Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Rich Are Different from You and Me -- They Live Longer

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1926 story “The Rich Boy”: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." Indeed, they are, at least in one respect -- they live longer, as Vicente Navarro shows:
Studies performed among civil servants in Great Britain have shown, for example, that life expectancy (the years that people can expect to live) among the top civil servants, grade 32, is longer than the life expectancy of civil servants of grade 31, who have longer life expectancy than civil servants of grade 30, and so on, reaching the lowest life expectancy at grade 1. There is no poverty among British civil servants, but there are significant differences in their life expectancies. The same finding has been replicated in other countries. In Spain, for example, we performed a similar study, looking at life expectancy by social class, and we found that the members of the bourgeoisie (the European term to define the corporate class) live an average of two years longer than the petit bourgeoisie (the term to define the upper middle class), who live two years longer than the middle class, who live two years longer than the skilled working class, who live two years longer than the members of the unskilled working class, who live two years longer than the unskilled working class that has been chronically unemployed. The difference between the two poles —- the corporate class and the chronically unemployed —- is ten years. This average distance in the European Union is seven years. In the United States, it is 14 years. ("Inequalities Are Unhealthy," Monthly Review 56.2, June 2004)
Navarro says that "you would not know it [i.e., the fact that "worker-friendly countries consequently have better health indicators"] by reading the scientific medical literature in the United States, which focuses on the biological, genetic, and behavioral aspects of health but rarely on the social and political determinants, thus revealing the ideological bias of most scientific, medical, and even public health research at our U.S. institutions" (June 2004). The power elite who are dying to reduce corporate pension obligations to workers, however, know "the social and political determinants" of health all too well, selectively exploiting some of them while ignoring others:

A bill pending in the House of Representatives would allow businesses with union workers to reduce their company pension obligations by billions of dollars, because statistics show that most blue-collar workers do not live as long as other Americans.

The provision, which has gone largely unnoticed in a broad pension bill, is being supported by the United Auto Workers and manufacturing companies whose pension funds now have assets far short of what they are projected to need under previous assumptions about worker longevity.

The measure would allow companies to assume that their blue-collar workers will on average die sooner than pension plans now assume they will. So companies, not having to plan to pay future blue-collar pensions as long as they now do, would not be required to put aside as much pension money as government regulations now require them to do.

But the leader of a panel that developed the actuarial data on which the new provision is based said he had written to the Treasury Department, which regulates pension funds, to express concern that the data were being misapplied.

Edwin C. Hustead, chairman of the actuarial panel, said in an interview he was concerned that the data were being used in an improper way. White-collar workers are shown by statistics to live longer, he said, but the bill would not require companies to factor that into their pension calculations. If it were included, unionized companies with largely white-collar workers would have to set aside more to fulfill their promises to retirees in the future.

In addition, Mr. Hustead said workers' pay had been shown to be a more powerful predictor of life expectancy than whether a worker was blue collar or white collar, but the bill did not recognize that higher-paid workers live longer and therefore require longer pension payouts. Many auto workers and airline pilots are classified as blue collar in the bill, because they are covered by collective bargaining agreements, even though they are highly paid.

Aides to the bill's sponsors said they were unaware that the measure had overlooked these other significant mortality factors. A spokeswoman for Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said the congressman's goal was to help preserve the system of traditional pensions. A spokesman for Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said the bill was intended to make sure companies "aren't forced to overpay" into their pension funds. . . .

The United Auto Workers wrote a letter in support of the provision, according to people with ties to Congress, apparently in hopes that the money that companies saved from pensions could be used for higher wages. The Erisa Industry Committee, which represents large companies, helped with the bill but was primarily interested in supporting another measure on the interest rates used in pension calculations, said Janice Gregory, a vice president of the committee. (May Williams Walsh, "House Considers Measure to Cut Billions in Pension Obligations," New York Times, May 6, 2003)
  • The Political Economy of Social Inequalities: Consequences for Health and Quality of Life, ed. Vicente Navarro, Amityville, NY: Baywood, 2002

  • The Political and Social Contexts of Health, ed. Vicente Navarro, Amityville, NY: Baywood, 2004

  • Political and Economic Determinants of Population Health and Well-Being: Controversies and Developments, eds. Vicente Navarro and Carles Muntaner, Amityville, NY: Baywood, 2004, 2004

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