Matt Wade impersonates Ross Gittins

“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.

21 thoughts on “Matt Wade impersonates Ross Gittins

  1. I agree with you completely on this one — including how truly aweful the column was. Perhaps he should go to Africa and have a look around.


  2. It would help if folk like this looked at the ecology of the sytem instead of putting all their arguments onto macro indicators that are incredibly suspect. The point is to have a system where skill and effort are rewarded so people can choose to earn more or less according to the lifestyle that they want. A system where market forces encourage the efficent and economical use of resources which is ecologically sound and also promotes proper economic growth (in terms of goods and servicves that people value) and not just bigger numbers in the GDP. A system where people have the opportunity to buy the particular mix of education and health services that they want in the same way they can buy the mix of consumer durables that they want. Etc.


  3. It’s a silly season article, although I suppose many of Gittins’ articles are anyway. As well as making the nonsense point of a supposed trade-off between GDP growth and longevity, it also argues that GDP per head is not the be-all and end-all of well-being. But then again, that was pointed out in year 11 economics.

    To be charitable, the article reminds us that the Australian health system does not stack up too badly if what you are concerned about is aggregate outcomes and costs.


  4. Yeah, nah, yeah..
    I dont think you can tie it to GDP or unemployment, in that much I agree. It basically comes down to environmental and lifestyle health along with medical standards.

    The American health service is not up to scratch even when the indivdual pays top dollar. Possibly, doctors there are too busy thinking about the Hayek they read secretly when they were prescribed Jameson during their prepatory pre med degree rather than treating symptoms efficiently. Should unimelb doctors be distracted the same way? If its not broken why send in Foucault?

    America has much larger cities, nuclear power, and a greater industrial base all contributing to greater pollution impacts on human life.

    American food is not up to Australian standard more often than not. Far more sugar and fat, even in sugary, fatty foods.

    Australians are generally health conscious and have weather they can exercise in year round thanks to the drought.
    Australia has much stricter quarantine, and as you point out a huge public spend on health per capita in comparison.
    Keep it up Aneurin Bevan (Welsh architect of the NHS in Britain) style in NSW because the US does not have a decent public health system and people die as a result.
    You are reading more and more like a Scandavian social democrat everyday Norton.
    Jason too has been outed as lefty on Catallaxy by JC, the knower of all things.


  5. I should point out that Japan has even bigger cities and industry per capita than the US, but it also some of the strictest environmental standards around and high levels of environmental technology. This a result of state intervention by MITI.
    Also a more raw food diet, supplemented by rice, fermented soya and lactobcillus greatly strengthens the Japanese immune system.
    The amount of planning that goes into school meals in Japan would confound many liberal thinkers.
    Aussie is hopefully headed further in this direction but probably will still have a bit of Ayn Rand’s Los Angeles in there dragging down the health statistics.


  6. Andrew, I don’t think you can dismiss Wade’s point so readily. Growth in GDP can be caused by increased car crashes, increased buying of guns and ammunition, increased buying of high fat takeaway meals and drink, and so on. All of those would reduce the average longevity in a population.

    Australia’s increased life expectancy is almost certainly due partly to the stricter workplace safety measures introduced by unions, and allied public health campaigns such as the ones against smoking and dangerous driving. We have fewer road fatalities per unit of population than America, for example.

    I think he raises a good point.


  7. The article was standard holiday period US bashing- it read like something written by Phillip Adams, minus the hyperbole !


  8. So far as I can find via Google, Australia and the US both have annual workplace deaths of about 4 per 100,000 workers, with both trending down. The trends would help explain the overall positive trend in each country, but not the difference between them.

    But traffic accident death rates are I think different enough to have an effect on the averages – 14.6 per 100,000 people in the US, but 8 per 100,000 in Australia. As young people are disproportionately likely to die this way, it would cause more loss of life years than other causes I suspect.

    But economic growth remains blameless.


  9. You can have technology led high economic growth, a relatively healthy enironment and effective public and private health service and still have low life expectancy.
    Case in point is Finland with its genetic predispostion for heart disease and associated alcoholism. Until recent health campaigns reduced morbidity in these instances slighty, Helsinki had the lowest male life expectancy in the EU before expansion combined with a great economic and social profile.

    Sinclair, your point about flat taxes is uninformed propaganda for the latest craze of the looney centre right. Both Hungary and Latvia have high flat tax rates which are partly a remnant of communism and some of the worst health stats in Europe (although no one is sure what the flat rate is in Latvia due to the amount of bureacracy). Particularly, the suicide rate in Hungary. I dont expect to engage in debate on these issues as the reality somewhat beyond your ken even if you are smarter than the average DemoLib.


  10. Race is probably the most important factor in any comparison between the US, Australia and/or Japan.

    Blacks in America suffer from many health problems that whites don’t, not only because of lower SES but also on a purely genetic basis. The vast majority of white people in the world who are alive today are descended from those who survived the black plague in Europe, and this gives us protection from a lot of other virii (HIV for example) which other races don’t have.

    East Asians also seem to have fairly sturdy immune systems as Someone has already noted. Those flat taxing countries with high life expectancies I would expect to be populated mainly by East Asians (Hong Kong, Macau etc).

    The typical diet of a black male in the US is different to that in a white male, and Obesity rate for blacks of either gender is much higher than for whites. In addition, blacks are disproportionately represented amongst murder victims and (amongst other things) drownings.

    As the US is the only developed country with such a high proportion of blacks in the population, it is fairly meaningless to compare them with countries that don’t. Especially Japan, which is the most ethnically homogenous country in the world.


  11. Actually Yobbo,

    I think the main difference between rich East Asians and whites is that East Asians have far better diets– those that move to white-man countries and start consuming white-man crap also start dieing of the same type of lifestyle diseases that whites and blacks even moreso do (which may explain the small difference in life expectancies across rich countries).

    I’ll bet that if you can find a group of whites that have the same diets as East Asians then they’ll live over the average of whites that don’t. I’d also bet that if you can find a similarly SES matched black group, they will live far longer than their average too. You can also make the bet in reverse, by finding a group of East Asians that eat white-man crap and see if they live a few years less than the average East Asian. I’m sure that data must exist.


  12. Actually Yobbo, one of the big US studies is here.

    It look like Asian males are only slightly above the average, but asian females are much higher. Evidentally, the eat-crap gene (or perhaps dumb-ass young male gene) infiltrates the male East Asian population faster than the female one.


  13. Interesting article, Conrad. A couple of useful quotations:

    The diseases with the largest contribution to mortality disparities across the eight Americas are chronic diseases and injuries with well-established risk factors, including alcohol use, tobacco smoking, overweight and obesity, and elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose. …

    The interventions will likely include both population-wide measures (e.g., tobacco taxation, drinking-and-driving countermeasures, and interventions to reduce public and domestic alcohol-induced violence) and personal interventions (e.g., pharmacological interventions for blood pressure and cholesterol).


  14. Well speaking as an ex-Malaysian, Asians eat terrible, terrible crap. Nasi lemak (translated literally as ‘fatty rice’) for breakfast anyone? Topped off by a little roti with curry. Lots of carbs and fat. Exactly the opposite of the kind of diet I’ve sort of made up for myself to go with my general healthier food orientation nowadays which is low carb/high protein. Unless we’re talking Japan, I think the healthiness of Asian food is overrated.


  15. The shorter me: Steak and chips (OK, make it baked potatoes) is far, far healthier than a lot of typical Asian fare, unless it’s a sashimi.


  16. So Jason, you didn’t see any bananas, mangoes, pineapples etc in Malaysia? And the vegetables you got from the market weren’t fresher than the ones in Coles?

    Asians seem to eat less manufactured junk, particularly sugary drinks like Coke, than we do. I had to seek out junk when I lived in Asia – the Hong Kong consulate were very nice in supplying me with those extra thick business passports since I had to make regular sortees to HK for chocolates … I doubt anyone crossed an international border as often as I did just to lay my hands on a Violet Crumble.

    What about Russia? isn’t that the oustanding example of a dramatic drop in life expectancy ? was that accompanied by rising GDP ?


  17. Jason: I don’t think Malaysia is one of the countries with higher than average life expectancy. Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong and Japan would be the big ones.

    In fact Malaysia’s life expectancy is actually lower than most European countries.

    There is a cultural impact too – asian women in particular are much more concerned about their appearance than western women are, and diet is a big part of that. Even if they do eat crap, they probably eat less of it. This would support Conrad’s figures at least.

    Conrad: Blacks don’t only suffer from more lifestyle diseases, but also more heredity diseases like Sickle Cell Anemia. A lot of HIV research also suggests that blacks are more susceptible to HIV even when controlling for other factors.

    Conrad might still be right – Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Macau all have total life expectancy 80+. The only primarily caucasian country that comes in over 80 is Iceland, where I would guess they (like Japan) have a diet high in oily fish. The figure may be corrupted by small sample size though, hard to know.


  18. Health is a subjective experience in many cases.
    One of my buddies was living in Iceland for about 8 years and was in a relationship with Bjork’s mum for a year or two. Anyway, he contracted 2 varieties of Hep B on an overseas trip, and upon his return to Iceland the government refused to give him subsidised medicine in spite of his having lived and worked legally in the country. The locals were literally stepping over him in the street as he almost died.
    As soon as he gathered his strength, he boarded a plane for the Baltic countries. He probably does not have long to live even with the treatment he now receives. So if he stayed in Iceland he would have brought down the statistics either way.

    Singapore and Hong Kong are generally too expensive and crowded for some sick people (unable to work) to live in or migrate to, so many move away. They are economic cores without periphery. It sends a skew into the stats that renders them unable to be considered in the same bracket as Norway, Japan and Australia. But Aussie is the weird child able to generate health returns on comparitively less wealth and more bullshit year on year.


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