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The deterioration of social capital

deaton

One of the most idiosyncratic developments of the last decades is the rise of mortality of white middle aged USA citizens (graph). According to Anna Case and Angus Deaton this was closely related to abuse of alcohol and opioids.  (see graph). The 2015 data are just in: this trend continued (and black men joined it). People were somehow aware of this: the larger the deterioration in health, the larger the swing towards Trump during the recent USA elections (the best postdictor of the county level results of the USA presidential election to date). Can the deterioration of white health in the USA be compared to the historic increase of mortality in the Soviet Union after 1989, which was even more idiosyncratic? In Russia, there was a relation with drug abuse, too. According to David Zaritze e.a.:

“the estimated 20-year risks of death at ages 35–54 years were 16% (95% CI 15–17) for those who reported consuming less than a bottle of vodka per week at baseline, 20% (18–22) for those consuming 1–2·9 bottles per week, and 35% (31–39) for those consuming three or more bottles per week”.

Tyler Cowen therefore seems to have a case when he promotes (voluntary) temperance and the promotion of ‘Islamic’ and ‘Mormon’ values when it comes to the use and abuse of alcohol. And indeed: cigarette smoking has, largely because of ‘voluntary’ social pressure, become less acceptable. But there is more to this. Medical researchers have coined the phrase ‘social capital’, consisting of several kinds of bonds between people. Look here for an overview by Sara Ferlander. Social capital is not just good for you well-being but also crucial to your health. As indicated by a study on the post 1989 increase of mortality in Russia. According to David Stuckler, Lawrence King and Martin McKee (emphasis added):

 Mass privatisation programmes were associated with an increase in short-term adult male mortality rates of 12·8% … with similar results for the alternative privatisation indices from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (7·8% …). One mediating factor could be male unemployment rates, which were increased substantially by mass privatisation (56·3% …). Each 1% increase in the percentage of population who were members of at least one social organisation decreased the association of privatisation with mortality by 0·27%; when more than 45% of a population was a member of at least one social organisation, privatisation was no longer significantly associated with increased mortality rates (3·4% …)

I do think that the concept of ‘alienation’ can be used to describe such situations.  Wikipedia defines this as follows:

The theoretic basis of alienation, within the capitalist mode of production, is that the worker invariably loses the ability to determine life and destiny, when deprived of the right to think (conceive) of themselves as the director of their own actions; to determine the character of said actions; to define relationships with other people; and to own those items of value from goods and services, produced by their own labour. Although the worker is an autonomous, self-realized human being, as an economic entity, this worker is directed to goals and diverted to activities that are dictated by the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, in order to extract from the worker the maximum amount of surplus value, in the course of business competition among industrialists

More detailsFor details in this piece about working at Amazone. People crave for communities – including community values. They get neoliberal individualist values instead. These are killing. Literally.

  1. December 10, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Genetically speaking homo sapiens (that’s us) work best in communities. Perhaps it’s better to say genetics operating indirectly. Because of homo sapiens’ unique (genetic) ability to imagine, to plan and cooperate around things it cannot observe in the world, homo sapiens need one another to survive. So quite literally anything that inhibits homo sapiens from using their imaginations to create a communal way of life is a threat to the survival of homo sapiens. Quite clearly then neoliberal or any other “individualism” is a threat to the survival of homo sapiens, even if restricted to mere philosophical musings.

  2. Craig
    December 11, 2016 at 12:02 am

    “So quite literally anything that inhibits homo sapiens from using their imaginations to create a communal way of life is a threat to the survival of homo sapiens.”

    I could not possibly agree more with this attitude. Imagination is the quality that orthodoxy lacks and is also one of the signatures of scientific and cultural break throughs. And I think that’s exactly what we need.

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