“Ross Gittins is on leave” the SMH‘s opinion page noted this morning, but we have not been spared a Wednesday Ross Gittins column. If anything, stand-in columnist Matt Wade’s effort this morning is lamer even than Ross’s standard debunking of economic growth.
Commenting on the fact that though the US has a per capita GDP it ranks well down the global list for life expectancy (29th, compared to 7th for Australia, according to Wikipedia), Wade says:
The figures suggest Americans have, on average, traded longevity for higher incomes over the past 50 years.
Huh? Life expectancy figures aren’t like happiness statistics, where there is an apparent paradox of stable self-reported happiness while GDP per capita has grown significantly. Life expectancy has gone up almost continually just as GDP in Western countries has increased almost continuously in the post-war period. That’s true of the US and it is true of Australia.
As Wade says, there are various idiosyncracies of the US that help explain why despite on-going improvement it ranks below other developed countries. These contribute to the stark differences between white and black life expectancy, apparent too in Australia on an even greater scale, but our Indigenous population is too small for it to have the same impact on average life expectancy.
But none of Wade’s explanations, with the possible exception of disputed theories about social structures and work conditions, suggest a trade-off between GDP and life expectancy. And to the extent that there is a trade-off, it works in life expectancy’s favour. As annual income grows so too does public and private expenditure on health. The long period of prosperity in Australia over the last decade has seen per capita federal spending on health increase by more than 35% in real terms. This has almost certainly contributed to increased life expectancy over that time.
While nobody thinks that GDP growth alone improves health (as opposed to providing some of the means for doing so), the reasonable inference from Wade’s article that we should not be so concerned about economic growth is wrong. Not only would it deprive us of resources needed to finance improved health care, it would add to the life stresses he suggests are harmful, as unemployment went up again and employed people’s jobs became less secure.