Public Health

The health of the American people has risen and fallen with fluctuations in the health of its poorest. Although more vulnerable in the past, the affluent have generally managed, major epidemics aside, to stay healthier than other Americans. Going back centuries, they regularly had nutritious food, usually clean water, decent shelter, and the ability to leave town in malarial season. The lower classes, particularly their children, were ill in normal times and especially vulnerable to periodic epidemics. One of modern America’s great achievements is the extension of the average life span, from about 40 years for a just-born infant several generations ago to about 80 years now.

That doubling was accomplished largely by improving the health of less fortunate Americans through public health projects. In a new paper, the eminent economic historian Dora Costa provides an overview of America’s health history which emphasizes the importance of those projects in the late 19th century. Reading her essay raises the question, Where are the equivalent public health projects of the early 21st century?

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Exceptionalism Ending?

In a well-researched and provocative National Journal column, journalist Peter Beinart seeks to jujitsu conservatives’ charges that President Obama has undermined “American exceptionalism.” Beinart argues that American exceptionalism – by which he means America’s sharp differences from Old-World Europe — is “ending.” Young Americans, he states with data, look increasingly just like young Europeans in their religiosity, class consciousness, and nationalism. Beinart flips the right-wing charge, however, arguing that Obama’s arrival is the result, not the origin, of this convergence and, moreover, that it is largely conservative policies that are ending American exceptionalism. Neatly done.flag

I offer some reservations. Beinart exaggerates the convergence of Americans with other western peoples. What is really striking is how long-lasting aspects of American exceptionalism have been in a era when one might have expected global homogenization. (For an earlier discussion of exceptionalism, see here.)

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The furious to-do about Obamacare has obscured a basic fact about modern Americans: Most of us, certainly the middle class, are sheltered by a complex web of insurance. Some insurance coverage is privately provided, such as life, accident, fire, flood, travel, liability, burial, and consumer product insurance. And some is government-provided or -required: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, bank deposit, car, health, mortgage, food, crop, disaster insurance, and so on. All of these, without which American middle-class life as we know it would not be recognizable, are relatively recent developments. It is not that insurance per se and even complex versions of it are new; merchants have hedged their commercial gambles for millennia. What is new in the last roughly 150 years is the extent to which average people have gotten access to financial devices which, by sharing risks, have reduced the economic uncertainties in their lives.

This development, told in part by historian Jonathan Levy in an a multiple award-winning 2012 book, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America, was not without political and moral controversy. Moreover, the consequences of reducing individual Americans’ insecurity have more than once introduced great national economic uncertainty.

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In the new world of blogs and tweets and breaking-news bulletins flashing across billions of big, medium, and small screens, we are learning that one of the down sides of instant connection is that false news can in a flash go from being an off-hand comment to a globally recognized “fact.”(Consider the person falsely-accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber.) The hope, often vain, is that corrections will just as quickly catch up with the mistakes. There are also slower, longer-lasting false stories that keep reverberating around at least part of the web, like those about President Obama’s heritage. And then there are “urban legends” that are passed around not by conspiracy theorists, gullible web surfers, or gossip-column fans, but by leading journalists, policymakers, and even (gasp!) academics. Folktales of the policy elites.



Sociologist Gary Alan Fine and political scientist Barry O’Neill published a paper a few years ago in, appropriately, the Journal of American Folklore on what they call “policy legends”: stories describing social conditions that call for social and governmental action, stories that are endorsed by respected, influential people, stories that are false. Despite occasional debunking, these legends have remarkable staying power. The examples Fine and O’Neill analyze date back before the Internet and, morphing in various ways, live on and on.

(I learned about this study from O’Neill at, of all things, a conference on Darwinian theory, which sort of shows how news can travel in odd channels.)

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The long debate over whether America has gotten more economically unequal in the last few decades is over; all but the most recalcitrant acknowledge it. (As a recent New York Times story reported, sharp-eyed salesmen have acted on this reality, increasingly marketing to the top few percent.) The economic argument has now shifted to whether average Americans have nonetheless done all right even as the rich have become super-rich. Here one detects a subtle difference in vocabulary. Defenders of the broadening inequality insist that average family incomes have been nonetheless increasing. They have. Critics of the broadening inequality insist that earnings have been flat or dropping. They have — for men.



Average American families have been holding steady or getting a bit more affluent because wives have been working more hours to make up for the stagnation in men’s earnings. (I discuss the numbers below.) Now comes a new study that shows the gender gap in another dimension: job tenure.

For years, experts have debated whether American workers were losing their job security. (The usual measure of job security is how long workers stay in a specific job.) Despite widespread concerns, there does not seem to have been a general reduction in job tenure. Now, Matissa N. Hollister and Kristin E. Smith show, in the latest American Sociological Review, that women’s increasing ties to their jobs have masked men’s decreasing ties to theirs — male job insecurity.

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Libertarianism is on the rise, thanks in good measure to many newly politicized techies who have married their live-and-let-live views about lifestyle to leave-me-alone views about taxes and government.Rand

I viscerally understand the libertarian mystique, but, outside the fantasy novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, libertarianism does not make much anthropological or historical sense. As a philosophy, it may; one can build a coherent moral system from almost any starting point, be it God’s breath upon the waters; the first self-replicating, “selfish” gene; or autonomous individuals signing a social contract. And versions of libertarianism have a fierce logical consistency. Robert Nozick’s starting point is the “fact of our separate existences”; “there is no social entity . . . . there are only individual people.” Charles Murray proclaims, “Freedom is first of all our birthright.” America’s founding revolutionists, inhaling the earliest wafts of libertarianism in the 1700s, declared that we are created with “unalienable rights”; that is, people cannot sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, so fundamental is the independence of the individual.

Great ideas, to be sure, but historically odd ones….. This column continues at the Boston Review here.

Much of early twentieth-century art in the West was commentary on the massive technological developments of the late 19th century. Where, 100 years later, is the comparable twenty-first-century artistic response to the technological developments of the late 20th century? Stella

American artists a few generations ago, especially painters and photographers, portrayed the massive structures, machined objects, and rationalized, sharp edges of the industrial world. (They were, of course, responding to other things, as well, such as new techniques and European challengers like Picasso.) Many took the rapidly growing cities, New York most of all, as emblematic of the coming future, so urban scenes often serve to represent the modern, mechanical world. What in art is similar today?

Warning to readers: Follow this post at your own risk; I am not an art historian. But, heck, it’s my personal blog. (BTW, I use illustrations here from stamps, so as, hopefully, not to infringe reproduction rights.)

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