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The white working class is dying – and not just metaphorically

Across the rich world, life expectancy has risen consistently since the 1930s. For some, that trend is starting to reverse. 

By Peter Wilby

Labour’s 128-page manifesto contains little about how much Labour will spend and how it will raise money. Such pesky detail is confined to a separate eight-page document, comprising mostly footnotes, as though it were of interest only to nerds and pedants. That exposes a lack of thought and imagination on the most urgent issue facing any 21st-century government – the erosion of the tax base in an age when money can be on the other side of the globe before HM Revenue & Customs has got its boots on.

Labour’s programme will be financed almost entirely, we are led to believe, from rises in income taxes for those earning £80,000 or more annually, restoration of corporation tax cuts and an extended financial transactions tax. Avoidance is too easy in all three cases. The manifesto says Labour will set up a “transparency and enforcement programme”, raising £6.5bn, but gives no details about how it will work. Nor does it envisage the great overhaul of taxation that is needed. A land value tax is mentioned only in passing. Taxes on company turnover (in place of corporation tax based on profits, which can be shifted offshore) and on road use (whereby congested motorways, for instance, would cost more than quiet rural roads) are not mentioned at all.

My objection to this manifesto is not that it is too radical but that it is too conservative.

Garbage in, garbage out

I do not understand computer viruses and a “patch”, to me, is something my mother used to sew on my clothes when I wore holes in them. But I do understand the three rules for absolute computer security once given by a US National Security Agency cryptographer. 1) Do not own a computer. 2) Do not power it on. 3) Do not use it.

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Osborne’s omission

“Why?” asks the London Evening Standard’s front-page headline below pictures of 11 Londoners stabbed to death in the previous week. The answers may lie in the benefit reductions, youth service cuts, diminution of educational opportunities, strains on family life, housing shortages and overstretched policing created by the policies of the newspaper’s editor, formerly the chancellor. Unsurprisingly, the four-page investigation inside the Standard does not consider this possibility.

Murdoch’s food chain

So farewell, then, Kelvin MacKenzie. After he compared the Everton footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, to a gorilla, the Sun columnist and former editor has been fired. I hold no brief for him, but I have just a smidgen of sympathy. Columnists are paid to be provocative but when, in their anxiety to discharge this duty, they go too far, editors are supposedly there to restrain them. Yet no action against the current editor of the Sun or his senior aides has been reported.

This is hardly surprising for a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch. When the extent of phone-hacking at the News of the World was exposed beyond doubt, alongside numerous “corrupt” payments to public officials, the company set up a “management and standards committee” to assist the police. It shopped not only the lowly hacks who tried to please their superiors but also the sources who provided them with information. Meanwhile, most senior executives wriggled out of responsibility. When things go wrong in the Murdoch empire, top people invariably look for scapegoats lower down the food chain.

Chronic pains

In Christopher Caldwell’s fascinating essay in last week’s New Statesman, one sentence in particular caught my eye. France’s national statistical institute, he wrote, had recorded a fall in life expectancy for the first time since the Second World War “and it’s the native French working class that is most likely driving the decline”.

This is part of what may be the most under-reported story of our time. Across the rich world, life expectancy has risen consistently since the 1930s. A few weeks ago, however, UK actuaries changed their mortality projection models. In 2013, a man of 45 could, on average, expect to live to 88. Now, that figure is 87. The fall in women’s life expectancy is slightly greater.

More dramatically, a paper published this year by two senior Princeton University academics shows that death rates among white non-Hispanic non-graduates in the US have risen sharply. For every 100,000 men aged 50-54, there were roughly a hundred deaths in 1999. For the equivalent age group in 2015, there were nearly 200. Fewer women died, but the rise from 1999 was even sharper. Meanwhile, death rates among blacks and Hispanics in the US – though still, it should be emphasised, higher than those for whites – continue to fall.

The paper suggests that the white working class – which, in America, was once the most prosperous and confident in the world – is now dying, literally as well as metaphorically. Its members are in chronic pain and that is not fancifully emotive rhetoric but a precise medical description supported by evidence. Something similar may be happening in Britain and France. I leave you to draw the political lessons.

Kitchen-sink drama

In the kitchen I am a menace – to myself. At least once a month, I plunge a knife into some part of my body, causing blood to gush across utensils and surfaces and prompting a rush for bandages. But I have never suffered injuries from avocados despite calls for the fruit to be sold with warning labels, after one surgeon’s claim that he treats four people a week for “Avocado Hand”.

My technique is simple. Gently slice the avocado lengthways through the middle but do not completely sever the two halves. Put the knife down. Pull the halves apart with your (clean) hands. Extract the stone with one hand. Wipe bits of avocado off your hands with (clean) tissue. What’s so difficult about that? 

This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies