TCS Daily

The Vicious Cycle That's Killing Us

By Radley Balko - August 6, 2004 12:00 AM

It appears that America has a new public health crisis on its hands, one "every bit as threatening as the terrorist threat." Economist Christopher Ruhm concludes in a paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research:

"During temporary economic downturns, smoking and weight decline, while exercise rises. Specifically, the drop in tobacco use is stronger for heavy smokers, the fall in body weight is larger in the severely obese, and exercise increases most among those who were completely inactive."

Ruhm drew similar conclusions in a 2000 study, when he found that a 1% dip in the employment rate generally corresponds to a 0.5% drop in the death rate. As the NBER Digest notes, "Three other studies have shown similar results: a fall in total fatalities during economic downturns for 50 Spanish provinces, 16 German states, and 23 OECD countries."

Unless we act now, affluence may soon become America's number one killer.

The pressing question: If we knew about the relationship between affluence and mortality as far back as 2000, why hasn't our government done anything about it? Why have our public officials sat idly by and allowed, nay encouraged, America's poor to accumulate wealth, when government knew the poor would be putting their own health at risk?

In fact, not only have our public officials let killer prosperity go unchecked, a Lexis search reveals that nearly every single elected official in the country has openly and without apology advocated policies they believe will increase overall wealth and prosperity! Our politicians are openly encouraging Americans to increase their chances of death! Where are the media?

As is often the case, free market types deserve most of the blame. While all elected officials claim to want to impose the threat of affluence on all Americans, from what I can tell, it seems that the policies promoted by the free marketers actually do the most to create wealth. That of course makes ardent capitalists responsible for the death by wealth of thousands of formerly poor Americans.

But there may be one group that's more to blame than free-market politicians: Big Business.

According to my research, corporations exist almost exclusively for the purpose of accumulating wealth. Corporations, businesses, and private enterprise also seem to be particularly good at creating wealth, seemingly out of thin air. And let's not forget that big business has a vested interest in a wealthy America, because a wealthy America can buy more of what big business wants to sell, which of course only begets yet more lethal wealth. In short, greedy corporations are intentionally inflicting a known threat on the American populace for the sole purpose of profit! And that just makes more wealth.

It's a vicious cycle. And it's killing us.

Predictably, the wealth menace hits minorities and the poor the hardest. According to NBER, "The 1-point increase in unemployment is predicted to decrease severe obesity among males, blacks, and Hispanics by 2.0, 3.1, and 4.3 percent, compared to 1 percent for both whites and females."

This makes sense, if you think about it. The already-rich aren't affected much by a suddenly robust economy. They had money all along. Their lifestyles were set.

It's the working poor who have the most to gain -- and, therefore, the most to lose. An economic boom makes people rich who weren't rich before. Therefore it makes people less healthy than they were before they increased their income.

Racist, regressive and ruthless, why should we allow Americans to be tempted by the fickle allure of affluence?

We should insist that our government take immediate action to prevent the further accumulation of wealth. And quickly, before more people get hurt. As Risa Lavizzo-Mouro, president of the Robert Johnson Foundation, a public health group, has wisely implored: When we suspect a public health threat, and a possible link to the cause of that threat, we can't wait around for the science to catch up. We need to act "ahead of the threat." We need to act "while we're learning."

I propose that Congress pass the Saving Our Public Health from Innovation, Success, Trade, Riches, and Yearning bill, or the SOPHISTRY Act. On the day it's signed by the president, SOPHISTRY would license the federal government to freeze all salaries, wages, and other sources of income among the poor and lower middle class, thereby preventing any dangerous upward mobility between tax brackets. Any income earned above a citizen's current tax bracket would be taxed at 100%. All revenue from the tax would be specifically earmarked for the study of the affluence threat. The freeze would stay in effect until scientists can determine the cause of the link between prosperity and mortality.

Because wealth begets an increased chance of death, the SOPHISTRY Act will undoubtedly save thousands of lives. Perhaps millions. We owe it to America's poor to keep them poor until we can figure out why getting richer makes them die. And while critics might contend that Americans ought to be free to decide for themselves whether a bit of extra income is worth the deleterious health effects that come with affluence, it's obvious that at least so far, they simply aren't deciding correctly. Despite the obvious implications of the data above, Americans still insist on bettering their respective standards of living.

And when people make poor decisions about their own lives, it's government's job to make the correct decisions for them.

We need bold, progressive, decisive federal action until we can examine this problem in further detail.


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