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Issue #1713      December 2, 2015

Culture & Life

Capitalism and dying early

The main publicity shouters for capitalism – “government spokespersons” or PR firms, depending on whether you are referring to the parrot or its trainer – have for the last century proclaimed the USA to be at the forefront of global development. The American people are constantly told that they live in “the greatest country on Earth” and that the rest of the world’s population envies them their comfortable even luxurious lifestyle. It’s been drummed into them so constantly that most Americans, even poor Americans, actually believe it, despite the very visible signs that should tell them it is not true.

Members of the United States Navy serve the homeless at Dorothy’s Soup Kitchen, Salinas, California.

A huge – and growing – number of Americans only survive because of government food stamps (a peculiarly American form of the dole). Homelessness and soup kitchens are everywhere. The “greatest country on Earth” boast is looking more and more hollow every day. With poverty and hopelessness on the rise in the USA, there is disillusionment among middle-aged white middle class and working class Americans who were raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s and told that the “American dream” was peculiarly applicable to them. They not only now see it passing out of their reach; they also realise that it never really was within their reach.

Working class people in the US are under greater financial stress than they have been since the Great Depression. In fact, evictions have surpassed the level they were at in the Depression. Bank failures, high rents, the issuing willy-nilly of junk mortgages to entice people into serious debt, the bursting of housing bubbles, have all become commonplace in the US and they have all contributed to destroying people’s confidence and security. And this is beginning to have a serious impact on the nation’s health.

Since 1998, while other developed countries saw mortality rates fall, in the US they have actually been rising among poor whites. In their despair, many people in this category are turning to suicide in order to escape from a reality they can no longer endure. Many others have sought to escape through drugs and alcohol, with equally fatal results. One “benefit” of capitalism in the US that contributes to this situation is the easy access there to powerful prescription painkillers and cheaper “high quality” heroin.

In percentage terms, the sharp rise in death rates among white middle-aged Americans does not seem very high (0.5% a year), but it has claimed nearly as many lives in the past 15 years (half a million) as the spread of AIDS (650,000 in the US), according to research by two economics professors at Princeton University, Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

The turnaround reverses decades of falling mortality rates achieved through better medical care and lifestyle choices.

The findings emerged from a review of national surveys in the US and six other rich industrialised countries, namely the UK, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada.

Case and Deaton found that death rates in the US from drugs, alcohol and suicides had risen for middle-aged white men and women across all educational backgrounds. But the less educated, and hence poorest, bore the brunt of the trend: suicides for example up by 81%.

In a statement, Deaton said: “We need to think hard about controlling the prescriptions of opioid painkillers. The Federal Drug Administration recently approved Oxycontin for kids.

“While some kids are in awful, terminal pain, and can clearly benefit from it, the scope for abuse is there, especially if pharmaceutical companies misbehave, as they have done in the past. But if what is happening is an epidemic of despair, that people on the bottom of the economic heap are being increasingly left out as inequality expands, then what we are seeing is just one more terrible consequence of slow growth and growing inequality.”

In other words, you need to be rich to enjoy the American dream. But then, most of us knew that already, didn’t we? As for those who are not rich, living in the world’s leading capitalist country is actually bad for your health. The dream would seem to have become a nightmare.

Another type of nightmare is touched on in an article in the US on-line journal TomDispatch by US “journalist and social justice activist” Laura Gottesdiener, associate editor for Waging Nonviolence.

“To my mind, … the truly disconcerting stories are the ones that arrive at my desk with so little information that it’s almost impossible to say or write anything with certainty. And so I can’t really tell you what happened on August 12, when ‘a suspected US drone strike in Yemen ... killed five suspected Al-Qaida militants’, as the Associated Press reported in the standard language used to obscure attacks for which we, in the United States, have essentially no real information whatsoever.

“Who were these five people, I wonder, killed suddenly as they drove along a road somewhere to the east of the city of Mukalla? Statistically speaking, there’s a reasonable likelihood that they were innocent people. As the Intercept recently reported, based on leaked secret documents, 90% of those killed during one recent period in the US drone campaign in Afghanistan were not the sought-after targets. Without being there, however, I can’t tell you who those five Yemeni ‘militants’ were, or what lives they led, or how many children they had, or even whether they were children themselves – and the odds are that neither can the Pentagon.

“Nor can I tell you what happened when the US launched its first drone strike in Syria on August 4. I remember scouring different news sources over the following mornings for the most basic piece of information: how many people – if any – had been killed. That was, after all, what I was doing: waking up early and counting the death toll from America’s endless wars.

“But in the days and weeks that followed, the Pentagon’s spokesman refused to offer specifics of any sort on this strike. It’s possible he didn’t have any. And so, to this day, even the number of deaths remains unknown.”

The USA the greatest country on Earth? Sure, it is.

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