Thursday, May 8, 2014

We can't possibly be worse than ... SLOVENIA?!?

I want to take a break from laughing at Secret-Peace-related memes because this headline caught my eye:

"The U.S. ranks 26th for life expectancy, right behind Slovenia"

It's on Wonkblog, which I like, but the headline itself and overall slant of the article is a good example of why I wrote The Secret Peace. Part of the problem of why the media seems so negative is that even an article like this one, which is pretty even-handed if you read the whole thing, is positioned at the top to be as sensational as possible.

The whole implication of the headline and beginning of this article is how far the US has fallen. In fact, it even states it that way: "Back in the 1970s, Americans typically lived longer than residents of other countries. Not anymore: A new report ... shows that the United States' average lifespan has fallen one year behind the international average."

If you were to skim that sentence, or even diagram it, you might grasp some variation of "The average US lifespan has fallen."

This, of course, is not true. And the article goes on to say so: in fact, US life expectancy is eight years longer now than in 1970. So what accounts for the relative "decline"? It's just that other countries are doing even better. This is not a bad thing. The US does have the largest population on the list, far larger than most of the 25 top countries, which makes it pretty impressive that we're as far up as we are, honestly. #26 still puts us almost in the top 10% of countries in the world. Who cares if we're #1, as long as things are headed in a positive direction?

I understand the reason for the article's positioning. The US does indeed rank surprisingly low on several health indicators, if you expect us to be first. (But why do we expect that?) And, as a US publication aimed at a US audience, US updates are the most pertinent information. They "sell" much better than an article geared around "Hooray, Slovenia! Through decades of hard work, you have ever-so-slightly surpassed the US in life expectancy."

The real news for the US is not how well or poorly we're doing in life expectancy - because we're right in the middle of the world's developed countries, a perfectly reasonable place for us to be - but how poorly we're doing in comparison to how much we spend. Again, the article makes this point, but it's a case of burying the lede. It's a shame that for every person who reads that far, another 50 will have seen this headline in their Facebook or Twitter feed, and get a skewed perception of the situation.