The American Epidemic of Quiet Desperation Continues Unabated

by on April 3, 2017 · 0 comments

in Under the Perfect Sun

Quiet Desperation

Ray Milland in the classic movie Lost Weekend, circa 1945

By Jim Miller

America is an increasingly unhappy place and much of what we are currently doing politically is bound to make us feel worse. And while our malaise is surely not just the product of the Trump presidency, it is highly likely that his policies will continue our negative trajectory. As the Guardian recently reported, “Happiness in the US is declining and is expected to continue on a downward path, with Donald Trump’s policies forecast to deepen the country’s social crisis.”

This tale of woe is brought to you not by a gang of depressed liberals, but rather by a UN report, which is “based on Gallup polls of self-reported wellbeing as well as perceptions of corruption, generosity, and freedom [–] this year has a special focus on the ‘story of reduced happiness’ in the US.” According to their report, the US is now ranked 14th, far below the much happier Scandinavian countries, and has rapidly “slid down the international rankings on wellbeing.”

When compared to other rich countries, the news gets grimmer. America has fallen to 19th in the rankings at present having plummeted from third place a bit over a decade ago.

As the Guardian piece elaborates:

“The United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness in ‘all the wrong places’,” writes Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist and author of the chapter on the US. “The country is mired in a rolling social crisis that is getting worse.

“Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth and the prescriptions for faster growth – mainly deregulation and tax cuts – are likely to exacerbate, not reduce, social tensions” . . .

In a stinging critique of policymakers in Washington DC, Sachs criticises “naive attempts to raise the economic growth rate”. He says this prescription is “doubly wrong-headed” because “most of the pseudo-elixirs for growth – especially the Republican party’s beloved nostrum of endless tax cuts and voodoo economics – will only exacerbate Americans’ social inequalities and feed the distrust that is already tearing society apart”.

Just a few days after the UN report on declining happiness in the United States came out, American researchers released a new study on the continuing devastation of the white working class as a result of the very social inequities that Sachs cites. Two years ago, I penned a column on the news that the white working class was killing itself at an alarming rate. Now Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who documented that dire trend, have come out with new research showing no end in sight.

As the Washington Post reported:

Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies, according to a study published Thursday by two prominent economists . . .

[T]he new research found a “sea of despair” across America. A striking feature is the rise in physical pain. The pattern does not follow short-term economic cycles but reflects a long-term disintegration of job prospects.

“You used to be able to get a really good job with a high school diploma. A job with on-the-job training, a job with benefits. You could expect to move up,” [Case] said.

The nation’s obesity epidemic may be another sign of stress and physical pain, she continued: “People may want to soothe the beast. They may do that with alcohol, they may do that with drugs, they may do that with food.”

Of course, the declining economic state of non-college educated whites is key here and doing what we can to address economic inequality is important but, as much of the research on happiness shows, the roots of this crisis lie deeper.

Back in 2015 when the first study on the intensifying despair of the white working class came out I noted the economic devastation of many of America’s working class communities led to a corresponding and equally soul-killing loss of social capital:

Perhaps the worst thing that the devastation of America’s white working class communities from the old industrial towns of the Northeast and the Midwest to the small businesses of Everywhere, USA has done is kill community and with it a sense of connectedness and purpose.

Folks in the old American working class went from meeting in union halls to bowling alone to drinking or popping pills in front of the sad glow of the TV. This made some of them lonely and desperate and others angry at all the wrong things with others still scrambling to save what was falling through their fingers to no end.

Two years later, we have witnessed Trump’s opportunistic exploitation of that alienation, and we are now beginning to see how his policies will harm many of those he claimed he would help while throwing gasoline on the racial, regional, and other bitter factional fires threating to burn down our democracy. As long as we remain isolated, atomized, and angry at the wrong things, this downward spiral will continue. The wall and the war machine won’t make us happy; neither will tax cuts for the rich coupled with the destruction of the commons.

If research shows us anything, it’s that only the reinvention of community and solidarity can save us. We’ll either all go down hard individually or stand side-by-side, resist, and rise together.

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