Death, smoking and pollution: Maybe we’ve been wrong about them all this time

Jeff Greenfield

By Jeff Greenfield

“Did you see that story in the Times the other day? Americans under 50 die earlier than their counterparts in just about every other developed country in the world.  And that goes hand in hand with the story last year that life expectancy here has stagnated. What lousy news.”

“No, that’s good news.”

“Are you nuts? How can that be good news?”

“Have you looked at the estimates for what Social Security and Medicare will cost a decade or so from now? We’re already in big trouble because we’ve got fewer workers supporting more folks who’ve retired. Remember, when Social Security kicked in back in 1936, life expectancy was barely 60, and there was no Medicare. If we have tens of millions of ‘senior seniors’ by 2030, we won’t be able to afford to pay for anything else. And that story said a lot of those early deaths are from bad choices: auto accidents, drug use, violence. I‘d much rather we keep the population down that way than, say, with a war.”

“I just don’t see how you can be so cold-blooded. I mean, after all the effort we’ve put into things like cutting down on cigarette smoking...”

“Yes, what a terrible idea.”

“I‘m sorry, I thought you just said that was a terrible--”

“Yes, exactly. So Americans have kicked the habit big time; only about 15 percent of the adult population smokes. Any idea what that’s done to state tax revenues? They’ve barely kept pace with inflation in recent years. And with the recession, states are already strapped for money. They’ve cut school days, pulled back aid to towns and cities, which means closed libraries and shrunken police forces.”

“So a higher death rate is good news, and less smoking is bad news? Well, could we agree at least that cleaner air is a good thing?”

“Sure, if you like another kick in the head to public services. First, some of that cleaner air is because we drove less during the Great Recession. Then we’ve got fuel-efficient cars, more hybrids on the road, and mass transit’s a factor in some places. So what do you think that’s doing to the money the feds raised with the gas tax? Exactly. The Congress is too scared of the public to raise the tax. It hasn’t been raised in 20 years, and it isn’t indexed to inflation. So it’s already raising a lot less money than it was supposed to. If we’re burning less fuel, how are we supposed to repair the roads and bridges that are falling apart all over the country?”

“Well, one way might be to start investing more. And what better time than now to borrow money for public works, with interest rates historically low, making it so much easier--”

“Then I take it you think those low interest rates are a good thing?”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, of course I think they’re a good thing.”

“Have you talked to anyone close to retirement? There are millions of Americans who assumed that if they saved a reasonable amount of money, they would be able to live on the interest from their savings. That made a lot of sense when they could expect a return of 5 percent or 6 percent. What are the interest rates now? One percent? Half a percent? In some cases, you have to pay them to hold your money. The first baby-boomer turned 65 back in 2011. We’re about to see an explosion of older folks who will either have to keep working into their 70s--that’s assuming there will be jobs for them--or else live a much, much poorer life than they possibly could have imagined. That’s what low inflation has done for them.”

“I’ve had it! I feel like I’ve stumbled into Bizarro World, where black is white and white is black. I’m going to go home and kick back with some TV. With all the channels I’ve got, there has to be something good on.”
“Sure, but have you seen the studies that show what happens to the average attention span ...”