For the first time in more than a half century, life expectancy declined for two consecutive years in the United States.
The CDC reports that “accidental injuries” rising to third on the list of killer categories helped account for the shortening of American lives. Neither a spike in banana-peel misadventures nor a spate of missing manhole covers led to this epidemic of misfortune. The use of opioids, which the medical profession prescribes to relieve pain, dramatically increased. Overdoses constitute a massive portion of “accidental injuries.”
The Barack Obama presidency coincided with Americans using large amounts of dangerous narcotics (people coped in their own ways) and the suicide rate (alas, some could not cope) ballooning to its highest level in three decades.
Americans, apparently, felt more pain in recent years and took drastic measures to relieve such feelings that unfortunately resulted in many deaths, which, of course, caused even more pain, which resulted in people seeking relief from that pain, and so on.
Ostensibly a medical problem, the drug boom really stems from a spiritual decay. People reach for heroin and oxycontin and the rest after a hollowing out. Before one attempts to fill a void, emptiness must occur.
Material hopelessness appears as one, and just one, likely contributing factor to the spiritual rot. Americans suffered through economic growth under Obama more anemic than for any postwar president. Whereas postwar GDP growth averaged 2.9 percent annually, no year under Obama even approached that mediocre number. And to achieve this paltry growth, the government compiled massive debts. The debt-to-GDP ratio reached the highest point in Obama’s lifetime under Obama. The national debt doubled in eight years.
Conditions worsened. People did too. They lost hope.
Political leaders during this era dubbed their policies as “progressive.” This strikes as a cruel irony. Is it progress that more Americans kill themselves, voluntarily via a rope and rickety stool and involuntarily through needles and pills, than they did in the past? I once heard Joe Sobran say that if the termites eating your house could speak, and you asked them the question “What are you doing?” they would exclaim: “Progress!” From the perspective of the termites, devouring a house stands as momentous progress. Likewise, many decidedly non-termite humans regard the Obama years as progressive, even if too often the economy, the deficit, our medical bills, and even our lifespans went in the wrong direction.
When Ronald Reagan dubbed, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” the most terrifying words in the English language, he spoke from experience and observation. But he also spoke as a prophet.
Even before President Obama tried to help you with your hospital bills through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — an unintentionally hilarious moniker — George W. Bush imagined it the government’s duty to buy people drugs through the Medicare Part D entitlement.
A study published last year in Health Affairs notes, “Consumer out-of-pocket spending on opioids per 100 morphine milligram equivalents (a standard reference measure of strength for various opioids) declined from $4.40 to $0.90 between 2001 and 2012. Since the implementation of Medicare Part D in 2006, Medicare has been the largest payer for opioid pain relievers, covering about 20–30 percent of the cost. Medicare spends considerably more on these drugs for enrollees younger than age sixty-five than it does for any other age group or than Medicaid or private insurance does for any age group.”
So, Americans pay for one government program to buy opioids for addicts and pay for another government program to tell us that the rise in opioid addiction led to a decline in lifespans. This is the progressive state in action, managers deciding who and what gets subsidized and experts studying, if unconsciously so, the effects. And neither group lifts their noses from their narrow task to make sense of the big picture.
“If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road,” C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity, “and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
America requires reorientation, not “progress” — particularly not progress of an ideological sort divorced from the word’s meaning. Sometimes progress requires, as Dorothy taught us, going home.
It is perhaps too much to expect perhaps the most abnormal man ever to sit in the Oval Office to engineer a “return to normalcy,” as did the last Republican tasked with putting America’s house in order after the wreckage left by progressive termites. But Trump’s instincts, as his tax bill indicates, favor more individual control than administrative control over lives. People taking responsibility for their own lives, in contrast to government meddling and intrusiveness, goes a long way toward solving problems, drug problems and otherwise.
Alas, even material improvements will not wean Americans off opioids. If you doubt this, give each addict you meet a $100 bill and see where he or she spends it. They need goals, spiritual direction, will, and much else the state cannot provide.
Government exacerbated this problem. It can help alleviate it. It cannot solve it.
Barack Obama promised us hope. He gave us despair.