Why is American society breaking away from the developed world?

(I’m writing this post under the influence of much cold medicine.  This head cold is really chewing on my brain.  It is also nearly the darkest night of the year, which may also hue this post’s mood.)

I’d like to raise a topic for discussion, namely: why is American society breaking away from the rest of the developed world in major ways?

I’m not referring to recent foreign policy changes or to Trump, nor to school shootings or Silicon Valley’s latest scandal, but instead to how our social patterns have recently changed in some fundamental ways.  That may sound abstract, but it is is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

There are two key and related points.  While the rest of the developed world is experiencing longer lifespans, and has been for decades, Americans are now seeing shorter lifespans and relatively higher infant mortality.  The lifespan drop is perhaps most dramatically seen in the white population, while infant morality hits black families and poor ones in general the hardest.  At the same time, and to a degree related, American suicide rates are climbing, while they fall all over the world, in developed as well as developing nations.

What is driving American society into such a dark track?

I’ll put out some causes that arise in the literature, then turn it over to you for your thoughts.

America’s health care financial system – alone among developed nations, the balance of this nation’s medical care is funded privately, through employer-paid insurance as well as individual out of pocket expenses.  Not only are poor people more likely to suffer bad health issues without care (see preceding) but working people into the middle class can face challenges affording or even accessing health care.

Anti-black racism – note the relatively higher infant and overall mortality rates suffered by black Americans.

The American diet – we may eat too much and too badly, although the science and politics of such assessments are controversial.  Food deserts may encourage some Americans to eat junk food.  Poverty can keep people from eating healthier and more expensive foods.  Obesity is a known cause of type II diabetes, which the CDC identified as rising. High amounts of fats, too much corn oil, portions grown immense, and other reasons even make America’s Godzilla too, ah, big-boned.


A touch of levity to balance a very dark post.

The war on terror – America continues to wage an intercontinental struggle.  Veterans are more likely than civilians to attempt suicide.  Additionally, it is arguable that some of the resources devoted to the war could have been allocated to public health.

Higher poverty rates – although America is enormously wealthy by many measures, the nation also has very high rates of people living in poverty, depending on definitions.  Poor people are more likely to suffer health problems than their wealthier neighbors.

The opioid epidemic – it’s pushing suicide rates up.

An epidemic of accidents – recall that “unintentional injuries” are the CDC’s third leading cause of death.  I’m still not sure what falls under this category.  Workplace accidents?  Traffic fatalities?  Are people with challenges accessing health care more likely to die before treatment?  Is this related to our aging populace, with more frail seniors more likely to die as a result of accidents?  How many other causes are disguised under this header, such as suicides (someone “accidentally” drinks too much and falls asleep on a park bench during a subzero temperature night)?

The war on drugs – how many deaths are caused by the many ways Prohibition 2.0 takes lives, from unregulated substances to inter-gang violence?

I have other questions about where these trends may be taking us, but first I’d like to get a better handle on causes.


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21 Responses to Why is American society breaking away from the developed world?

  1. Mark Corbett Wilson says:

    America has never been part of the developed world. Chattel slavery, settler colonialism and genocide created the first apartheid state which was a model for Germany and South Africa in the 20th century. Just as human rights were starting to be recognized in the US, the Nixon administration instituted for-profit health care as wages stagnated and housing costs skyrocketed. Soon Reagan was waging secret wars and locking up millions of African Americans. George HW Bush typified the clandestine takeover of our government that has lead President Trump. Then Clinton “reformed” welfare.
    Look at the story being told this week: no mention of Zapata Oil or Iran-Contra. I’ll never forget candidate VP Bush being asked where he was November 22, 1963. He said he couldn’t recall. Just like President Reagan when asked about Iran-Contra. Then Bush pardoned all those convicted of selling weapons to Iran and waging an illegal war in central America. It’s enough to make one bushuru.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I can see that big picture, Mark, and it makes a lot of sense. As I said elsewhere, you remind me of how we never created a worker’s or socialist party that won national traction.

      And yet we followed the developed world’s demographic progress from 1945 on. How did we manage to home in on it then? And why the divergence now?

  2. Mark Corbett Wilson says:

    *to* President Trump.

  3. Peter says:

    I mostly agree with what MC Wilson says, but some inconvenient “facts”* I believe need to be reckoned with: 1) It pains me to say it, but societies that provide the best welfare for their citizens are ones that are homogenous. This DOES NOT excuse our many cultural, racial, and ethnically based depredations, now and in the past, but points to the work we need to do. 2) Right wing movements seem to be growing elsewhere in the “developed” world. Why? 3) As bad as things are here now, some (like Steven Pinker) maintain that the data shows general improvement over time. As corrupt as the capitalist system is, simply overturning it, or more likely, cheering as it collapses on its own, could make things worse for large numbers of people, mostly those at the less privileged end of the spectrum.

    I’m hoping this perspective isn’t taken as my wanting to start an argument, but rather as an attempt to provide thoughtful input to this critical conversation.

    * Granted, these assertions are based on my superficial knowledge, largely conditioned by a biased (if sometimes unintentionally so) media. I’d be happy to be contradicted on some or all counts, though not by mere recapitulation of ideological tropes.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Greetings, Peter, and thank you for the good thoughts.
      Let me try tackling them.

      Homogeneity – I’ve heard that charge for decades, but I’m still not sure what it means in this case. Is the argument that American development is just so uneven that we leave out social pockets and strata because of race, class, or geography?

      Right wing movements – I’ve seen several explanations. One: it’s rage at governing elites seen as incompetent. Two: it’s religiously driven, because of Muslim immigrants arriving in majority Christian nations. Three: it’s racial, because of nonwhites arriving in majority white nations.

      Pinker – I’m very keen his arguments for optimism, especially in _Better Angels_. I can imagine the downturn outlined in this post being a temporary drop, bracketed on either side by progress. What I don’t understand is why this downturn has occurred.

  4. I have been thinking about this since the summer of 2016. That summer, a man that lived down the road from me took his own life. Although this touched my family obliquely; it did start me thinking about the root causes that may have led to this choice. Although there were circumstances (drug use) that can be pointed to for this untimely death I; am still haunted as to why?

    The more I reflect on this the more I think it has to do with the feeling of isolation. I have been reading more about the lack of an ‘inner life’ increasing social-media fueled isolation. I seriously wonder if the downward trend in literature reading (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/09/07/the-long-steady-decline-of-literary-reading/?utm_term=.0bc27ec866fa) is another contributing factor to the decrease in life-expectancy?

    I am not saying that if this person had read more they might still be alive. What I am suggesting is that I think increasing social, economic and geographic isolation may be contributing negatively to this trend.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Robert, thank you for sharing that story and your personal response to it.

      Isolation can be a terrible force. (I’m reminded of the Twilight Zone pilot episode, about a man driven mad by suddenly being alone.) Perhaps geography accentuates it, as when people live farther away from others – i.e., in the country.
      Robert Putnam argued that isolation was on the rise back in the 1990s in Bowling Alone.

      • Rob Beutner says:

        I just realized; I did not finish my thought at the end – I think that being able to construct an inner world gives us the resilience against the feelings of isolation and tides us over in those times when we feel isolated.

        Also; I need to read ‘Bowling Alone’ – it is on my list to read.

        Thank you for referencing ‘Twilight Zone’. So much of what Rod Serling was writing about in his episodes are timeless and relevant today. By the way; he is a native of my neck of the woods and I think his understanding of that geography shaped his worldview and his stories. Just my theory.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Rob, perhaps that desire for an inner world lies behind the modern spiritual and religious ferment, from megachurches to Soul Cycle.

          Twilight Zone remains for me that rarity: a general cultural touchstone that’s fine art and also emotionally powerful for me.

          Serling: upstate NY?

          • Rob Beutner says:

            I agree; ‘Twilight Zone’ is a cultural touchstone. I still re-watch them.

            Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, and raised in Binghamton, NY. His aunt owned property on Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes; where he would spend his summers with this family (his production company name is ‘Cayuga Productions’). Finally, Rod Serling was for a brief time a visiting professor of Media at University of Rochester. He is buried in Lakeview Cemetery near Interlaken NY. That is why many of his stories involve western and central NY.

  5. Sue Cornacchia says:

    Brian, I’d be interested in examining the American “culture of fear” as a root cause. Consider the number of Americans relying on anti-anxiety medications, especially the uptick since 9/11. Consider instances where aggressive or antisocial behavior is really an expression of fear. Consider impact of fear on general well-being and sense of security.

    I’d also like to understand how our “state of fear” is perceived by people from other countries. For example:


    Thanks for the discussion!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Sue, thank you so much for that fine comment.

      I agree with you about the importance of America’s culture of fear. I find it to be mostly a fantasy, and one we buy into piously. TV news is a major stoker of that culture.

      Fine link there. I like the comparisons the author makes between Germany and the US.

      • Ton Zijlstra says:

        An observation along the same lines. The subject of fear is central to Michale Moore’s Bowling for Columbine argument, after he shows that the mere presence of guns doesn’t explain the violence. My wife and I watched it one evening in a small theater in our hometown. We both noticed how walking back to our home afterwards we’d look at others on the darkened streets with more suspicion, moving out of the way of others more. And that was just from watching the examples of how fear can be stoked given in that 90 min. movie. It has been years ago, definitely before 2005, but we still regular reference that experience to each other: how some given information diet can take such a heavy emotional toll. It was visceral.

  6. Rob Beutner says:

    That is a fantastic article. Bryan, it reminds me of the fantastic Twilight Zone episode: “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monsters_Are_Due_on_Maple_Street).
    Sorry, I could not resist.

    The Spiegel article states, “Fear, of course, is nothing new in America. It’s a country that has always believed that the apocalypse is somehow just around the corner.” The very premise of this episode.

    I have shown this episode to my daughters (12 and 10). They grasped the implications immediately. We need more reflective discussions like this.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      “Monsters are Due” is one of my favorite TZs. A classic. Man, the ferocity of that outro.

      So how did other developed nations avoid this fear plague? Especially after their own very real horrors?

      • Rob Beutner says:

        That is a good question. Maybe it is related to having a robust education system and educational infrastructure? It seems knowledge is an inoculation against the ‘plague of fear’.

        This post from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Blog regarding the influence of social media on Public Health touches on the idea of isolation and fear mongering:

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Good thoughts, Rob.

          Education system: statistically the US is pretty comparable with the rest of the developed world in terms of support for primary and secondary schooling. We also send a high proportion of people through universities and colleges. Is there some kind of fear vaccine other nations are administering?

          Social media: I wonder (and appreciate the link). Social media platforms encourage sharing extreme emotions.

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