Suicides Climb While Friedman Recycles Social Darwinism
cross-posted at politicsofselfishness.com
In a recent news story in The New York Times, (“Suicide Rates in Middle Age Soared in U.S.,” May 3, 2013), Tara Parker-Hope reported that suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade an that this trend has prompted a concern that a baby boomers, because they have faced years of economic worry and have easy access to prescription painkillers, may be particularly at risk. The journalist cited a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contained in the May 2, 2012 issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which found that more people now die by suicides than are killed in car accidents. The Center’s findings showed that 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.
The Centers’ findings documented that from 1999 to 2010, while the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, the most significant increase were seen among men in their 50s. The suicide rates for men increased by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000 per 100,000 population. Among women, the largest increase was seen in those aged 60 to 64. Their suicide rates increased by nearly 60 percent to 7.0 per 100,000 .
Ms. Parker-Hope notes that, although the categorization of reported causes of death by local authorities is far from uniform, “ C.D.C. and academic researchers said they were confident that the data documented an actual increase in deaths by suicide and not a statistical anomaly.” She quoted Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on suicide rates to the effect, “It’s vastly under-reported. We know we’re not counting all suicides.” Professor Philips further noted , “The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way. All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”
Ms. Parker-Hope also interviewed the C.D.C.’s deputy director, Ileana Arias, who observed. “It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide. There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference” and “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period.
The C.D.C.’s findings and Ms. Parker- Hope’s article describe a trend that is extremely worrisome, but not surprising. The empirical evidence, as her article notes, shows a correlation between the economic travail of men and women in that age group and their resulting despair. Anecdotally, as a plaintiff’s employment lawyer for more than thirty years, since the onset of this continuing Great Recession, I have received an increasing number of desperate calls from middle-aged men and woman who have been discharged by their employers and who, despite impressive resumes, often extraordinary educational credentials and lots of experience, have descended into the ranks of the permanently unemployable and the underclass.
Ironically, a day before the C.D.C.’s report was released, Thomas Friedman, in an op ed column in The Times (“It’s a 401(k) World,” May 1, 2013), chronicled his schizophrenia about this brave new world that he claims will benefit the self-motivated but burden those with less aggressive (and perhaps more reflective?) personalities. Friedman waxed positively ecstatic about the prospects for young, well-educated adults in this global, hyper-connected world, “If you ‘re self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you.”
As to how precisely will this new economy will address the needs of those men and women between age 40 and 65who are now among the long- term unemployed, however, Friedman clearly hasn’t got a clue: “Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it.”
Friedman’s ringing endorsement of the myth of Horatio Alger is more disturbing because it was published on a day that elsewhere in the world celebrated the importance of unions and the rights of workers. Millions of workers took to the streets to demand better working conditions and wages, and an economic system that promoted the interests of everyone, not just the wealthy elite. The May Day demonstrations in Spain, Italy and Greece were particularly vocal, prompted by the widespread and growing misery that the austerity measures imposed by the E.U., the I.M.F. and their cabal of German bankers have inflicted upon those countries.
By way of contrast, Pope Francis in Rome on May Day denounced the recycled Social Darwinism that Friedman blithely accepts as inevitable “...I think of the difficulties that, in various countries, today afflict the world of work and businesses. I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice. I wish to extend an invitation to solidarity to everyone, and I would like to encourage those in public office to make every effort to give new impetus to employment.”
In the United States, the 401(k) world that Friedmm ruminates about was ushered in with the enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ( ERISA) during Ronald Reagan’s administration. Traditional defined benefit plans - pensions - were gutted as employees were increasingly required to investment their future retirements in Wall Street ponzi schemes to their detriment.
Today, the United States continues to have the most restrictive labor laws in Western world, the effect of which is to make it infinitely more difficult for employees to organize, to join unions and to bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and working conditions. In addition, 49 of the 50 states still subscribe to the doctrine of “employment at will,” a legal fiction that no other modern democracy has ever embraced.
Lastly, there is little evidence that the notion of “free trade” - as exemplified by the open movement of goods, services and financial instruments across nation-state borders - has benefitted ordinary Americans - including highly educated ones - whose jobs have been out-sourced. As entrepreneurs scour the world over for ever cheaper labor costs, the masters of the universe in financial world that now dominates the U.S. economy seek short-term profits from stock trading, but refuse to invest in companies that create jobs in the U.S. or invest in critical infrastructure and research and development, notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s policies that permit these institutions to borrow money from the American tax-payers at zero interest.
Friedman’s question “can you pass the bar?” ignores the importance and relevance of collective action. Ultimately, we are all in this together and it’s well past the time to begin a serious national conversation about ways to make this economy work for everyone. An economy that works well for everyone - one which provides hope for the future and a job - is the best antidote to despair and suicide.