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MATTHEW BOOSE: America is not ok
After decades of going up, America’s life expectancy rate is now trending downwards. According to the Center for Disease Control, the two factors that drove the change last year were suicide and drug overdose deaths. The suicide rate reached a 50-year high last year, particularly among middle-aged people.
Going off what the president is saying about the country, things must be going splendidly — and there are reasons for optimism. Since Trump took office, the economy has grown robustly and unemployment is dropping.
But if the economy is doing so well, then why are suicide rates up?
Trump’s much-touted recovery, while positive news, hasn’t vastly improved the prospects of America’s shrinking middle class. America, the “land of opportunity,” is becoming a lonely, precarious land of division.
Older generations who grew up expecting wealth and health to keep getting better now see a grim future for their children and their grandchildren. Young Americans are saddled with college debt and entering a workforce with wages that have remained stagnant for decades. Housing costs remain high. The days of the single-income household seem like a distant dream. As a result of shrinking opportunity, young Americans are marrying later, and the fertility rate has dropped to record lows.
The precariousness facing younger Americans is a symptom of a growing gap between the winners and losers of society. Tectonic plate shifts in an increasingly mobile economy impacted by automation and off-shoring have left a growing number of Americans with an uncertain future.
GM just laid off 14,000 workers, dealing a huge psychological blow to Rust Belt states that once formed the core of a proud and resilient industrial nation. The GM layoffs came not long after Jeff Bezos, who has acquired enough wealth to buy entire nations, struck a deal to build new Amazon headquarters in New York and Washington. The decision looked insidiously predetermined after Amazon dangled promises of development to cities across America, only to settle on two of the nation’s biggest power centers.
Amazon’s new headquarters will do little to improve the lives of New Yorkers, who will pay for billions of dollars in the company’s tax breaks in exchange for 25,000 jobs that the Amazon “community” will bring to Queens.
Look elsewhere in New York, and there is a small but noticeable taxi driver suicide wave. Cab drivers are losing their honest vocation to ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft.
Suicidal taxi drivers are just one symptom of the rise of a class of struggling part-time contract workers, the so-called “precariat.” Many newcomers to this class are not the traditionally working poor but middle-aged and even retirement age middle-class workers with dwindling means of caring for their kids and retiring.
The “precariat” is bigger than it may seem. About a quarter of Americans have essentially no savings to fall back on when an emergency strikes.
An increasingly shaky economy mirrors a growing cultural malaise that is destroying America’s sense of hope, trust, community, and national pride.
While conservatives have a tendency to idealize the 1950s a little too much, America had more job security, national confidence, and cultural unity then. Compare that with today, as America faces one “epidemic” after another, many involving deaths of despair – whether from opioids, suicide, or gun violence.
America is in the middle of its worst life expectancy slump since World War I. Americans are reproducing at low rates and killing themselves at high rates. There could hardly be a more apt index of national suicide. Low fertility and high mortality are the opposite of what a thriving culture looks like.
If Americans are killing themselves more in literal numbers, then America is also suffering a cultural suicide. Even at the height of the Civil War, northerners and southerners mostly agreed that Biblical religion was correct — whether they argued it justified slavery or not — and they spoke a single language. They fought across the Mason-Dixon Line, but neither argued whether borders exist.
In the 1950s, America’s greatest enemy and fear was a foreign power, the Soviets. Today, Americans hate and fear their fellow citizens.
Americans now live in two nations estranged, but not divorced. Nearly all political discourse has acquired the meanness and viciousness of strangers arguing in Facebook comments. The bitter partisan divide has impacted relationships and even split marriages apart.
Frazzled by information overload from a 24-hour news cycle, Americans are sorting themselves into angry, partisan bubbles. Media, increasingly, serves up outrage rather than information.
For many, elections have acquired a war-like sense of importance and doom. There is a sense that America will be destroyed if the other side wins.
As Americans have grown divided, they’re increasingly alone. There is talk of a “sexual recession” as younger generations, never having learned how to form stable relationships in a normless dating landscape, turn to pets and friends for companionship instead of steady partners.
America isn’t caring for its past any better than its future. Elderly Americans, once regarded with reverence and respect, are increasingly discarded in prison-like “homes” to spend their autumn years in institutionalized anonymity.
Globalization and leftism have destroyed the job security and culture that once formed the backbone of a proud country. President Trump has done more than any president in recent history to attack the leftist, international institutions that have laid America low, but on his major promise, the border wall, he hasn’t delivered. While Trump congratulates himself for low unemployment numbers and a “roaring” economy, the reality is that America has fallen far, and real recovery hasn’t begun yet.
Even in the 1950s, American culture was in decline. The post-war era was simultaneously the last sputtering of a unifying Christian culture and the beginning of a new middle class defined in large part by consumerism and materialism rather than morality or bourgeois values. The prosperity of the post-war boom created an expectation of continued material growth that has remained to this day — even as the middle class’s fortunes have waned.
An unqualified faith in the free market, while bringing the superficial benefit of cheaper consumer goods like flat screen TVs, has not delivered sustained prosperity for the middle class. Instead, the middle class has been squeezed by globalized competition resulting in mass off-shoring and wage depression.
The dominance of a quasi-religious free-market dogma has also degraded American culture by encouraging restless consumption in place of upholding traditions. This same doctrine has given corporations a mandate to poison the public, whether with opioids or toxic media.
It’s hardly surprising that indicators of economic growth like the GDP, which don’t necessarily reflect a robust middle class, continue to be the measuring stick by which Trump and others evaluate the health of the middle class, rather than the preservation of good values.
The partisan divide in the country is lamentable, but if America is going to become “great again,” it needs to choose a path — leftism and moral relativism, or sovereignty and the traditions that made it great in the first place.
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