Just as some people live longer than others, nations have different average life expectancies. At the bottom of the scale is Swaziland, the only nation in the world where a newborn still cannot expect to reach 50. At the top is Hong Kong, where a newborn can expect to live to 84.
In 1960, the world’s countries could be divided into two groups based on mortality. Countries in one group had low average life expectancy, from 28 years in Mali to just under 50 years in El Salvador. Countries in the second, much less populous group enjoyed higher average life expectancy — up to 73 years in Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Since then, Hong Kong has surpassed this northern European group, as have Japan (84 years), Italy (83), Spain (83) and Switzerland (83).
Today, the people of Hong Kong can expect their children to live 17 years longer than in 1960. Japanese newborns can expect to live 16 years longer and newborn Icelanders can expect to live 10 years longer.
Much of this increase in life expectancy around the world is a result of declining child mortality. The increase has been more marked for women, who tend to live an average of three years longer than men. In Iceland, for example, the average life expectancy for men and women is 81 and 84 respectively.
However, life expectancy can also vary significantly within nations, between rich and poor.
According to a study by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, the wealthiest 1 percent of US men tend to live nearly 15 years longer than the poorest 1 percent, while the wealthiest 1 percent of US women can expect to live 10 years longer than their poorer counterparts.
Moreover, this gap has widened over time. In just the past 15 years, the average life expectancy of the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans has increased by two years for men and three years for women. Over the same period, the average life expectancy of the poorest 5 percent has increased by just three months for men and hardly at all for women.
Like recent reports about many Americans’ deteriorating health, this difference in life expectancy seems to reflect not just income and wealth inequality, but also unequal access to healthcare.
Yet US President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans seem intent on depriving 23 million more Americans of health insurance by repealing and replacing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
If they succeed, life expectancy in the US would most likely continue to decline relative to other developed nations.
Between 1960 and today, for example, average life expectancy in the US increased from 70 to 79 years, whereas in Italy it increased from 69 to 83 years. While the average American lived one year longer than the average Italian in 1960, the average Italian now lives four years longer than the average American.
Average US life expectancy has increased more slowly than in Europe partly because many white middle-aged Americans have, since 1999, been living shorter lives, owing to lifestyle-related diseases, opioid overdoses and suicides. Since 1981, opioid overdoses alone have taken nearly as many lives as HIV/AIDS.
It is extremely rare for any large cohort in a modern society to suffer such a decline in life expectancy. The only other time it has happened in recent decades was in Russia after the collapse of communism and in Africa after the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Rising inequality, then, is not just a question of income, wealth and power; it is, literally, a matter of life and death.
This might explain why inequality has shot to the top of the political agenda in the US and Europe.
In his Democratic primary campaign last year, US Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, condemned the US’ rising inequality and actually came closer to being elected president than many had expected, while Trump — like the “Leave” campaign in the UK — was embraced by many voters who feel left behind.
Despite being founded in 1945, the IMF only recently began to pay ample attention to the distribution of income and wealth in its member nations. Having realized that inequality can hinder economic growth, the IMF has begun to discuss the inequality-growth relationship with several of its members.
Some observers have disparaged the IMF for this approach and argue that increased inequality simply reflects what people have voted for, but those who claim that inequality is something to be desired are akin to those who argue that unemployment is always voluntary, as some economists still insist.
When inequality rises, democracy suffers, which is why the demotion of the US in one prominent ranking of the world’s democracies is not particularly surprising.
Most people do not want to be unemployed, or be left behind, or have their life cut short. It only looks that way to those who frame the choices that voters make.
Thorvaldur Gylfason is a professor of economics at the University of Iceland.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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