Friday, January 25, 2019

Death and the Economy

You might think that death rates would go up in bad economic times and down in good times. But for the past 120 years the opposite has been true. Raw death rates fall in bad times, including the Great Depression and the 2008-2009 recession.

This is somewhat of a puzzle, especially since we know that suicide rates go up in bad times.

The effect is not very large but a century of sociological study has confirmed that it is real in North America, Europe, and Japan. Why?

Some possible factors:
There are many potential contributors. One of the more predictable perks of a poor economy is fewer job-related accidents. The most-experienced workers are the ones most likely to keep their jobs during a recession, and slower production can allow for more attention to safety.

People also tend to drive less, which translates to fewer traffic accidents. And fewer vehicles on the road might also help to explain why air quality is better. “When employment pops up, so do things related to pollution — commerce, industry, trucks on the road,” says Mary Davis, an environmental-policy specialist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. The air-quality connection might also help explain why studies have also linked recessions to reduced cardiovascular and respiratory problems, as well as infant mortality.
(I doubt air quality is as much of an issue now, but remember that before 1970 more economic activity meant burning more coal in plants without scrubbers, meaning pollution might get a lot worse.)
Researchers have suggested other explanations. In addition to dirty air, cardiovascular issues are known to be exacerbated by stress, a poor diet, lack of exercise, drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. Working less and having less money to spend could translate into more sleep, exercise and home-cooked meals, as well as less job-related stress and less money for pints of beer and cigarettes. There is some evidence that this logic plays out. Based on data from 1987 through to 2000, Ruhm found that smoking and excess weight declined during economic downturns, whereas leisure-time physical activity increased. When Iceland’s economy crashed in 2008, and the price of imported goods such as tobacco and alcohol rose, citizens consumed fewer of those products. And US data from 1977 to 2008 showed that a husband’s unemployment reduced how much alcohol his wife drank, on average, irrespective of her own employment status. Even people who fear job loss, but remain fully employed, Catalano’s research suggests, might still cut back on alcohol to seem a more indispensable employee.
The impact of work on our physical and mental health is decidedly mixed. Long-term unemployment causes depression, but when people are really busy (as they are more likely to be in economic booms) they are stressed and more likely to grab bad meals on the run.

So we can do nothing and slide into depression and die that way, or work ourselves to death. . . .

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