A banana country – and we don’t even grow them

Ed Raymond


Fact: In 1979 we had 19.5 million manufacturing jobs; Today, 12 million

That’s just one of the startling statistics revealed in two books reviewed by Helen Epstein in the New York Review of Books. The titles indicate the subject: “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism” by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, and “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America” by Jennifer Shea.

These books should be read by anyone eligible to vote in the 2020 elections.

Epstein’s opening sentences grabbed me right away: “The United States is in the throes of a colossal health crisis. In 2015 life expectancy began falling for the first time since the height of the AIDS crisis in 1993. The causes – mainly suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses – claim roughly 190,000 lives each year.”

The decrease in life expectancy is concentrated in the rust belt of Ohio, Michigan, and other Middle America states. Both books attempt to answer the following questions: (1) Why do Americans, in the so-called richest country in the world, easily accept the fact that we have extreme wealth existing among poverty and privation that has no place at all in the industrialized world, (2) Why does the U.S. suffer the highest poverty rate among all the wealthy nations?, (3) Why does it have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the world?, and (4) Why are so many Americans addicted to opioids such as Oxycodone?

Legal drug pushers have killed 600,000 Americans in the last 20 years. We are blaming globalization and the growth of technology, but all the other industrialized nations are also affected by the pair – but do not have to answer these questions. The two books attempt to answer them.

 Why are white Americans ages 45-54 dying at an ever-increasing rate?

Lack of education is the answer. Not too long ago we led the world in the ratio of citizens with BA degrees. Now we rank about 15th among the wealthiest countries. Since the early 1990s the death rate for Americans with a BA degree has fallen by 40% – but has risen by 25% for those without a BA.

College-educated whites born before World War II died from suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol at a slightly higher rate than non-college-educated whites, but those trends reversed for those born after the war, and then the fates of those with and without BAs continued to increase.

This was during the age when the American Dream was still attainable by young workers. That dream has turned into a nightmare.

Forty years ago we had 19.5 million good-paying manufacturing jobs. Now we have only 12 million such jobs – and our population is 50% larger! During the last 40 years wages for non-degree workers have fallen about 15% while the wages for BA degrees have risen about 10%. But those with higher degrees have increased about 25%.

Thousands of American men and women without a college education are bouncing from one poorly paid service job to another, often jobs without health, retirement, or any other benefits. These jobs don’t pay enough to support a dignified existence.

Because Republicans since Reagan have had the goal of destroying effective unions, these poor workers have no bargaining power. If the federal minimum wage would be set at the same buying power it had when it was established, the minimum wage would be $22 an hour instead of $7.25.

Half of those families who use local and state food banks are in households with a full-time worker. They don’t even make enough money to buy groceries for a family of four.  

American families may be the most unstable in the industrialized world  

Marriage has become a luxury only the upper-middle class and the rich can afford, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. The headline was rather shocking: “Marriage Is Becoming More Like a Luxury Good in the U.S.”

The share of high-school educated adults who are married has fallen almost 20 points since 1980, while declining eight points for those with a four-year degree. Among Americans 25 and older nearly two-thirds with a college degree are married, compared with just half of those with a high school education or less.

The vast majority of women with a BA have all their children in marriage. But women without a BA have most of their children out of wedlock – and often with different men. American children experience more changes in step-mothers and step-fathers – and step-homes – than children in any other wealthy country.

Andrew Cherlin, who wrote Labor’s Love Lost: “The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, concluded that American families may be the most unstable and screwed up in the world.

That’s why American school children can’t sit still, can’t pay attention in class, bully and attack other children, disobey authority, and are destructive. If you don’t believe this, ask the K-12 teachers in the metro area schools. Evidently the above traits have become major issues in local education. Imagine what it is in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

I served in the Fargo schools as a teacher, school principal, and district administrator from 1958 to 1994. I can never recall a period when such behavior dominated the classrooms.

Couples living together are definitely under less pressure from family and friends to marry. Perhaps the steady decline in many mainline religions has removed the social stigma once assigned to unmarried couples living together. One in four parents living with children is unmarried, according to Pew Research, more than one-third are living with a partner. The Times They Are A-Changin’.  

Why do my French brothers live four more years than my American brothers?  

The writers Case and Deaton, after a lengthy study of health “systems” around the world, end up supporting Bernie’s plan Medicare-For-All. Their conclusion: “The American health care industry not only underperforms almost all others, it is wrecking the American economy. We spend twice as much per capita what France spends on health care, but our life expectancy is four years shorter, our rates of maternal and infant deaths are almost twice as high, and, unlike the French, we leave 30 million people uninsured. If, decades ago, we’d built a health system like Switzerland’s, which costs 30% less per capita than ours does, we’d now have an extra trillion dollars a year to spend, for example, on replacing the pipes in the nearly four thousand U.S. counties where lead levels in drinking water exceed those of Flint, Michigan, and on rebuilding America’s bridges, railroads, and highways – now so rundown that FedEx replaces delivery van tires twice as often as it did 20 years ago.”

Even after all that, the two researchers are not done: “Median income growth over the past 30 years would have been twice what it was, and many of the 45,000 uninsured who die annually because they can’t afford care might be alive…In the U.S., the cost of health insurance accounts for 60% of the costs of hiring a low wage worker. Many employers opt instead to hire contract workers with no benefits, or illegal workers with no rights at all.”

My question is: When will the American people get smarter than George W. Bush and Joe Biden and adopt Medicare-For-All which will cut health care costs by 13%, save all of us $450 billion a year, and save a family $2,400 a year, according to a study by Yale University – and 22 other research organizations?

Why haven’t wages gone up if unemployment is only 3.5%?

By the way, Anne Case and Angus Deaton both teach economics at Princeton. Deaton recently won the Nobel Prize for Economics – and they are married to each other. I bet some pillow talk revolves around economics.

Back to the question about wages and the 3.5% unemployment rate. We are dealing with fake figures here. Way back in the 1960s only 5% of men ages 25 to 54 did not have jobs; by 2010, after the disaster of the Bush Recession, 20% of that age group did not have jobs. (I still remember Obama faced with an unemployment rate of well over 10% when 800,000 workers lost their jobs during Bush’s last term.) B

y 2018 and well into the recovery from the Great Recession, 14% of those men still did not have a job. But of that 14% only a fifth of them reported they were actually looking for jobs, so only a fifth were officially counted as “unemployed.” They became part of the total that became about 4.2% unemployed. That’s the way the game is played by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The rest of the group was not counted as being in the labor force. Some might be looking for some kind of work but were not reported as being “unemployed.” If those who have left the workforce are counted employable, the unemployment rate would be about the same as it was in 1931 during the Great Depression.

We are not in a strong economy as Trumpers claim, and the addition of the Covid-19 virus will only make it worse. For whites without a college education, their median wage has not only flattened out, it has declined since 1979. The jobs are more uncertain and some are unstable with unpredictable hours.

Among advanced economies, the decline in wages and job stability is unique to the United States, according to Case and Deaton. In the past 40 years, Americans without a college degree – now the majority of the working-age population – have become less valued in our economy.

We always have right-wing think tanks agree that some people are lazy, don’t want to work, and are “Welfare Queens” driving new Cadillacs, BS that Ronald Reagan loved to charge. Case and Deaton take a different view: “The problem isn’t that people are not the way they used to be. It’s that the economy and the structure of work are not the way they used to be.”  

Some additional signs this country is in serious trouble

In Virginia coal country where unemployment is high and jobs are scarce, some parents are urging their pediatricians to diagnose their children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) so they might eventually qualify for disability programs.

Ritalin, often prescribed for ADHD children, is a “pipeline” drug to the disability rolls. In Virginia summer camps now about one-third of the children are on Ritalin. Forty years ago it was rare.

Only in America. Three items sell well during crises: toilet paper and guns and ammo. Evidently some people are scared shitless so they use up a lot of toilet paper – and then go out and buy guns and ammo to protect toilet paper they have left. (I couldn’t resist.) 

The two books reviewed by Epstein clearly identify the United States as another economic “banana republic.” As defined in the field of economics, “a banana republic is country with an economy of state capitalism, whereby the country is operated as a private commercial enterprise for the exclusive profit of the ruling class. Such exploitation is enabled by collusion between the state and favored economic monopolies.”

This is what the U.S. has become.