02 Aug 2009

US Life Expectancy Rates

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The chief activity in the geeconosphere is to bring up alleged facts (which I doubt anyone verifies) and then bust out theories to explain these stipulated facts using economic logic and a dash of pizazz.

The latest example concerns health care, of course. (Not only do the feds take half our money, they get to set the topics for some of the brightest armchair theorists to discuss.) Here’s Tyler Cowen:

Matt Yglesias and Paul Krugman weigh in on interpreting life expectancy statistics across the U.S. and the Netherlands. The fact under consideration, from a few days ago, is that the U.S. has low life expectancy overall but superior life expectancy after you reach the age of 65.

One way to interpret this data (re: Yglesias and Krugman) is to think that the U.S. should spread Medicare to its entire population.

I’m sorry but this just strikes me as patently absurd, like Bryan Caplan telling me adopted twin studies prove that “parents don’t matter.” Yes, the reported fact is consistent with the hypothesis that government involvement with health care is a good idea, but it’s consistent with all kinds of theories. For example, maybe it shows that for some reason, the introduction of Medicare caused more stillbirths. Voila, the data reflect that!

I’m not claiming the following is the most important factor, but I bet one factor involves different immigration patterns. E.g. maybe poor people come in from South America when they’re young, then they work 20 years and go home to retire in their home country where it’s a lot cheaper to live. If those people on average have less access to quality health care (or live in dangerous neighborhoods, eat fast food, etc.) then they reduce the life expectancy of the cohort they’re in. But since only 18 – 50 year olds are in the US in any significant numbers, they only drag down the front end of the life expectancy tables.

I bet another major factor–and I hope I’m not pulling an O’Reilly here–is that a lot of young males die at the hands of their peers. (So I’m including homicide, drunk driving, boating while blindfolded, etc.) But as the survivors get older, they mature: they get married and stay in on weekends, they move to safer neighborhoods, they pick better friends, etc.

I have no idea of the actual numbers, but I would be shocked if this type of self-destructive, yet short-lived (no pun intended), cohort were as big a factor in the Netherlands as it is in the U.S.

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