America is (Slightly) More than the Sum of Her Parts

The clueless press is at it again. Popular outlets are reporting on a paper published in The Lancet, a medical journal, concerning country-by-country life expectancy projections made by some researchers. Both the popular and academic authors note that the U.S. is well behind most other high-income countries, and that it is forecast to fall even further behind by 2030. They attribute this to silly superficial causes like health reimbursement policies and a need for (ever more) socially liberal wealth-redistribution programs.

This is intellectually lazy left-wing political agitation masquerading as science.

I took a step back and thought about the question from the ground-up: These authors compare America to places like South Korea, Japan, France and Spain. But isn’t Diversity our Strength? Isn’t America populated by a mix of people from all these countries, and several others besides?

Suppose for a moment that America is merely the sum of her parts. More concretely, assume for a moment that the life expectancy of each American ought to be equal to the life expectancy of the average citizen of the country of that specific American’s racial or ethnic heritage. That is, the slightly obnoxious George Takei (the guy who played Sulu in the original Star Trek) should have the life expectancy of the average Japanese man, the slightly more obnoxious Andrew Cuomo (the current governor of New York State) should have the life expectancy of the average Italian man, and Barack Obama should have a life expectancy which is the average between the average Kenyan man (taking into account his father’s heritage) and the average English man (taking into account his mother’s heritage). In this “ought to” case, the average American life expectancy ought to be the average of the life expectancies of each American determined in this fashion.

To move this out of the realm of thought experiment and make the calculations a little more manageable, let’s simplify the method one step further: Let’s use the racial and ethnic composition data from the latest U.S. Census, and then — for the sake of needless generosity to idiot liberals — assume that the average life expectancy of American residents of that race or ethnicity ought match the best possible large home country for that race or ethnicity. So: Assume each White American had an average life expectancy corresponding to Spain, the best large European country — even though many White Americans claim ancestry from other countries with worse lifespans, like Ireland or Poland or France.  Similarly, we’ll assume each Hispanic American has a life expectancy equal to that of the average Mexican (being the best large Latin American country, and highly representative of Hispanic Americans), even though a good number are from Central American countries with worse figures; African Americans will correlate to Ghana (West Africa being the origin of most African Americans, and Ghana having far better figures than other large West African nations, such as Niger and Nigeria), Asian Americans will correlate to Japan (the absolute best country in the world for life expectancy), even though many Asian-Americans are of Korean, Southeast Asian or Indian heritage, and Pacific Islanders to Samoa. For American Indians , I’ll use Indian Health Service data for lack of any better outside comparison, and for the “biracial” category I’ll average Europe and Africa (i.e. Spain and Ghana).

When you crunch all the numbers, you find that the average American “ought” to have a life expectancy of 79.0, based on America’s racial mix and the performance of the best large country for each origin group. But here’s the punchline: America’s actual average life expectancy is better than that, at 79.3. America is more than the sum of her parts, by precisely 0.3 years when speaking in life-expectancy terms.

I then repeated the exercise using selected “middle of the pack” countries for each region: Europe was represented by the UK, Latin America was represented by Nicaragua, Asia by South Korea, and West Africa by Niger. Result: America “ought” to have an average life expectancy of 77.5, versus an actual of 79.3. My figures are below for reference.

(in millions) (in pct.)
Total U.S. Population, 2010 Census 308.7 100.0%
Non-Hispanic White 196.8 63.8%
Non-Hispanic Black 37.7 12.2%
Non-Hispanic Asian 14.5 4.7%
Non-Hispanic Indian 2.2 0.7%
Non-Hispanic Polynesian 0.5 0.2%
Non-Hispanic Biracial 6 1.9%
Hispanic 50.5 16.4%
 ===========  =====  =====
best large comparison countries
Life Expectancies (WHO data) (in years)
Japan 83.7
Spain 82.8
Mexico 76.7
Samoa 74
Ghana 62.4
U.S. Indian Health Service 75.9
———-  —–
U.S. Racial Composite Life Expectancy 79.0
U.S. Actual Life Expectancy 79.3
 ==========  =====
middle-of-the-pack comparison countries
Life Expectancies (WHO data) (in years)
S. Korea 82.3
UK 81.2
Nicaragua 74.8
Tonga 73.5
Niger 61.8
U.S. Indian Health Service 75.9
———- —–
U.S. Racial Composite Life Expectancy 77.5
U.S. Actual Life Expectancy 79.3

Prying further into the data, one finds the real driver of this trend: White Americans tend to have very middling life expectancies compared to Europeans — the CDC’s 78.8 figure puts White America on par with the Czech Republic and well behind Spain and France, which clock in at 82.8 and 82.4 years, respectively. On the flip side, Black and Hispanic Americans (75.2 and 81.8 years) tend to have massively superior outcomes relative to the best possible sub-Saharan African and Latin American origin countries — and in the case of Hispanic Americans, even better than White Americans!

Try to remember these facts next time you hear some moron wheeze on and on about how evil those White Americans are, or dither on about how “Black Lives Matter.” Because, in truth, the data suggests that White people don’t necessarily gain from being in America, relative to being in other White countries, while Black and Brown people gain a tremendous advantage from being in America instead of their own heritage countries. As Mohammad Ali once put it after visiting the African country which is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat!”

UPDATE: I would be remiss in not referring my readers to a more sophisticated and statistically rigorous treatment of the U.S. life expectancy question published last year by a fellow blogger, which I did read around the time it came out. At the risk of grave intellectual injustice, I would summarize his framing of the question as: “Why does the U.S. have such a poor life expectancy figure, relative to its economic performance? Other countries with similar per-capita economic performance have much better life expectancies.”

And his answer is something like: “U.S. life expectancy actually correlates very well with its performance on underlying human development metrics, which are actually not particularly high relative to other developed countries. That is, U.S. life expectancy is very similar to the life expectancies in other countries with similarly middling human development metrics. Instead, the real anomaly is that U.S. per-capita economic performance is substantially higher than the performance of other countries with similar human development metrics. Oh, and by the way, once you’re in the club of developed nations that spend above a certain bare minimum amount each year on health care per person — to oversimplify, that number can safely be pegged at $3,000 per person per year, if not probably a little less — every additional dollar spend seems to have zero effect on, or even correlation with, increased lifespan.”

There’s a lot there, so I urge the reader to set aside some time to get through it. It has also suggested a number of even more interesting additional speculations on my part in the demographic and sociological departments, but those will have to await another post.

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