Inequality Kills

by Russ Roberts on May 12, 2006

in Inequality

Global warming is routinely blamed for anything that goes wrong in the natural world. It turns out that inequality is the cause of everything bad that happens in the human world. Take this story from Reuters on the rising suicide rate in Japan. Here’s the opening line:

The number of suicides in Japan is likely
to have exceeded 30,000 for the eighth straight year in 2005,
and analysts say a widening income gap is partly to blame for
the nation’s stubbornly high suicide rate.

Usually, a widening in something that causes something else would lead to a worsening of that phenomenon rather than leaving it "stubbornly high." So this is a bit strange. Then there’s the classic, "analysts say." I wonder how many. I wonder what the justification is for saying it. Let’s see:

Suicides rose in 1998 amid an economic slump and the number
of those who take their lives has exceeded 30,000 every year
since then.

"The bulk of the increase since 1998 is suicides by men who
are middle-aged or older and have either been laid off or whose
businesses have failed," said Masahiro Yamada, a professor at
Tokyo Gakugei University.

Hmm. I thought it was the widening income gap that was the cause of the higher suicide rates. But here the cause seems to be bad economic times. They are not the same thing.

In 2004, there were 32,325 suicides in Japan, or 25.3 per
100,000 people, according to government data. Males accounted
for over two-thirds of the total and health problems were the
most common reason, followed by economic problems.

OK. Health problems and economic problems. Makes sense. (Sort of. How do you generalize in a reliable way about the reason for suicide? Where would the data come from?) But where is the role of the widening economic gap? Where are the analysts saying so?

Yamada, who has written that an income gap in Japan has
widened recently following the breakdown of a traditional
social safety net such as lifetime employment, said a rising
risk of dropping out of the middle class was behind the high
suicide rate.

So where does that conclusion come from? "Economic problems" and failed businesses are not the same as worrying about dropping out of the middle class. Sounds like more of a wild guess on the part of Professor Yamada rather than an analysis.

Note to Reuters: The letter "s" on the end of the word "analysts" implies there is more than one.

(HT: Peter St. Onge)


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