Life in the United States — the richest country in world history — doesn’t need to be like this. This country’s endless wars, deaths of despair, rising mortality rates and out-of-control gun violence did not come out of nowhere. In this second installment from an exclusive transcript of a conversation aired on Alternative Radio, public intellectual Noam Chomsky discusses the roots of gun culture, militarism, economic stagnation and growing inequality in the U.S. Read the first installment of this interview here: “Noam Chomsky: Trump Is Trying to Exploit Tension With Iran for 2020.“
David Barsamian: Do you ever make the connection between the external violence of the U.S. state and what is happening internally with all the shootings and mass murders?
Noam Chomsky: The U.S. is a very strange country. From the point of view of its infrastructure, the U.S. often looks like a “Third World” country…. Not for everybody, of course. There are people who can say, “OK, fine, I’ll go in my private jet or helicopter.” Drive around any American city. They’re falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. regularly a D, the lowest ranking, in infrastructure.
This is the richest country in world history. It has enormous resources. It has advantages that are just incomparable in agricultural resources, mineral resources, huge territory, homogeneous. You can fly 3,000 miles and think you’re in the same place where you started. There is nothing like that anywhere in the world. In fact, there are successes, like a good deal of the high-tech economy, substantially government-based but real.
On the other hand, it’s the only country in the developed world in which mortality is actually increasing. That’s just unknown in developed societies. In the last several years, life expectancy has declined in the U.S. There is work by two major economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who have carefully studied the mortality figures. It turns out that in the cohort roughly 25 to 50, the working-age cohort of whites, the white working class, there is an increase in deaths, what they call “deaths of despair”: suicide, opioid overdoses, and so on. This is estimated at about 150,000 deaths a year. It’s not trivial. The reason, it’s generally assumed, is the economic stagnation since Reagan. In fact, this is the group that entered the workforce right around the early 1980s, when the neoliberal programs began to be instituted.
That has led to a small slowdown in growth. Growth is not what it was before. There is growth, but very highly concentrated. Wealth has become extremely highly concentrated. Right now, according to the latest figures, 0.1 percent of the population holds 20 percent of the country’s wealth; the top 1 percent holds roughly 40 percent. Half the population has negative net worth, meaning debts outweigh assets. There has been stagnation pretty much for the workforce over the whole neoliberal period. That’s the group that we’re talking about. Naturally, this leads to anger, resentment, desperation. Similar things are happening in Europe under the austerity programs. That’s the background for what’s misleadingly called “populism.” But in the U.S., it’s quite striking. The “deaths of despair” phenomenon seems to be a specific U.S. characteristic, not matched in other countries.