The news came and went so fast that you might have missed it. American life expectancy has declined. Again. In 2015 and 2016, in fact, the average American life span declined for two years in a row for the first time in more than 50 years. The preliminary numbers for 2017 are looking grim as well. Multi-year declines are typically attributable to war or disease outbreaks. In America? Our decline is based largely on our capacity for self-harm, as the Washington Post explained:
The 2016 data shows that just three major causes of death are responsible: unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease and suicides, with the bulk of the difference attributable to the 63,632 people who died of overdoses. That total was an increase of more than 11,000 over the 52,404 who died of the same cause in 2015.
To put that overdose number in perspective, in one year more Americans died of overdoses than were killed during the entire course of the Vietnam War. The toll dwarfs the number of homicides. It’s almost double the number who were killed in car accidents. It’s a stunning number, and it’s supplemented by a terrifying surge in suicides. The rate hit a 30-year high in 2014 and just kept on climbing.
Earlier this week — after the news of decreased life expectancy barely caused a media ripple — Vox’s German Lopez tweeted this:
It's bewildering that a two-year drop in life expectancy is being met largely with a shruggie in Washington. Can you imagine if there was a two-year decline in the economy? Yet somehow, how much money we make has come to mean more to the media and lawmakers than basic well-being.
— German Lopez (@germanrlopez) January 9, 2018
Government and the media are simply not up to the task. Think, for example, of the intensity of last month’s debate over the size of the child tax credit in the Republican tax bill. I shared the disappointment of a number of conservatives that the tax benefits for families weren’t larger, but I was under no illusion that even hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks would make a material difference in family outcomes. Yes, people respond to incentives, and positive tax changes help more than they hurt, but no reasonable person thinks that any single policy or series of policies in Washington will put the fractured family back together again.
Addiction is life-destroying, yes, but it’s also soul-destroying. Politicians, pundits, and reporters can do things that help. They can do things that hurt. They cannot, however, solve the crisis that is breaking the American heart. Given that reality, think how much easier it is to move on to other things. Politicians can do something about “Dreamers.” They can send troops to defeat terrorists. They can adjust tax rates.
Each of those things is important in its own right, but even as we keep our eyes fixed on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, we cannot forget the larger challenge that faces us all. Too many of our nation’s citizens live in the depths of hopelessness and despair. We in the media and in politics respond by shying away from uncertainty and complexity and focus instead on the things we can change. So we talk more about lesser matters, and while our attention is turned elsewhere our friends and neighbors slip further and further away.