Two interesting news were reported this week. Forbes Magazine reported that the net worth of the wealthiest 400 Americans increased by 13 percent compared to last year. This is hardly surprising, since the magnitude of the top fortunes have been growing rapidly over the last 30 years.

The second news, reported by New York Times’ Sabrina Tavernise, is “Life Spans Shrink for Least-Educated Whites in the U.S.” The real shocker is the magnitude of the shrinkage: between 1990 and 2008 the life expectancy of white women without a high school diploma declined by five years. At the same time white men who dropped out of high school lost three years of life. And we are not talking about a tiny group – Americans without a high school diploma constitute 12 percent of the population.

Are these two developments related? As far as I have seen most media reported them separately without making a connection. Tavernise, for example, discusses several possible explanations, but never comes to a conclusion. As she reports, “researchers offered theories for the drop in life expectancy, but cautioned that none could fully explain it.”

There are a multitude of possible proximate mechanisms explaining this drop in life expectancy (and Tavernise discusses many of them: more risky behaviors, overdoses from prescription drugs, smoking, less access to health care). But I would argue that the ultimate mechanism has to do with the growth of inequality in America over the last 30 years.

So the two news stories are actually related. Incidentally, Tavernise never mentions the word ‘inequality.’

Inequality can take many forms. One is ‘categorical inequality,’ such as the discrimination on the basis of race or gender. This kind of inequality has been declining in the U.S. (although there is still much room for improvement). But at the same time different kinds of inequality, ‘quantitative’ rather than categorical, have been increasing.

Read more at Social Evolution Forum.

Published On: September 23, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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