Lives (And Deaths) Of Quiet Desperation

After years of increasing longevity, studies are showing that the death rate is rising, but only for one group — white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54.  The divergence in the trend lines may be inexplicable, but it is unmistakable.  While death rates are falling in other first-world countries, and for African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, they are rising for middle-aged whites.

The circumstances of the deaths all point to mental health issues as an underlying cause for the anomaly.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, between 1999 and 2013 deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and chronic liver disease all increased for that population demographic, even as the incidence of other common causes for mortality, such as lung cancer, declined.  The studies also show that the increase in the mental health-related causes of death is particularly notable among middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education, although increases also were observed among better-educated segments of the population, too.

The experts aren’t sure why the mortality trend is affecting this particular group.  Some point to increases in mental health issues among white Americans and musculoskeletal problems that have left people in chronic pain — and therefore ripe for self-medication through alcohol or addiction to powerful painkillers — but those don’t seem like reasons that should target one demographic group to the exclusion of others, or for that matter should affect Americans but not Germans, British, or Canadians.

Other experts say that “economic stress” is the culprit, and that many Americans have reached middle age only to find that they are less well off than their parents, when the “American Dream” we heard about growing up is supposed to result in increases in wealth and happiness from generation to generation.  That rationale might explain why Americans are being affected as opposed to those in other countries — but is belief in the “American Dream” really so profoundly different among different demographic groups that it would explain the different death rates?

In Walden, Henry D. Thoreau wrote:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Many of us know people who have succumbed to that desperation, but we aren’t sure precisely why.  We don’t know why they are prone to addiction, or depression, or suicidal thoughts when others in similar circumstances manage to deal with their problems and forge ahead — but these studies indicate that their stories are sufficiently commonplace to create a clear and disturbing statistical trend.

Our grandparents and parents would scoff at the idea that the “American Dream” was a bad thing.  Could it be that its aspirational notions have created expectations that, if unrealized, produce disappointment so crushing that it cannot be borne?  I’m skeptical of that conclusion, but I nevertheless wonder why so many people apparently are so desperately unhappy about their lives, and what we can do to change that trend.

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Hot Showers And Home Ownership

A shower is an essential part of the morning routine.  You get squeaky clean and move back into conformance with prevailing social hygienic norms.  You ruthlessly eliminate that lingering case of bed head.  And you finally complete the drowsy transition from blissful sleep to outright, whistling-as-you-get-dressed-for-work wakefulness.

IMG_4820I like my showers hot.  In fact, scalding is closer to accurate.  I like clouds of steam to rise from the shower floor and fog up the shower door, so that I could write “Kilroy was here” with my index finger if I desired.  I want to emerge from the blistering deluge wide-eyed, scourged clean, and as red as a Maine lobster fished out of the bubbling cookpot.

Unfortunately, for the last few months this hasn’t been possible.  At our rental unit, the hot water temperature never got above tepid, probably for cost saving and liability avoidance purposes.  Even at the maximum heat setting, a shower had no sizzle.  As a result, the morning shower there was not a particularly satisfying experience — functional but ho-hum, and sort of like getting woolen socks from your grandmother as a birthday present.

But now we are in our own place and in complete control of the hot water heater, which has been cranked up to high-end, fast-food-carry-out-coffee-before-they-got-sued-into-moderation temperatures.  Yes, I think: this is one of the essences of home ownership and the American Dream.  Now I get to decide water heat, and “room temperature,” and what to put on the walls, and how much light there will be in each room.

So turn that shower handle to maximum at your own risk, baby!  Let the scorching begin!

Dissing The American Dream

An economics professor at the University of California Davis has crunched some numbers and concluded that the American Dream is a myth.

In fact, Professor Gregory Clark’s review of the data concludes that there has been no more social mobility in America over the past 100 years than there was in medieval England or pre-industrial Sweden.  Hard work, education, seizing opportunity, and saving doesn’t make a difference, he says.  Instead, the socioeconomic status of your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be closely related to your status.

IMG_3184Professor Clark’s students apparently are skeptical of his data — how did he get it, how did he analyze it, and did he manipulate it? — and his conclusions.  So am I.  The reason for the skepticism is that many American families have featured living examples of the American Dream who lifted themselves up by their bootstraps and radically changed their circumstances.

In our immediate family I can think of at least two:  my grandfather, who was born into a Kentucky hill family so poor he was thrilled to get a single orange for Christmas, moved to Akron because there were jobs there, took a messenger job with a bank, rose through the ranks, and retired 55 years later as the bank’s president and chairman of the board; and my father, who made it through law school without buying a book because he couldn’t afford it, had a facility for numbers, and achieved great success as a businessman that allowed him to retire at an early age.  I don’t care what Professor Clark’s numbers say — I know from direct family history that America is truly the Land of Opportunity.

Professor Clark seems to think he is some economics truth-teller who is bursting the bubbles of his students.  He isn’t, because family example is far more meaningful and real than an economics professor and his dusty statistics.  The American Dream is powerful precisely because we know it has happened.  It sounds like Professor Clark could stand to do some dreaming himself.

From Craftsmen To Casino Workers

Obviously, I am disappointed in the fact that Ohio voters approved Issue 3, which will result in the construction of full-scale casinos in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo.  What is really sad about the passage of Issue 3, however, is what it says more generally about The Buckeye State in particular and The American Dream in general.

There is no doubt that that principal reason that Ohio voters backed Issue 3 — after having repeatedly rejected statewide casino gambling initiatives in the very recent past — is that it promised to create 34,000 jobs.  What does it say about our state that the promise of a few thousand jobs as casino workers is enough to cause voters to reverse their longstanding opposition to gambling and welcome casinos to some of our major cities?  I think it clearly speaks of reduced expectations, reduced hopes, and reduced dreams.

Ohio used to be a state that was chock full of good jobs for all.  In the Akron area where I grew up, thousands of citizens were successful blue collar workers in the rubber and auto industries.  They had union jobs that allowed them to buy nice homes, take nice vacations, grill out on weekends, and support the Browns and Indians.  They lived on the same streets as carpenters, shoe repairmen, dentists, lawyers, and car dealers.  Those American workers made tires, furniture, televisions, textile products, glass, and other actual tangible objects that were bought and sold.  They were proud of their jobs, proud of their state, and proud of their country.  All of them hoped and expected that their children would have even better jobs and better lives.

Most of the manufacturing jobs that I remember from my youth have long since left our state.  We can argue about why they are gone — whether it was overly greedy management or overly greedy unions, poor business planning or poor business practices, workers compensation awards that were too generous or tax schemes that were too aggressive, environmental regulation, or general business costs that simply were too high to compete with what businesses will pay in Mexico or China — but there is no dispute that they are gone.  And, as a result, we have in Ohio a population of people who are desperate for a job, any job — even if it is a job wearing a bow tie and a fake smile as you deal cards  to surly, drunken gamblers at a blackjack table at 2 a.m.

Does anyone believe that these desperate people dream The American Dream anymore?  That is what I find so deeply saddening about the passage of Issue 3.  Even sadder, I doubt that the Ohioans who sacrificed their principles and swallowed their misgivings and succumbed to the siren’s song of casino gambling are very much different from millions of desperate Americans in every other state in the union.