possible by the time that I turn 45 in Canada. Sweden could get below 125 per 100,000.

    Extrapolations of this type are of course dangerous, but considering the progress in from the late 1980s to 2012 ish, there seems to be a good reason to believe that the rate will continue to decline.

    The really interesting question is what is really happening in America. I suspect that the collapse of America’s manufacturing may be playing a role. But that cannot possibly explain everything. Canada and Australia have both suffered huge declines in manufacturing, as has the UK. Despite the decline, they are still moving in the right direction as a whole it seems.

    Something else is at work here. It is very important that society figures out what is happening. Left unchecked, this could exceed 450 by 2020 at the current rate of growth.

    • The only people who will be (self-)interested to figure it out is my generation.

      BTW according to Strauss and Howe’s model, GenX is the part of the cycle that cleans up the mess of the previous generations. So, GenXers supposedly will play the role that the self-sacrificing Lost Generation played in the last cycle.

      The Lost, for example, paid a lot to get Social Security going, even though few of them ever benefited from it. They did the same thing in paying for public education, which is what they lacked as children. They made sure the following generations didn’t have as crappy of lives as they had.

  11. I would love to see a state by state breakdown. I suspect that the Deep South and Appalachia will do very poorly. Probably on top will be New England, the West Coast, and a few active states like Colorado.

    Cities in general should do better.

    I suppose the only other option would be to move to Canada. I know that Progressives in the US often joke about that after a Republican wins, but it may be worth more serious consideration.

    • I’m sure the data would breakdown in the same predictable pattern it always follows. The biggest divides are between Blue states and Red states, North and South, rural and urban. But the rural Blue states in the North tend to do fairly well overall, at least compared to Southern states. The Northern farming states tend to have more stable economies and lower unemployment, and so they avoid the extreme up and downs.

  12. Actually that makes me wonder. Probably places like New England, Minnesota, and a few others do as well as the UK, Canada, etc.

    That would make the Red areas truly awful.

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