Paul Krugman is a gifted economist. Along with Jared Bernstein, he is my go-to guy when it comes to deciphering news related to that field. But usually when Krugman veers into other arenas (i.e., politics), my suggestion is that he stick to his day job. That’s why I was surprised that, when he entered into my own wheelhouse (understanding human behavior), he brought some powerful insights.
Krugman addressed the big news we’re hearing a lot about lately related to the increased mortality rate among middle-aged white Americans. First of all, he notes the even more striking news:
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.
Like so many of us, he wonders why this is happening. Krugman dispenses with the answer conservatives propose about it being related a culture of dependency and despair created by liberal social policies. If that were the case, we’d be seeing much worse in countries like Sweden.
But what about the answer we hear from liberals – that it’s all about income inequality and the economic pressures faced by the middle class? In a fascinating dismissal, Krugman points out that Hispanic Americans are much poorer than whites, and yet have a lower mortality rate.
Here’s the kicker:
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 reminded me of something Tim Wise wrote years ago.
Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it’s worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it.
None of that is meant to disparage white people or suggest that people of color are all heroes. It simply means that we have different stories of America that influence what we’ve come to expect. If, instead of fearing the changes that are taking place in our country, we could look to each other as sources of strength and wisdom, we might be able work together to challenge the forces that affect us all.