Paul Krugman has been crunching some numbers. And he's made a grisly discovery. He writes:
America’s dismal Covid performance was part of a larger story. I don’t know how many Americans are aware that over the past four decades, our life expectancy has been lagging ever further that of other advanced nations — even nations whose economic performance has been poor by conventional measures. Italy, for example, has experienced a generation of economic stagnation, with basically no growth in real G.D.P. per capita since 2000, compared with a 29 percent rise here. Yet Italians can expect to live about five years longer than Americans, a gap that has widened even as the Italian economy flounders.
What explains the American way of death? A large part of the answer seems to be political.
One important clue is that the problem of premature death isn’t evenly distributed across the country. Life expectancy is hugely unequal across U.S. regions, with major coastal cities not looking much worse than Europe but the South and the eastern heartland doing far worse.
But wasn’t it always thus? No. Geographic health disparities have surged in recent decades. According to the U.S. mortality database, as recently as 1990, Ohio had slightly higher life expectancy than New York. Since then, New York’s life expectancy has risen rapidly, nearly converging with that of other rich countries, while Ohio’s has hardly risen at all and is now four years less than New York’s.
The data is pretty stark:
A 2021 paper published in The Journal of Economic Perspectives examined various possible causes, like the increasing concentration of highly educated Americans (who tend to be healthier than those with less education) in states that are already highly educated and the widening per capita income gaps among states. The authors found that these factors can’t explain more than a small fraction of the growing mortality gap.
Instead, they argued, the best explanation lay in policy: “The most promising explanation for our findings involve efforts by high-income states to adopt specific health-improving policies and behaviors since at least the early 1990s. Over time, these efforts reduced mortality in high-income states more rapidly than in low-income states, leading to widening spatial disparities in health.”
There is, in fact, a strong correlation between how much a state’s life expectancy rose from 1990 to 2019 and its political lean, as measured by Joe Biden’s margin over Donald Trump in the 2020 election — a correlation slightly stronger, by my estimates, than the correlation with income.
There are several reasons to believe that America’s death trip is largely political rather than economic. One is the comparison with European nations, which have had much better health trends even when, as in Italy, their economies have performed badly.
Another is the fact that some of the poorest states in America, with the lowest life expectancy, are still refusing to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would cover the bulk of the cost (and the failure to expand Medicaid is killing many hospitals). This suggests that they’re failing to improve health because they don’t want to, not because they can’t afford to.
Finally, since Covid struck, residents of Republican-leaning counties have been far less likely to get vaccinated and far more likely to die of it than residents of Democratic-leaning counties — even though vaccines are free.
Republicans have a death wish. And those who buy what they sell are like lemmings, marching over a cliff.
Image: Encyclopedia Britannica