Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Reverse New Deal: Life expectancy drops, suicides rise, the American Dream has been pulverized... and the financial predators are smiling.

Above: The description for this 1938 photograph reads, "Slossfield Health Center [Birmingham, Alabama] constructed by WPA. WPA has installed various clinics throughout the state, WPA assistants aid the doctors in their work of examining and treating patients..." Behind many New Deal policies and projects, e.g., new hospitals, new clinics, immunization campaigns, and school lunch programs, was an intense desire to improve the health and well-being of all Americans. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

We're Dying Younger

The CDC has recently reported that life expectancy in America has dropped (see, "US life expectancy drops for first time in 22 years," CNN, December 8, 2016). 

But if you're rich, don't worry too much. You'll live up to 15 years longer than a poor person (see "America's richest men live 15 years longer than poor men," CNN, April 11, 2016).

Interestingly, Americans pay more for health care, health insurance, and medicine, than other developed countries, but die younger. Isn't that amazing? We're paying more... to live less. (See, for example, "Americans less healthy, dying younger than people in other wealthy nations," Fox News, January 10, 2013).

We could, of course, have universal health coverage, like all other advanced countries. But no, that would be "socialism," we are warned, and we can't have that! Better that we keep a privatized, profit-driven health care system - even as we cough-up phlegm and keel over. Perhaps, on our headstones, right under the inscribed years showing how young we died, can be put something like, "She upheld the tenets of capitalism, like a true patriot!"

Above: A WPA poster urging diligent health care, even for those of limited means. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We're Killing Ourselves With Greater Frequency

Recent data from the CDC shows that more and more Americans are killing themselves - 44,193 in 2015, up from 42,773 in 2014. This trend has been going on for years now. Both the raw numbers and the per capita rate have been increasing dramatically. And we know that financial stress is a major factor in suicides. As clinical psychologist Bruce Levine has written: "For nearly two decades, Big Pharma commercials have falsely told Americans that mental illness is associated with a chemical brain imbalance, but the truth is that mental illness and suicidality are associated with poverty, unemployment, and mass incarceration. And the truth is that American society has now become so especially oppressive for young people that an embarrassingly large number of American teenagers and young adults are suicidal and depressed" ("What We Are Not Being Told About Suicide And Depression," Alternet, February 15, 2015. Also see, "Financial Worries Linked to Rising Suicide Rate Among Baby Boomers," U.S. News & World Report, March 5, 2015; and "The Ones We've Lost: The Student Loan Debt Suicides," Huffington Post, July 2, 2012). 

Above: Many New Deal projects made people smile. These young women in Jefferson County, Alabama, are enjoying a WPA-built swimming pool in 1938. New Deal jobs, health programs, and recreation projects probably saved more than a few people from suicide. According to researchers from Oxford and Stanford universities, every $100 in New Deal spending correlated with a drop in suicides of 4 per 100,000 people. When you consider that the current rate of suicide is about 13-14 per 100,000, and that over 44,000 people killed themselves last year, you can get an idea of how many people could be saved if we created another New Deal - instead of carrying on, as we will, with more neoliberalism and trickle-down economics. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The American Dream Pulverized

Recent research "estimates that only half the children born in the 1980s grew up to earn more than their parents did, after adjusting for inflation. That's a drop from 92 percent of children born in 1940" ("American Dream collapsing for young adults, study says, as odds plunge that children will earn more than their parents," Washington Post, December 8, 2016).

David Leonhardt, a journalist & editor at the New York Times, examined the research and wrote: "Achieving the American dream was a virtual guarantee for [the 1940s generation], regardless of whether people went to college, got divorced or suffered a layoff. Why? Because they spent their prime working years in an economy with two wonderful features. It was growing rapidly, and the bounty from its growth flowed to the rich, the middle class and the poor alike."

True enough, but Leonhardt doesn't adequately explain why the economy was growing so rapidly, and why the bounty was more evenly distributed. In other words, he doesn't discuss the New Deal. During the 1940s and 50s, New Deal agencies and policies were firmly in place: Social Security, the Securities & Exchange Commission, FDIC, the minimum wage, protections for unions, more progressive taxation, and so on. Also, the American economy expanded along New Deal roads, across New Deal bridges, and out of New Deal airports. The New Deal worked so well, in fact, that Republicans in the 1950s pushed to expand it. In their 1956 party platform, Republicans boasted:

"We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs: expansion of social security; broadened coverage in unemployment insurance; improved housing; and better health protection for all our people... The Federal minimum wage has been raised for more than 2 million workers. Social Security has been extended to an additional 10 million workers and the benefits raised for 6 1/2 million. The protection of unemployment insurance has been brought to 4 million additional workers. There have been increased workmen's compensation benefits for longshoremen and harbor workers, increased retirement benefits for railroad employees, and wage increases and improved welfare and pension plans for federal employees... Furthermore, the process of free collective bargaining has been strengthened..."

It's true that World War II boosted the economy too, but two things must be remembered with respect to the war. First, the New Deal helped us win it, ensuring that the terrible affair would strengthen us, not cripple us. And second, World War II required massive government spending, i.e., a stimulus, albeit a stimulus of the worst kind (and so this contradicts the "limited government" and austerity approaches to recessions).

Over time, the New Deal has been eroded and neglected. Infrastructure has been left to rot, social programs have been relentlessly attacked, enormous tax cuts have been given to the wealthy, policies (like Glass-Steagall) have been repealed, and watchdog agencies (like the SEC) have been weakened. And when unemployment rose during the recession, the idea of creating a new CCC or WPA was ignored. So, given these cynical actions, is it any wonder that the American Dream has died for half the country?  

Above: This bridge in Walker County, Alabama, was just one 124,000 bridge projects carried out by the WPA between 1935 and 1943. WPA bridges helped the American economy expand after World War II. But the political right doesn't want you to know about this part of American history. Instead, they want you to believe that it was greed and selfishness (of the type that Ayn Rand promoted) that really made America great. What a spectacular lie that is - almost as spectacular as the real work of the WPA. 1938 photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The Financial Predators Are Smiling

There is at least one group of people who are happy with all that I have outlined above: Financial predators. And who are the financial predators? They're the people who practice usury on their fellow citizens. They're the people who make harassing debt collection calls. They're the people who run multi-billion dollar frauds on the American people. They're the people who buy politicians to maintain, and make worse, massive income & wealth inequality. They're the people who ship jobs overseas, so that shareholders and executives can become more wealthy than they already are. They're the people who invest in private prisons. They're the people who invest in perpetual war. They're the people who change bankruptcy laws so that the middle-class and poor can't escape suffocating debt. They're the people who constantly lobby to cut the social safety net. They're the people who want to privatize Social Security and Medicare, so their criminal friends on Wall Street can have more money to gamble with. They're the people who lay us off and then tell us that the government should NOT help us when our finances soon crumble. Financial predators are people who want government to be small and inept, so it can't hold them accountable for the pain and suffering they inflict on others. 

In short, the financial predators are a sick and twisted group of people. But they have money. And when you have money, you can control politicians; and you can also control the major media outlets. And with those two things you can convince tens of millions of people that your sick and twisted mindset is the norm. You can convince them to vote against their own economic interest. You can convince them that they deserve the financial punishment you're giving them, because they just aren't working hard enough. You can convince them that the government (i.e., "We The People") is the problem, not the solution. You can convince them to sign up for more trickle-down economics, even after decades of trickle-down economics has stomped them into the ground. You can convince them that their impoverishment is not due to the greed of super-wealthy Americans (who are enjoying record wealth at the same time that the national suicide rate is soaring) but due to the poor Mexicans who are sneaking across the border to clean the homes of those super-wealthy Americans.

The financial predators have fed us a crock of shit and, sadly, millions of Americans are still eating from it - thereby endangering our financial well-being, our physical & mental health, our lives, and our planet.

"Every day, I wake up and have to remind myself that there is no way out of this. I have had thoughts of suicide on numerous occasions."

--27 year-old student loan debtor, in testimony before the New Jersey State Senate, August 8, 2016

"It is perverse and obscene. We are creating a generation of indentured people. It is mind-boggling that we would do this to a whole generation of young people. I can’t understand any other modern society doing this."

--Daniel Austin, law professor, Northeastern University, commentary on student loan debt and bankruptcy, in the article "Joe Biden Backed Bills To Make It Harder For Americans To Reduce Their Student Debt," International Business Times, September 15, 2015

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