A Tough Year Ahead

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I would like to start the year off on a high note, but I find it very hard to do it without pushing hard against my intuitive feelings. The memory of Newtown remains fresh, kept active by all the talk about gun control. Not being either a gun owner or believer that the Second amendment ever was intended to permit the kind of gun proliferation we have now, I have sympathy with the heated suggestions that we have gone overboard emanating from the gun crowd. Here’s an example from TPM:

On Wednesday, the Drudge Report splashed an image of Hitler and Josef Stalin over a link to Vice President Biden’s contention that the White House may consider using its executive power if Congress proves unable to act… Biden’s statement is old news, as is the suggestion from Drudge that President Obama is intending to act in the manner of histories most notorious dictators. Bumper stickers like this one have been kicking around the anti-gun control community since well before the “from my cold, dead hands” era.

Couple this to a news report in today’s Boston Globe with data showing that the US lags comparable affluent nations in life expectancy. It was the causes, not just the number that jumped out at me.

The United States suffers far more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation, due in part to the widespread possession of firearms and the practice of storing them at home in a place that is often unlocked, according to a report released Wednesday by two of the nation’s leading health research institutions… The United States has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents. None of the 16 other countries included in the review came anywhere close to that. Finland was next, with slightly more than two violent deaths per 100,000 residents… For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other wealthy countries. In addition to the impact of gun violence, Americans consume the most calories among peer countries and get involved in more accidents that involve alcohol. They also suffer higher rates of drug-related deaths, infant mortality, and AIDS.

This is old news. The US has lagged for a long time. The article pointed to the higher poverty levels in the US than any of the other countries included, especially among children. On the other hand the US is more affluent than the other countries. These two facts. coupled together, imply a strong relationship to inequality, a finding the Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrated in their book, The Spirit Level. They found a strong correlation between economic inequality and social ills, like low life expectancy. The US was the worst performer on a variety of indicators of social negative factors. We hardly hear anything said in human terms about this in our political talk; it’s all about economic data and about diddling with the tax code. It is a national shame, but shame is no longer an operational activator in the US.

So much for shame. The Globe article contained a short paragraph about violence as a factor in the finding.

The researchers said there is little evidence that violent acts occur more frequently in the United States than elsewhere. It’s the lethality of those attacks that stands out… ‘‘One behavior that probably explains the excess lethality of violence and unintentional injuries in the United States is the widespread possession of firearms and the common practice of storing them (often unlocked) at home. The statistics are dramatic,’’ the report said.

The report was prepared by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine with the focus on the public health costs of the health issues involved in lower life expectancy, not on the issue of gun ownership. But this last statement is a strong counter to the monotonous litany of the NRA that guns don’t kill people, people do. These data clearly say the opposite. People do kill people, but more so when guns are available. The traditional way to stop the truth from spreading is to kill the messenger. While the demented occasionally do that in actuality, the common way is the assassinate the character or reputation of the bearer of bad news about the real world. That’s why Hitler shows up when the facts threaten the ideologues and demagogues.

The last comment I have on this report comes from a comment on the causes as related to the US culture.

‘‘We have a culture in our country that, among many Americans, cherishes personal autonomy and wants to limit intrusion of government and other entities on our personal lives and also wants to encourage free enterprise and the success of business and industry. Some of those forces may act against the ability to achieve optimal health outcomes,’’ said Dr. Steven H. Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, who served as chairman for the study panel.

Dr Woolf was being politic is his comments. I will not be quite so measured. Our culture is the root cause of unsustainability, both of the natural world and the human species. Denying proper access to health care is bound to reduce life expectancy. Individualism, taken to the extreme as it has in large numbers of Americans, leads to a form of narcissism and even paranoia out of which an excessive need for self-protection comes.

Climate change deniers, in essence also trying to kill the scientist messengers, are expressing a fear that the ominous changes in the world we have wrought will require a re-balancing of wealth and shift in materialistic life styles. It’s not just fear; it’s simple arithmetic, as Bill Clinton argued in at the last Democratic Convention in talking about the economy. Although he was not talking about the redistribution that climate change will inevitably produce, there is no way we can maintain today’s inequality and yet pretend that our nation is built on a moral core. Climate change is, among other things, a stark indicator of the limits of economic, material growth. And when growth finally stops, the only way to right the wrong of inequality will be through some form of balancing or redistribution. Gun control arguments will be but a minor inconvenience when we finally come to realize what our real controversies and conflicts will be in the, perhaps, not too distant future.

How’s this for a welcoming post to 2013?

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