The problem of progress, a brief addendum

A couple of days ago, I posted some thoughts about why the idea of progress looks so enfeebled these days. As intellectuals ourselves, we historians tend to look for Zeitgeist-ish explanations of collective pessimism. We think about the economic climate, or crises of masculinity, or the destabilizing effects of new ideas, or other big forces that shape an era’s collective mood. My post argued  that moods aren’t where it’s at, and that we should give more thought to basic societal mechanics– meaning, how life actually unfolds for ordinary people; nowadays we don’t believe in progress because things actually are getting worse, and they’re getting worse in really obvious, elemental ways.

There I talked mostly about what’s happening to young people these days, but yesterday the news outlets provided another sign pointing the same way, this time to do with middle-aged Americans. It turns out they’re measurably less healthy than they used to be, and some groups are dying younger. Death rates for “non-Hispanic whites aged 45 to 54 with a high school education or less” rose between 1999 and 2013– reversing decades of rising life-expectancies. (Here I’m quoting the always-outstanding Naked Capitalism site, which has an excellent summary, but the story’s been widely reported elsewhere as well, for instance, here.) We already knew that something similar was happening for American women– as Mother Jones reported last spring, “between 1999 and 2013, white women’s death rates increased by nearly 12 percent, from 126 deaths per 100,000 women to 140 deaths.” And U.S infant mortality underwent a similar upswing in 2002, for the first time since 1958.

For those middle aged men and women, the news is actually even worse than the raw numbers indicate, since much of their increased mortality connects to unhappiness and pain: there’ve been big increases in suicides, liver disease (aka alcoholism), and drug overdoses.

All of which confirms both the hard conclusion and the more tentative hypothesis that I offered last time.

The slam-dunk conclusion was, of course most of us don’t believe in progress– just because we know lots of people’s lives are actually getting worse. The only surprise is that the worsening is so dramatic, and that it’s hitting multiple age groups.

The more tentative hypothesis is, maybe as a society we just don’t want progress. Of course, health outcomes are more complicated than public school policies. I mean, when we legislate cuts to higher education, we know that we’re making eighteen-year olds worse off, whereas lots of factors go into making fifty-somethings dependant on opiates and alcohol; it’s not just about laws and funding decisions.

But even so, we have a pretty good handle on what it would take to make these people healthier and happier: more and cheaper doctors, earlier examinations and treatment, all the safety nets that used to allow people to confront aging with relative confidence. Instead of which, we’re making health care more expensive, more uncertain, and less accessible, cutting pensions, threatening Social Security, etc etc etc.

There are no Zeitgeist-ish mystery forces here, just collective decisions that ensure the future will be worse than the past.