By Nancy Spannaus
Dec. 27, 2017–There was chilling news for Americans earlier this month, when the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics put out its latest report on life expectancy in the United States. For the second year in a row, life expectancy declined. A look at the details shows that this shocking news is attributable to huge jumps in mortality among younger Americans, especially those in the prime child-bearing ages of 25 to 34.
Those who might pooh-pooh the result due to the smallness of the decline in life-expectancy (from 78.8 in 2014 to 78.6 in 2016) would be foolish. Among the younger cohorts of the population, the death rate increased by frighteningly large amounts: 7.8% for those 15/24; 10/5% for those 25-34; and 6.7% for those 35-44. These increases are widely attributed to the galloping opioid epidemic, which is causing double-digit increases in deaths, and shows absolutely no signs of abating. The future of the nation is what’s dying at an increasing rate.
The CDC report should also be seen in the context of the earlier reports by Princeton academics Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who have documented a dramatic increase in mortality rates over the entire 1998 to 2013 period among middle-aged non-Hispanic white Americans. This result has been widely publicized under the appropriate rubric of “deaths of despair” (from drugs, obesity and alcoholism), and was heavily concentrated in de-industrialized areas of the country such as West Virginia.
There have been other periods in U.S. history where an increase in the death rate among certain sections of the population has led to a decline in life-expectancy. There was a three-year drop due to the pandemic Spanish flu from 1916 to 1918; and two-year drops in 1962-63 (influenza epidemic) and 1992-94 (AIDS epidemic). But the specificity of these causal elements, and counteracting improvements in medicine and living standards, led the declines to be short-lived. On the contrary, demographers today expect this decline to continue and worsen, as no effective policies to combat the causes of the despair have been put in place.
It is my contention that this seemingly small statistic goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the current approach to economics and statecraft in the United States, from all sides of the political spectrum. To pursue it, takes us to the core of the American System which so desperately needs to be restored today. Necessarily, we can only begin to deal with the subject here, and will undoubtedly raise more questions. But that is as it should be.
Population Growth—Hallmark of the American System
There has been no lack of attention over the past decades to the fact that the so-called American Dream is dying. That Dream was defined as each generation living a more prosperous life than its parents, a phenomenon which is gradually disappearing for a vast proportion of those born in the 1980s or later. To be sure, there are precious few who understand why this is the case: the decline of policies to promote a culture of scientific and technological progress since the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
But much less attention has been given to the question of population, which has been a marker for the American System of Economics from its dawning.
Let’s step back a minute, pre-America, and look at the history of mankind. For most of human existence, most people have lived a life that was, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” There were ups and downs in the timeline of population growth, but the major takeoff occurred in the 15th and 16th Century with what is known as the Italian Renaissance. From that time forward, human population growth surged, along with the standard of living and longevity of the world population.
This did not occur by accident or an act of Nature. The Italian Renaissance was a time of the rebirth of the spirit of invention and creativity which had characterized the Golden Age of Greece. It prompted not only the flourishing of the arts (music, painting, architecture), but the application of scientific insights to conditions of daily life for all—waterworks, exploration, human anatomy. Just a brief look at the works of the genius of Leonardo da Vinci will give you an idea of the richness and “practicality” of the Renaissance. These developments were promoted by specific princes, and developed into a school of statecraft which demanded that the government promote the general welfare of the population, not the enrichment of the prince and his family.
What was understood by this school of thought was that the real source of wealth in society actually was the population. If you wanted society to prosper, you had to invest in improving people’s conditions of life, including their minds and culture. Educational and scientific institutions, beautiful music and art, labor-saving machinery, improved agriculture, sanitation, and safe housing—all of these were essential if your society was to advance in productive power.
As I explained in the introduction to the second edition of the Political Economy of the American Revolution, these ideas led directly into the Founding Fathers of the United States. Benjamin Franklin epitomized them, but they also infused the work of Hamilton, Mathew and Henry Carey, and their colleagues. Population growth, as a concomitant of scientific and technological advance, was a hallmark of the early American System, as shown in Franklin’s 1751 “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.,” a document still well worth reading today.
The British Empire, of course, was not amused. Thomas Malthus’s 1798 fraudulent thesis on the threat of overpopulation can be seen as a direct counterattack against the American System of the late 1790s, which saw the U.S. population doubling every 25 years, as it improved its living conditions. Indeed, the financial oligarchy, and their co-thinkers, have never given up on that thesis. They see people as so many mouths to feed and support, rather than as contributors to the increasing wealth of humanity as a whole. And as Henry Kissinger wrote in his 1974 National Security Memorandum calling for population control in various Third World countries, nations that become too populous tend to resist imperial demands to control their resources and impoverish their lives.
By contrast, the American idea has always been that every life is precious, and, when properly nourished physically and culturally, is an invaluable contribution to his or her nation, and the world. An increasing population is a sign of a healthy, happy people. That’s why American System proponents called for our government to ensure universal education, promote inventions and infrastructure, eliminate class and racial discrimination, replace manual labor with machinery and pay labor sufficiently to support a growing family, among other public goods.
As Henry Carey put it in his description of “two systems before the world,”
One looks to pauperism, ignorance, depopulation, and barbarism; the other to increasing wealth, comfort, intelligence, combination of action, and civilization. One looks towards universal war; the other towards universal peace. One is the English system; the other we may be proud to call the American system, for it is the only one ever devised the tendency of which was that of elevating while equalizing the condition of man throughout the world…. (emph. added)
Of course, the United States has by no means lived up to that ideal. But our greatest statesmen—from Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, to Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy–have demanded and pursued it, and our country’s progress has been due to them, not their opponents.
No Time to Lose
As many have bemoaned, there is no “silver bullet” to deal with the causes of today’s increase in the death rate that lies behind the decline in U.S. population growth. Nothing less than our own American Renaissance—a revival of the American System policies and ideas of Hamilton, Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy—can reverse the cultural and physical-economic collapse which is leading to “deaths of despair,” the upsurge in mass shootings, and other Roman Empire-like degeneracy.
We live today in a culture of death, of human degradation, of vain-glorious or cynical denigration of our fellow human beings. We need the inspiration of a Washington, who saw government as a commitment to the improvement of mankind and the “general diffusion of knowledge”; of a Franklin, who wielded a sense of humor as he pursued his scientific and publishing work; of a Lincoln, who looked forward to an American population reaching the same level of Europe’s, as the nation surged forward with scientific progress and the end of slavery.
Our population is our wealth. We nourish it, or we die. Those are the stakes in the fight for the American System Now.