Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Life Expectancies Dropping, Wages Falling, Food Rationing Reported -- What the Hell is Going on?

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By Joshua Holland

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on AlterNet’s blog, PEEK.

For years, we’ve been financing our consumption with debt, offshoring our manufacturing base and living large -- at least some of us -- off of one speculative bubble after the next.

We can talk about stagnant wages and how dramatically inequality has increased, but that frames it passively, as a sort of natural phenomenon. But that obscures the fact that it’s been an active process, with the wealthiest Americans gaming the system for a bigger piece of the pie at everyone else’s expense. Meanwhile, we’ve been investing bupkis in our future, expecting, perhaps, to remain on the top through nothing more than raw American exeptionalism.

It’s a model that was never sustainable. As the GAO once put the obvious, famously, "By definition, what is unsustainable will not be sustained." And it appears we’re paying the piper, although nobody knows how much the bill will be, exactly.

A few signals of what’s shaping up to be quite a crisis ...

According to the New York Sun:

Many parts of America, long considered the breadbasket of the world, are now confronting a once unthinkable phenomenon: food rationing.

Major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks.

International Herald Tribune:

The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the last century, allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school education to rise to the middle class. It was a marker, of sorts, but it is becoming extinct.

Americans greeted the loss with anger and protest when it first began to happen in big numbers in the late 1970s, particularly in the steel industry in western Pennsylvania. But as layoffs persisted, in Pennsylvania and across the country, through the ’80s and ’90s and right up to today, the protests subsided and acquiescence set in.

The high point came in the 1970s, just as the United States was beginning to lose its controlling grip on the economies of the non-communist world. Since then the percentage of people earning at least $20 an hour has eroded in every sector of the economy, falling last year to 18 percent of all hourly workers from 23 percent in 1979 - a gradual unwinding of the post-World War II gains.

The decline is greatest in manufacturing, where only 1.9 million hourly workers still earn that much. That is down nearly 60 percent since 1979, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

The shrinkage is sometimes quite open. The Big Three automakers are buying out more than 25,000 employees who earn above $20 an hour, replacing many with new hires tied to a "second tier" wage scale that never quite reaches $20. A similar buyout last year removed 80,000 autoworkers. Many were not replaced, but many were, with the new hires paid at the non-middle-class scale, and with fewer benefits.

Wages are stagnant while food prices are skyrocketing and oil is at an all-time high of $118 a barrel. I don’t know about you, but I lead a pretty humble life, and I’m having a harder time making ends meet right now than I was a few short years ago.

The longer-term effects of the systematic dismantling of the New Deal are becoming evident as well. As I wrote last year ...

America’s core infrastructure has been falling apart in very visible ways during the past few years. It’s a predictable outcome of the rise of "backlash" conservatism; we’ve swallowed 30 years of small-government rhetoric, and it’s led us to a point in which our infrastructure, once the pride of the developed world, is falling apart around us. We’re reaping what we’ve sown.

It’s all part of a larger picture. We have a crumbling power grid and are falling behind the rest of the world in broadband infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) talks of "congested highways, overflowing sewers and corroding bridges" that are "constant reminders of the looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation’s prosperity and our quality of life." Every year the engineering society issues a report card grading 15 categories of America’s once-premier infrastructure. In 2005, that "core" infrastructure collectively got a "D-," slightly worse than the "D" it received in 2000. Ironically, the nation’s bridges received the highest score -- a "C" -- in 2005.

As a nation, our physical health appears to be declining as well. We were once the tallest people in the world, but citizens of all the social democracies have been out-growing us, on average, and we now have the shortest average stature among all the countries with highly advanced economies.

The latest news on this front comes via the Washington Post:

For the first time since the Spanish influenza of 1918, life expectancy is falling for a significant number of American women.

In nearly 1,000 counties that together are home to about 12 percent of the nation’s women, life expectancy is now shorter than it was in the early 1980s, according to a study published today.

"I think this is a harbinger. This is not going to be isolated to this set of counties, is my guess," said Christopher J.L. Murray, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington who led the study. It is being published in PLoS Medicine, an open-access journal of the Public Library of Science.

The study found a smaller decline, in far fewer places, in the life expectancy of men in this country. In all, longevity is declining for about 4 percent of males.

The phenomenon appears to be not only new but distinctly American.

"If you look in Western Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, we don’t see this," Murray said.

The authors attribute much of this to increases in smoking-related illnesses, obesity and their sequelae, including diabetes and kidney failure. All preventable diseases, but we don’t do prevention well. Our bottom-line-driven health care system is geared towards treating diseases once they spring up as opposed to keeping people healthy in the first place.

Recently PBS ran a doc called "Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?" According to producer Larry Adelman, "a growing body of evidence suggests there is much more to our health than bad habits, our meds or unlucky genes."

The social, physical and economic environments in which we are born, live and work can actually get under our skin as surely as germs and viruses. Because these conditions are distributed unequally--in the jobs we do, the wealth we enjoy, the schools we attend, the neighborhoods we inhabit, the power we have to manage our lives--so are our patterns of health and disease, particularly stroke, heart disease, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease and even some cancers.

All of this is a snapshot of the big picture, but nobody really knows where we’re really headed. A couple of years ago, economist Dean Baker told me that he could see average incomes falling by as much as 40 percent as the housing bubble bursts.

I sincerely hope I’m being an alarmist here, but it’s not unrealistic to be worried and there’s little reason to have a lot of faith in our political leaders’ ability to come up with a new and sustainable economic paradigm, as it’s becoming clear we must do sooner or later.


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