Oh, crap. Bobo’s playing shrink again, which he really shouldn’t do. In “The Irony of Despair” he gurgles that the rise in suicide rates prompts a sober confrontation of old and new questions around the will to overcome. “Steve L.” from New Paltz, NY had this to say about Bobo’s POS: “Mr. Brooks: This is a shockingly superficial and immature discussion of the complex dynamics involved in a person taking his or her own life. And shame on you for suggesting that suicide is an “act of chronological arrogance.” You should stick to politics instead of trying to apply conservative dogma to human behaviors that you clearly don’t understand.” In “Obama Gets Real” Prof. Krugman says with a big inequality speech, the president is finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008. Here’s Bobo:
We’ve made some progress in understanding mental illnesses over the past few decades, and even come up with drugs to help ameliorate their effects. But we have not made any headway against suicide.
According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent over the past 45 years. The increase in this country is nothing like that, but between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate among Americans between 35 and 64 rose by 28 percent. More people die by suicide than by auto accidents.
When you get inside the numbers, all sorts of correlations pop out. Whites are more likely to commit suicide than African-Americans or Hispanics. Economically stressed and socially isolated people are more likely to commit suicide than those who are not. People in the Western American states are more likely to kill themselves than people in the Eastern ones. People in France are more likely to kill themselves than people in the United Kingdom.
But people don’t kill themselves in bundles. They kill themselves, for the most part, one by one. People who attempt suicide are always subject to sociological risk factors, but they need an idea or story to bring them to the edge of suicide and to justify their act. If you want to prevent suicide, of course, you want to reduce unemployment and isolation, but you also want to attack the ideas and stories that seem to justify it.
Some people commit suicide because their sense of their own identity has dissolved. Some people do it because they hate themselves. Some feel unable to ever participate in the world. The writer Annie Sexton wrote the following before her own suicide:
“Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. … To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay, that’s the rub. I am like a stone that lives … locked outside of all that’s real. … I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something, for then I could be brave, but to be not dying and yet … and yet to [be] behind a wall, watching everyone fit in where I can’t, to talk behind a gray foggy wall, to live but … to do it all wrong. … I’m not a part. I’m not a member. I’m frozen.”
In her eloquent and affecting book “Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It,” Jennifer Michael Hecht presents two big counterideas that she hopes people contemplating potential suicides will keep in their heads. Her first is that, “Suicide is delayed homicide.” Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s. If a parent commits suicide, his or her children are three times as likely to do so at some point in their lives. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s overdose, there was a 12 percent increase in suicides across America. People in the act of committing suicide may feel isolated, but, in fact, they are deeply connected to those around. As Hecht put it, if you want your niece to make it through her dark nights, you have to make it through yours.
Her second argument is that you owe it to your future self to live. A 1978 study tracked down 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Decades later, Hecht writes, “94 percent of those who had tried to commit suicide on the bridge were still alive or had died of natural causes.” Suicide is an act of chronological arrogance, the assumption that the impulse of the moment has a right to dictate the judgment of future decades.
I’d only add that the suicidal situation is an ironical situation. A person enters the situation amid feelings of powerlessness and despair, but once in the situation the potential suicide has the power to make a series of big points before the world. By deciding to live, a person in a suicidal situation can prove that life isn’t just about racking up pleasure points; it is a vale of soul-making, and suffering can be turned into wisdom. A person in that situation can model endurance and prove to others that, as John Milton put it, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
That person can commit to live to redeem past mistakes. That person can show that we are not completely self-determining creatures, and do not have the right to choose when we end our participation in the common project of life.
The blackness of the suicidal situation makes these rejoinders stand out in stark relief. And, as our friend Nietzsche observed, he who has a why to live for can withstand any how.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Much of the media commentary on President Obama’s big inequality speech was cynical. You know the drill: it’s yet another “reboot” that will go nowhere; none of it will have any effect on policy, and so on. But before we talk about the speech’s possible political impact or lack thereof, shouldn’t we look at the substance? Was what the president said true? Was it new? If the answer to these questions is yes — and it is — then what he said deserves a serious hearing.
And once you realize that, you also realize that the speech may matter a lot more than the cynics imagine.
First, about those truths: Mr. Obama laid out a disturbing — and, unfortunately, all too accurate — vision of an America losing touch with its own ideals, an erstwhile land of opportunity becoming a class-ridden society. Not only do we have an ever-growing gap between a wealthy minority and the rest of the nation; we also, he declared, have declining mobility, as it becomes harder and harder for the poor and even the middle class to move up the economic ladder. And he linked rising inequality with falling mobility, asserting that Horatio Alger stories are becoming rare precisely because the rich and the rest are now so far apart.
This isn’t entirely new terrain for Mr. Obama. What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns, that America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity.
And because the president was willing to assign much of the blame for rising inequality to bad policy, he was also more forthcoming than in the past about ways to change the nation’s trajectory, including a rise in the minimum wage, restoring labor’s bargaining power, and strengthening, not weakening, the safety net.
And there was this: “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” Finally! Our political class has spent years obsessed with a fake problem — worrying about debt and deficits that never posed any threat to the nation’s future — while showing no interest in unemployment and stagnating wages. Mr. Obama, I’m sorry to say, bought into that diversion. Now, however, he’s moving on.
Still, does any of this matter? The conventional pundit wisdom of the moment is that Mr. Obama’s presidency has run aground, even that he has become irrelevant. But this is silly. In fact, it’s silly in at least three ways.
First, much of the current conventional wisdom involves extrapolating from Obamacare’s shambolic start, and assuming that things will be like that for the next three years. They won’t. HealthCare.gov is working much better, people are signing up in growing numbers, and the whole mess is already receding in the rear-view mirror.
Second, Mr. Obama isn’t running for re-election. At this point, he needs to be measured not by his poll numbers but by his achievements, and his health reform, which represents a major strengthening of America’s social safety net, is a huge achievement. He’ll be considered one of our most important presidents as long as he can defend that achievement and fend off attempts to tear down other parts of the safety net, like food stamps. And by making a powerful, cogent case that we need a stronger safety net to preserve opportunity in an age of soaring inequality, he’s setting himself up for exactly such a defense.
Finally, ideas matter, even if they can’t be turned into legislation overnight. The wrong turn we’ve taken in economic policy — our obsession with debt and “entitlements,” when we should have been focused on jobs and opportunity — was, of course, driven in part by the power of wealthy vested interests. But it wasn’t just raw power. The fiscal scolds also benefited from a sort of ideological monopoly: for several years you just weren’t considered serious in Washington unless you worshipped at the altar of Simpson and Bowles.
Now, however, we have the president of the United States breaking ranks, finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008. This is going to change the discourse — and, eventually, I believe, actual policy.
So don’t believe the cynics. This was an important speech by a president who can still make a very big difference.