Public Comment

Why We Are Dying Prematurely

Harry Brill
Friday October 06, 2017 - 03:32:00 PM

If we take any hundred year period, we know that the mortality rate is always near 100 percent. However, in the short run the variations are considerable. Life expectancy rates vary between nations, within nations, and among the different populations within any nation. Moreover, so much is coming at us that it is difficult to figure out exactly what particular assaults on our body did us in.  

My favorite metaphor for understanding this issue is from the suspense movie, "Murder On The Orient Express", which was adapted from an Agatha Christie novel. Throughout the movie we wondered who the murderer was. But we eventually learn that there was not just one but twelve murderers that assaulted the victim. In a sense we are living out our lives on the Orient Express. For a variety of reasons, we almost all die prematurely, and generally speaking, there is not only one cause but many that account for our demise.  

What we do know is how the United States compares with other nations. The average lifetime in the 79.6 years. For men it is considerably lower -- only 76.4 years. The life expectancy for women is 81.2, which is almost four years longer. In 39 other countries, the overall average exceeds 80 years. And the population in 42 countries enjoy a higher life expectancy than in the United States.

The obvious questions are why don't Americans enjoy a longer life, and what can be do to improve the life expectancy average. Since people live longer in so many other nations, including in countries with far less resources, achieving a longer life span must certainly be possible in the US.  

Why we live relatively shorter lives than in many other countries is no mystery. The problem is that our bodies are being continuously assaulted. We breath polluted air, eat food containing dangerous pesticides, and drink contaminated water. Each of these is a probable recipe for a shorter life span. According to the findings of a comprehensive study by MIT, air pollution causes at least 200,000 premature deaths each year in the United States. This figure probably underestimates the toll. 

Unfortunately, there is a major obstacle that discourages mass based organizing to effectively address our environmental problems. Unlike actual weapons, such as guns and knives, we do not actually perceive the poisons that we are consuming. Also, the impact of pollution takes a long while, often many years, to take its toll. It is not as if airplanes are dumping confetti on the public, which would pose an immediate and annoying nuisance . Of course, serious and important organizing on pollution is going on. But as a result of the combination of invisibility and the long delayed impact, too many people are not prone to making the connections and so are unlikely to become involved in protesting and organizing against these assaults.  

Because pollution is destructive to human life, they should be recognized as a type of violence. This non-traumatic form of violence is mainly perpetrated by big corporations. The damage that these companies inflict on human life far exceeds the more highly publicized harm caused by those engaging in so called street crime . When fines are imposed they are usually paid not by the executives, but by the corporations. From a business perspective these financial penalties are the cost of doing business. Significantly, corporate executives commit these crimes with impunity. They do not spend even a day behind bars. Apparently a major role of government, whether federal or state, is to protect the guilty. 

Believe it or not, private enterprise and the government also bear a major responsibility for the carnage on the highways, which in the last three years has killed over 100,000 men, women, and children. In fact, last year more than 40,000 died as a result of car accidents, which made 2016 the deadliest year on American roads in nearly a decade. Also, 4.6 million people suffered injuries. We do not know how many additional lives were eventually cut short as a result of these injuries. 

Of course, driving habits, speeding and road rage are obviously very problematic. But a major contribution to dangerous driving patterns is the failure of government to provide adequate budgets for highway patrol. The claim that the money is unavailable does not ring true. Somehow there is always plenty of money for the police to cover rallies and marches. Security costs to cover a recent demonstration came to about $800,000. The University of California police department received assistance from at least 14 other law enforcement agencies and hundreds of police officers.  

Clearly, this was overkill. The few who were arrested -- only about 11 protesters --were mainly for non-violent offenses. As police records show, far more fans on the average are arrested at Raider games, -- over 17 arrests per game -- which unlike politically oriented progressive rallies, are not highly publicized. Wouldn't it be a much better idea if instead, police officers were assigned to highway duty? In the interest of saving lives, they could warn, ticket, and even arrest dangerous drivers including drivers of large speeding trucks, who are very rarely ticketed? Since at least half of bay area drivers are speeding on the road, the fines would easily exceed the cost of paying the police.  

Why then are there too few police officers on the highways? Among the barriers is the trucking industry and its clients who for business reasons value reaching their destination as quickly as possible. It is no surprise that in 1995 the conservative Republican Congress and President Nixon abolished the 55 miles per hour speed limit. 

Probably the most worrisome problem is that there are too many auto accidents because there are too many cars on the road. The sordid history of transportation policy in the U.S. explains why. General Motors and other corporations are to blame for pushing the United States into automobile dependency. Among their accomplishments, land with trolley tracks around the country were purchased for the sole purpose of destroying these tracks. Although most of these corporations were convicted of conspiracy to monopolize the transit industry, they were subsequently acquitted. 

Since then it has been public policy to spend lavishly on building roads and limiting expenditures for public transportation. The federal fuel tax that car owners pay at the pump are deposited with the Highway Trust Fund, which uses the money mainly to construct more roads and pay for road repair. Also states charge fuel taxes as well. However, public transportation is being starved. Shouldn't money be allocated to provide high speed, electric, non-polluting trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles? These trains operate successfully in Europe, Japan, and China. Japan runs hundreds of speed trains each day with minimal delay. One of Japan's high speed trains travels up to 375 miles an hour. The speed trains abroad are far safer and healthier than automobiles on American highways. And they arrive at their destinations much sooner. 

Labor force issues also play an important role in influencing longevity. A recent very disturbing revelation is that for one sector of our population longevity is appreciably declining. Two Princeton researchers found a substantial increase in the death rate of middle-age whites whose educational achievement does not exceed high school graduation. In fact, the mortality rate for this group is higher than the death rate for African Americans as a whole. Indeed, the middle-aged white premature death rate is epidemic. 

The reason according to the researchers is that this group, ages 45-54, lacked steady, well-paying jobs which have caused pain, distress, and social dysfunction. As a result they tended to drink alcohol excessively or became addicted to dangerous drugs and overdosing on prescription drugs. Also, they have the highest rate of suicide. These "deaths of despair" were accompanied by reduced labor force participation and less stable marriages. They were also in poor physical and mental health. Unlike many African Americans who have been living with a low standard of living, the downward mobility of these middle age whites -- in this instance doing worse than their parents -- has been a major shock. 

It is likely that other sectors of the population will confront similar shocks in the labor force as well, which could also precipitate major adverse consequences. Already many college graduates are finding it difficult to obtain good jobs. According to a recent study, 44 percent of college graduates are working at jobs that do not require a college degree. Moreover, wages for recent graduates have been declining. And many graduates are burdened with the obligation of paying off their high debts, which exceeds $37,000 for last year's class. 

Generally speaking, the future of work looks bleak. Over 2 million jobs a year, which include many that pay well, are shipped abroad annually. These jobs, which total more than 20 million that are lost in one decade, are not coming back. Many of the jobs that are remaining are being converted to part time jobs or are being handled by temp agencies. It would not be surprising if a growing number of working people as a result will suffer serious physical and mental health problems.  

Nevertheless, rather than surrendering to these admittedly very difficult challenges, it is immensely important to build an alternative society based on humane principles that include job security and a decent standard of living. If instead tense divisions among working people prevail, including difficult racial and ethnic divisions, corporate America will be reassured that a united front to threaten its dominance is very unlikely to emerge