Living in the US is like having a super-dangerous job

There’s been a lot of recent discussion about relative economic performance of the EU and US as well as (mostly separately) discussion of differences in mortality rates.

One way to integrate the two is to think of living in the US as a (very) dangerous occupation, and think about the wage premium demanded by workers to take up such occupations, relative to comparable low-risk jobs.

The typical estimate from econometric studies is that a 0.1 per cent chance of death on the job (a really dangerous job) implies a wage premium of around $10000/year.

For Americans aged between 25 and 65, the annual death rate in 2019 (pre-Covid) ranged between 0.13 and 0.88. EU mortality rates were one-third to half of that.

Doing the math, the wage premium that would be needed to take on the extra risk of being a working-age American, compared to the EU, is somewhere between $10000/yr and $40000/yr.

Even the lower figure would push the US down to the middle of the rich-country pack based on standard comparisons of median income.

(From my Substack)

13 thoughts on “Living in the US is like having a super-dangerous job

  1. Statistics, mortality statistics even. Good luck reaching anybody with that. Remember, Omricon is just like the flu (which means harmless!) and all statistics are fake anyway (expect the ones i am quoting wrong in response), Churchill said as much!

    Probably just a German thing quoting Churchill wrong in that context, since that particular wrong Churchill quote was invented by NS propaganda. The gist should remain the same. Mortality statistics are always responded to with denial and panic about imagined dangers to ones live.

  2. The US was already an anomaly when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire still existed. Back then railroad accidents were a major cause of death for younger people, and the US was far ahead of everyone else in railroad death. The rest of the world is not particular rational when it comes to avoiding death either, just less crazy.

  3. The article you link too suggests that the major cause of disparity in death rates reflects the poor US health system (not even drugs or guns). So is the conclusion that the apparently higher standard of living in the US reflects the costs of living without adequate public health? I always thought, too, that the apparently higher US standard of living reflected work/leisure choices that favoured not taking holidays in the US. Conservatives state that this difference was caused by the tax system in Europe which encouraged higher substitution effects – implausible to me.

  4. It seems death by firearms in the US is a major hazard.

    The US CDC reported official mortality data that showed 45,222 firearm-related deaths in the United States in 2020 — a new peak.

    Firearms recently became the number one cause of death for children and teens in the United States, surpassing motor vehicle deaths and those caused by other injuries. The US is the only country among its peers in which guns were the leading cause of death among children and teens (1-19 years) in 2020.

    I’d suggest deaths by firearms is just the tip of the iceberg. There are probably many more firearm-related victims & associates (family members & friends/colleagues, etc.) that live with the ongoing consequences, physical and/or mental.

  5. This is an elegant and correct argument by J.Q. At the same time, it is a sad commentary on our times that economic arguments are felt to be necessary to carry ethical points or at least make them noticeable to people. Civilian death rates are clearly too high in the US, for a developed and supposedly moral country, against the yardstick of what is shown possible by other developed nations.

    It is clear that good human ethics, by liberal, humanist and consequentialist standards must be largely congruent with good economics and vice versa. Each, as a system, is looking for life enhancing outcomes. Their goals are logically congruent. This is if we are talking of good economics and good ethics.

    But it is, as I say, a sad commentary on the times that it has to be highlighted thus that poor ethics also make for poor economics. Of course, the elites won’t listen and the masses won’t get it, at least not yet. The time will come, let us hope, when the majority will get it and demand necessary changes. The tragedies of unnecessary deaths, when we have the technology to solve so many problems and prevent so many unnecessary deaths are now running in the tens of millions globally each year. This has to stop or numbers will soon be running in the hundreds of millions per year. Acting properly on climate change, covid-19 and other preventable causes of death and morbidity including wars and gun violence would save hundreds of millions of human lives.

  6. Illuminating, thanks. The method could shed light on the American immigration problem. There are many millions of Mexicans with much lower incomes that Americans, but few are tempted to take the high risks of illegal border crossing. The migrants are mainly from much smaller Central American failed states, with somewhat lower incomes yet – but much higher rates of violence. Staying alive is a very strong motivation.

  7. It’s a combination of deadly elements; big cars (big crashes), drugs (incl fentanyl from China via Mexico), big guns, little public health and systemic inequality.

    I don’t know about the food, I’ve found that in the US I eat well but I’m not on low wages so am not tied into the fast food diet.

    I think that the big driver is inequality and in the US it is just so obvious.

  8. rog, the article John links too suggests these are minor issues in determining increased mortality. The main issue was the health system.

  9. Well, does anyone know any kind, intelligent single male Europeans in the US Southwest, preferably with poor eyesight? ; )

    It’s not like Europe is really an option, yo (as the kids say). I believe it is full. (Not that I blame them.)

    Our culture is what kills us. Now, how much could we reasonably expect to change? We’ll need to fix our politics first …

  10. Demographics are quite favourable for migrants, at least in Germany at the moment. Any college degree should do for example. Not that it would necessarily be life expectancy enhancing, as migration poses its own health risks.

  11. Taking mortality rates ‘on the job’ as a measure of aggregate riskiness of employment and taking medium income of employment as a measure of return on ‘human capital’ for both the USA and the EU then JQ’s post implies that the much publicised positive relationship in financial markets between ‘risk and return’ does not hold, in a comparative sense, in the labour market. This is interesting, IMHO.

    In the context of JQ’s post, the return of financial capital is valued higher than the return on human capital in the USA than in the EU.

    “Even the lower figure would push the US down to the middle of the rich-country pack based on standard comparisons of median income.”[JQ’s post]

    I read JQ’s quoted statement as an interesting approach to translate financial data (monetary values such as GDP) into macro-economic data (at least that part of this branch of economics which is linked to the fundamental question in economics, namely the material welfare of humans, subject to physical resource constraints and technological possibility constraints.)

  12. I’ll take “the material welfare of humans” to mean the entire welfare of humans since humans are entirely material beings. 😉

    Following the Capital as Power theorists, I would say that money (capital) does not measure value at all. It is used to instantiate power relations and thus instantiates subjective (not objective) values. The theoretical problem with money (capital) is that it is a notional measure (obviously) used in the attempt to measure and compare incommensurable real things (resources, goods and services).

    To put it another way, we should never take money values as primarily descriptive of anything but rather as primarily prescriptive of the relations of objects and of the relations of the people making and shuttling the objects (and processes). Money values in operation prescribe relations. We don’t have “true markets”. We only have real markets. There is a vast difference. A true measure enables us to measure the real (real items) in a commensurable objective (scientific) dimension. Apart from this it makes no sense to talk of measures or measuring.

    Until we take the ontological problem at the heart of our economics seriously, we will make no more progress. Indeed, we will regress as we are doing now. Capitalist relations have reached their apotheosis, near enough, and it’s all collapse from here on. It’s a notional and prescriptive system in collision with a real system. The real system will win and we will lose (to use win-loss terms).

    IMHO, we need to recognize that money tokens are chits signalling permission to take possession of a given thing and permission to consume. Money tokens don’t measure anything intrinsic or even commensurable. The chits signal “rights” to possess and “rights” to consume. We the general public have – in the main – the most primitive and false view of money,; that it is real and it is the way to measure, compare and value real things. This is a foundational (ontological) mistake.

    If the use of “ontological” frightens the horses, we can use the phrase “category mistake”. It is a category mistake to treat money as real in the way that its valued objects are real. They, the material goods and services (objects and processes), are materially real. Money is only formally real and its operations only become real in social performance, when agents perform according to rules (legal and accounting rules). We can change the way we “do money” and change the way we use it to order society and the world. It (money) is only a social construct.

    What probability is there that things will change, people will begin to understand and that we will “save the world”? Well, when things get real, people can get real too, once they realize what desperate straits they are in. So let’s keep trying and hoping.

  13. JQ says: “Even the lower figure would push the US down to the middle of the rich-country pack based on standard comparisons of median income.”

    BM: “This, as every economist knows, implies that the “demand” for such top slots will go up.”

    “The chronicle of the revolutions foretold?
    Review of Peter Turchin’s “End Times”

    APR 13, 2023

    “To simplify, in my turn:  Turchin’s model of decay has one variable: inequality in income or wealth. That variable which is often adduced as a source of political discord is given a very concrete meaning by Turchin. (Here, I have to mention the often uncomfortable personal experience when people keen to praise my work on inequality would claim that it is important because high inequality leads to social conflict, yet without either them or me being able to pinpoint exactly how it does it. Now, Peter Turchin comes with an explanation).

    “Rising inequality means by definition that the median-income person will fall further behind the mean-income person, and increasingly behind the top 10% or the top 1 percent. The median-income person could be, as in today’s United States (a county to whose analysis most of the book is dedicated), an insufficiently credentialed manufacturing or service sector worker; or it could be a semi-skilled laborer in the 19th century Great Britain, or a small landholder in the 1830s France and 1850s Russia.  Thus, precise occupation or class does not matter: income position does.

    “What happens on the top of income distribution? Increased inequality means, again by definition, that people at the top are getting richer compared to the rest, or put differently, that the advantage of being in the top decile or top percentile is increasing. This, as every economist knows, implies that the “demand” for such top slots will go up.

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