In my freshman year at Amherst, all of my class took a required course in the history of Western civilization. Early in the year, the professors used the life of a fictional medieval peasant named “Bodo” as a teaching tool as a sort of baseline. Bodo was illustrated by Millet’s painting, “Man with a hoe.” If we had taken this a bit more quantitatively, “improvement” in daily life could have been graphed as a rise in Bodo-units of happiness vs. time.
For a long time, Bodo did not get much happier. In fact, the line of the graph probably ran asymptotic to unity for centuries. The inflection point heralding the sharp rise associated with our modern life probably came somewhere after the American Civil War. When large numbers of former officers from both the Union and Confederacy who had learned the basic logistics necessary to complete very large scale tasks rejoined civilian life, amazing things happened. For instance, those logistic skills lead to the transcontinental railway and dramatic improvements in communications.
Still, the Bodo-unit graph was only rising slowly. If Bodo had a toothache, there was no local anesthesia for his dental work. His kids didn’t get shots to prevent childhood illness. He had no refrigeration, no sanitation, and no education. Then came the post-WWII boom, and the graph shot up at an incredible rate. Bodo gave up his hoe, moved to the suburbs, got a factory job, and had two kids, a dog, and a Chevy.
Just before the holidays this year, Bodo made a surprise comeback, in the form of a vigorous discussion among my classmates about a recent epidemiology paper that received substantial attention in the press. Question #1 for approaching this sort of report is always, “are the data believable?” In this case, the authors are from Princeton, and the publication is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The citation is: Case A, Deaton A. Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Dec 8;112(49):15078-83. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1518393112. Epub 2015 Nov 2. Author information: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Department of Economics, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544.
The next important question is, “What did the researchers themselves have to say about their data?” The data showed, for the first time, increasing mortality rates in middle class whites. The entire paper is well worth reading (full free text is available on PubMed). Here’s a direct quote from the discussion. “A serious concern is that those currently in midlife will age into Medicare in worse health than the currently elderly. This is not automatic; if the epidemic is brought under control, its survivors may have a healthy old age. However, addictions are hard to treat and pain is hard to control, so those currently in midlife may be a “lost generation” (36) whose future is less bright than those who preceded them.”
This is a careful, scientific conclusion, and given the data, it does not sound overly pessimistic. I spent a couple of years on the faculty at the University of Kentucky medical school; hopeless, technologically unemployed coal miners and their families were part of daily life in Lexington. Their problems are so complex as to qualify as insoluble.
In other words, the Bodo-units vs time graph does not climb upward inevitably.
This is a startling new concept that should prompt all of us to do some serious thinking. More later; for now, best wishes for the New Year.