For many Americans, particularly those of a conservative disposition, theirs is the greatest country in the world. Patriotism is a far more prominent feature of American politics and culture than in Europe, with adversaries denouncing each other for insufficiently loving and caring for their country. Much of this is justified, even if European liberals find it crass; America has a successful economy, is a world leader in a vast array of industries, is home to most of the world’s best universities, and provides the backbone of Western security. Were it not for high American defence spending, Europe would either be poorer or more vulnerable.
But there is one particular statistic that makes for grim reading. According to The Economist, suicides have declined everywhere in the developed world- America being one of the few exceptions. The article points out taking your life is easier in America because of easy access to guns. It also mentions the rise in opioid addiction as a significant contributor. But America isn’t the only country where drug addiction is a growing problem. Nor can high gun ownership rates explain this: America has always had relaxed gun laws, and the number of people who own a gun is actually in decline. Suicide is also unique in being a problem that affects whites more than blacks.
Rather, the cause of increasing suicide is that Americans are under increasing stress. Americans work longer hours than in most other developed countries. In Greece and South Korea- countries which have also seen an increase in suicides- working hours are also long. Spending less time relaxing and socialising inevitably takes a toll. Somewhat paradoxically, America’s increasing prosperity has increased stress. People work long hours to maintain what is considered a respectable lifestyle. The country’s materialistic culture means that people feel the need to own the latest innovations, even if it comes at the expense of time off. Growing income inequality compounds the problem. Average-income families see that more of their friends possess luxuries. Feeling the need to match their peers, they overwork and accumulate debt. It’s also worth pointing out that although unemployment in America is low, so is the labour force participation rate, with many Americans simply choosing not to look for work. To make matters worse, being unemployed is a less pleasant experience in America because unemployment benefits are less generous, health insurance and pension schemes are often tied to specific jobs, and having high personal debt makes unemployment more costly more quickly.
We on the Epicurus Blog are of a social democratic disposition, and would therefore call for a stronger social welfare system and legal entitlements to time off work. All of that is necessary, but America also needs to change its culture. Americans could learn from the Germans: save more, spend less, borrow less, and most importantly, work less. The average German works fewer hours than anywhere else in the world, yet Germany is relatively prosperous. Fiscal conservatives often bemoan America’s large national debt, and rightfully so. But if it is bad for the nation to be in debt, it is also bad for individuals, which is why a stronger safety net is necessary. Unsustainably lavish lifestyles should be discouraged, with higher taxes on non-necessities like big houses and expensive cars, used to fund tax breaks for savers and investors. All of this may reduce Americans’ material standard of living. But it would create a more economically secure and happier nation, helping to reduce the country’s appalling suicide rate.