Life Expectancy, Inequality, Overwork, Insurance, and Empire

Posted by Paul Street at 10:13 PM (A Blog)
Ever get tired of American “leaders” like George W. Bush and others saying again and again that the United States of America is the “greatest country in the world”?

For an especially asinine version of this standard patriotic cliché, see Dinesh d’Souza, “10 Great Things: What to Love About the United States” at

One of the curious things about this d’Souza piece is that he made a big deal out of how long Americans live --- his Great Thing no.5 proclaims that “People live longer, fuller lives in America” --- when it was generally known that life expectancy was actually not particularly high in the world’s “greatest” and “richest” (well, second richest in terms of per-capita GDP, after Norway) nation.

Speaking of mortality, the National Center for Health Statistics has some good news on American mortality: US life expectancy has recently reached a new high: 77.6. At the same time, the Associated Press reports, however, “Americans still trail many other countries, according to statistics from the World Health Organization: In 2002 figures, Japan had the longest life expectancy at 81.9 years, followed by Monaco, 81.2, San Marino and Switzerland, 80.6, Australia, 80.4, Andorra, 80.3, and Iceland, 80.1. Other countries topping the United States include Austria, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom.”

That puts the world’s greatest and richest nation at number 25 in terms of life expectancy.

I love this about San Marino, Malta, and Andorra.

Get into the American mortality stats and break them down by race and class, of course, and you’ll find that blacks and poor people live considerably shorter lives than affluent and white people on the average in the US.

American inequality (US is the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world by far) is a big reason, no doubt, for America’s relatively low life expectancy compared to other less collectively wealthy nation states. See the comparative international Social Development and Human Poverty indexes at Nordic News Network:

If you’re wanting to go deeper into data on American poverty and inequality, including international comparisons, order the latest edition of the Economic Policy Institute’s authoritative State of Working America (which always includes an international comparison chapter) see

EPI’s work over the years doesn’t leave much basis for d’Souza’s great thing number number 4: “America has achieved greater social equality than any other society.” One of the many things it regularly shows, too, is that right-wing hacks like DD and the Heritage Foundation’s speakers are bullshitting their readers and audiences when they claim that our inequality statistics mask great endemic “upward mobility” from poor to rich: we actually experience less of the Horatio Alger American Dream than do European nations.

Lack of a national health insurance plan (unique among industrialized democracies) in US Senator (R-Texas) Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s “beacon to the world of the way life should be” (the USA) is also part of the nation’s poor life expectancy performance.

I wonder too what role is played by the incredibly long working hours Americans put in. As UPI reported in the fall of 2003, relying on data from the International Labor Organization, “U.S. workers put in an average of 1,825 hours in 2002, compared to between 1,300 and 1,800 in leading European nations. The Japanese, meanwhile, worked about the same length of time as did the U.S. employees. In fact, so high was the number of hours put in as well as output by U.S. workers that productivity in the United States surpassed both the European Union and Japan in terms of annual output per worker for the first time since World War II.” See

American overwork is not a new story. Left economist Juliet Schor wrote an excellent book about the topic in 1991: The Overworked American.

I assigned this book once for an evening business history class for engineers in the Chicago suburbs and two engineers told me that during overseas assignments their European co-workers thought they were “insane” to work 12-hour days. They’d hide in company bathrooms while their French and Belgium colleagues went home to their actual lives, wait until the office buildings were empty, and then proceed to work until midnight.

I suspect that many Americans are taking more than a few years off the end of their lives with manic overwork, largely demanded and enforced by employers.

Schor drew an interesting connection, by the way, between overwork and the lack of national health insurance. Under the distinctive and frankly idiotic American system of providing health insurance primarily through the workplace --- can you imagine getting your car insurance through the job? ---- employers absorb huge per-employee health care costs. Last I heard health care made up 40 percent of total employee compensation in the “beacon to the world.”

A key point here is that health care costs are paid PER EMPLOYEE, NOT PER HOUR WORKED. An employers’ employee health care costs don’t automatically go up when his or her workers go from 50- to 60-hour work weeks (though of course you can imagine premiums increasing from one fiscal year to the next as more people get sick from over-work). It all amounts to an enormous incentive to get as much work as possible out of as few workers as possible, something that helps account for the ironic simultaneous existence of chronic overwork and chronic under-employment. When possible the employer tries to fill in the extra labor gaps --- the ones that can’t be met by pushing salaried/benefit-granted staff yet further --- by putting on workers on a part-time and therefore benefit-ineligible basis.

As usual, everything is interconnected through the concentration of wealth and power and the determination of the privileged few to exploit their underlings, which is most of us.

I wonder how it all correlates with military spending and commitment to empire. Maybe ruling the world --- or trying to anyway --- is also bad for a nation’s mortality rates. That’s something to think about as America’s empire pushes closer to the end of its own life expectancy.