WeeklyWorker

26.05.2022
The 28th such school massacre in just this year alone

Designed to shorten lives

Cars, drugs and now the Uvalde school massacre, Daniel Lazare looks at the American way of death

Thanks to stolen elections, congressional gridlock, an undemocratic Supreme Court and an attempted coup d’état, America’s great political breakdown has been making headlines for years. What is less well known is a crisis in the underlying body politic, in which the vital signs are also pointing downwards.

Guns are one example. In what The New York Times called “a vivid statistical portrait of a nation arming itself to the teeth,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms released a report last week showing that American gun purchases have nearly tripled over the last two decades, going from 4.7 million in the year 2000 to 13.5 million as of 2019.1

Not surprisingly, gun fatalities due to murder, suicide, accidents and police have risen 35% relative to population over roughly the same period: ie, 2000 to 2020. Per capita, that is more than five times the gun-fatality rate in France, six times the rate in Canada, 14 times that of Australia, and 15 times Germany.2 And now, of course, there is the Uvalde massacre in Texas - the killing of 19 children and two teachers - the 28th school attack this year and the third deadliest in US history.

Highway fatalities are another example. Last year, they hit 42,915 - a 16-year high and a 10.5% increase over 2020. Per vehicle mile, that is 40% greater than the rate in Canada or Australia, 73% greater than in Germany, and more than double that of the UK.3

Then there are illegal drugs. Overdose fatalities topped 107,000 last year, a 15% increase over 2020, which in turn had seen a 30% increase over the year before. With one exception, overdose deaths have risen every year since Richard Nixon officially launched a war on drugs back in 1971.4

Finally, there is general health. The US obesity rate is far and away the highest in the advanced industrial world, while the heart-attack death rate exceeds that of comparable countries by nearly 50% and diabetes is as much as double.5 After flatlining during the 2010s, life expectancy fell two percent in 2020, due largely to a record one million deaths from Covid-19. No other advanced industrial nation has seen a plunge that is comparable.

The combination is stunning. If the United States were a patient on an examination table, the verdict would be clear. Despite one of the highest levels of per capita income in the world, its arteries are clogged, its organs are failing, and major intervention is required to turn the situation around. Otherwise, the subject is plainly heading for serious trouble.

But why America? And why at this moment?

The answer is capitalism - not capitalism in the abstract, but capitalism in its “actually existing” form in the here and now. Economically, the system is in the grips of a profitability crisis characterised by underinvestment, hyperactive financial speculation, and overproduction of what society does not need, coupled with underproduction of what it does: ie, better food and drink, a healthier lifestyle, and more compact and livable communities. Constitutionally, however, the United States is in an advanced crisis, as political democracy nears the vanishing point and governing mechanisms break down more and more thoroughly. Congress has no trouble supplying weapons for Ukraine. But, when it comes to a broad array of social problems that are more and more intractable, all members can do is pull the covers over their heads in the hopes that they will all just go away.

The upshot is a death spiral, as more and more Americans poison themselves to death, fill one another with bullets, kill each other on highways or succumb to obesity and disease.

Firearms

Guns are a good place to begin. Contrary to legend, firearms are no more central to America than they are to any other major nation-state. Indeed, when the fearsome lobby known as the National Rifle Association took shape in the 1870s, the complaint was not that there were too many guns, but that there were too few - and that Americans were forgetting how to use them as they grew soft and urbanised. Shooting clubs soon proliferated as a consequence. But a gun-rights movement did not arise until more than a century later - in 1977, to be exact - when, at a famous conference in Cincinnati, the NRA abandoned its traditional focus on hunting, conservation and marksmanship, and turned its attention to the second amendment instead.6

The change corresponded with stagflation, the New York City fiscal crisis, rising crime rates and a general shift to the right. (The age of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was just two years off.) It also corresponded with a bitter battle over the US constitution, in which liberals favouring an expansionist reading fought with conservatives pushing for one that was narrower, more literal and more constrictive.

The second amendment was at the centre of the action. Since its rise in the 1920s, the American Civil Liberties Union had argued that the amendment’s “right of the people to keep and bear arms” meant nothing more than a right to join “a well-regulated militia” in the form of the US National Guard. But the interpretation was all too convenient in terms of modern needs and sensibilities, and it inevitably gave way to a more sophisticated understanding that sought to return the amendment to its 18th century roots, when a musket over a fireplace was a near-universal symbol of freedom and a militia was what farmers formed when they mustered on their own initiative on the village green.

Ironically, liberals and leftists pioneered the new interpretation in the 1980s. But it was a godsend for conservatives, since it seemed to point to a pre-modern communalism, in which private gun ownership allowed “ordinary citizens [to] participate in the process of law enforcement and defence of liberty rather than rely on professionalised peacekeepers, whether we call them standing armies or police”.7

The results were predictable. As gun regulations fell by the wayside and the political wars in Washington grew white-hot, gun sales rocketed. Since guns were now a symbol of freedom, what better way was there to guard against tyranny than by loading up on firepower? The more assault rifles in an individual’s rec room or basement, the freer he or she would be.

This makes no sense in utilitarian terms, since, despite such arsenals, Americans are less secure than citizens in other advanced industrial countries due to rising crime rates. But it makes perfect sense in terms of raging constitutional debates that are locked in an antiquated 18th century framework with seemingly no way out.

Cars

Highway fatalities are equally a function of capitalist political dynamics. Contrary to popular belief, cars were not an American invention, but rather a Franco-German development of the 1880s and 90s. But Henry Ford popularised them when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908. As a result, the US would soon reach levels of motorisation that western Europe would not attain until after World War II. The world’s greatest highway system followed in 1956, along with super-low fuel prices that were a fraction of those elsewhere in the industrial world with the exception of Canada.

Americans used government-subsidised fuel to drive on government-subsidised highways while preaching rugged individualism to the world at large. But, as any free-marketeer can attest, unconstrained subsidies led to massive economic distortions. Sidewalks disappeared because the taxpayers who once paid for them now looked down on pedestrians, whom the auto revolution had left in the dust. Inner cities turned into dumping grounds for oppressed minorities, while the middle class headed for far-flung suburbs, accessible only by car. Thanks to fuel subsidies, autos grew bigger and bigger. After a brief period of downsizing, the rolling boats of the 1950s and 60s with their enormous tailfins and elaborate grills gave way to the giant sport utility vehicles of the 1980s and 90s, which were little more than passenger bodies mounted on light trucks.

But, as cars got bigger and heavier, risks grew - not for the owners, but for other drivers, whose cars were lighter, lower and therefore more vulnerable.8 With sport utility vehicles (SUVs) outselling ordinary cars by better than two to one in the US, the trend appears to be the chief reason why highway deaths are rising not only relative to population, but to total distance travelled - up 23% over the last decade.9 Fewer sidewalks and ever-greater travel distances means less walking and cycling, not to mention a striking rise in pedestrian and cyclist deaths for those bucking the trend.

Americans who venture out by bike or on foot are thus subject to capital punishment by a system intolerant of their very existence. Yet another result of the auto monoculture is obesity and disease, which is what happens when the only exercise one gets comes from opening and closing the refrigerator door. A 2004 study found that every hour in a car per day correlates with a six percent increase in obesity, while every kilometre walked correlates with a 4.8% decline.10 Yet Americans are forced into one mode, while strongly discouraged from engaging in the other.

Drugs

Finally, there are drugs. The reason overdose deaths have increased nearly non-stop since 1971 is simple: criminalisation encourages a shift to substances that are more compact and potent and hence more transportable, more profitable and deadlier too. Just as beer gave way to bathtub gin during the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s, marijuana yielded to powdered cocaine in the 1980s, which then yielded to smokable crack cocaine in the 90s. After all, why bother with pot, when you can make far more from a suitcase of odourless coke?

The same thing happened when legal opiates like oxycodone gave way to heroin. Beginning around 2014, dealers responded to the inevitable crackdown by switching to the artificial opiates known as fentanyl and its various derivatives, which, gram for gram, can be up to 100 times as potent.

Super-high profit margins sealed the deal. According to federal prosecutors, a kilogram of fentanyl costing around $32,000 can generate a million counterfeit pills selling for more than $20 million. That is a more than 60-fold mark-up.11 The more cops clamped down, the more smugglers doubled down in response and the more fatal overdoses continued to climb. Society would be better off if ‘narcs’ spent their time eating doughnuts or snoozing in their patrol cars.

Legalisation represents a way out, since it would disincentivise the trend to ever more potent drugs, while returning markets back to low-potency substances that people actually enjoy. But, given the vast and complicated industry that has grown up around the drug war, it is unlikely in the extreme. Too many middle class moralists would be shocked, too many high-priced consultants would be out of work, while too many police departments would have nothing to do and no way of justifying their inflated budgets. So the vicious cycle promises to continue, as society tumbles further and further downhill.

It is rather like a wealthy CEO who cannot stop gobbling down fatty red meat despite their doctor’s warnings to the contrary. Regardless of financial portfolio, the outcome is clear: the exec is headed for an early grave. The same goes for the United States: regardless of its financial or military clout, the outcome is clear as well. It may think it can continue making a profit by promoting death and destruction, but reality will eventually catch up.


  1. www.nytimes.com/2022/05/17/us/politics/gun-manufacturing-atf.html. See also ‘Firearms commerce in the United States, annual statistical update 2021’: www.atf.gov/firearms/docs/report/2021-firearms-commerce-report/download.↩︎

  2. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/02/03/what-the-data-says-about-gun-deaths-in-the-u-s.↩︎

  3. www.nhtsa.gov/press-releases/early-estimate-2021-traffic-fatalities. For international comparisons, see Federal Highway Administration: www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/onh00/bar4.htm.↩︎

  4. www.nytimes.com/2022/05/11/us/politics/overdose-deaths-fentanyl-meth.html.↩︎

  5. Health System Tracker, Peterson Center on Healthcare and Kaiser Family Foundation: www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/mortality-rates-u-s-compare-countries; Diabetes rates by country 2022: worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/diabetes-rates-by-country.↩︎

  6. www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-nras-true-believers-converted-a-marksmanship-group-into-a-mighty-gun-lobby/2013/01/12/51c62288-59b9-11e2-88d0-c4cf65c3ad15_story.html.↩︎

  7. S Levinson, ‘The embarrassing second amendment’ Yale Law Journal December 1989. See also my article, ‘A central driver’ Weekly Worker March 4 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1337/a-central-driver.↩︎

  8. web.archive.org/web/20080309072906/http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/teepa/pdf/TRB_Safety_1-03.pdf.↩︎

  9. US Department of Transportation, April 2022: crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813283.↩︎

  10. LD Frank, MA Andresen and TL Schmid, ‘Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars’ American Journal of Preventive Medicine August 2004: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15261894.↩︎

  11. US Attorney’s office, Southern District of California, October 6 2017: www.justice.gov/usao-sdca/pr/county-s-top-law-enforcers-issue-dire-warning-about-fentanyl-carfentanil-deaths-and.↩︎