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Lying About Life (Expectancy)

I saw this Wall Street Journal article today which seemed to be saying that the White House was telling Latinos they ought to support Social Security privatization due to the fact that they have shorter life expectancies than do white people. Now I knew (and the article said) that Bush makes this argument to African-Americans. It is not, I think, a sound argument. But the factual premise -- short African-American male life expectancy -- is reality-based, though much-less-relevant to privatization than the President would have you believe. As applied to Latinos, however, the argument is simply mistaken. Latinos live longer than non-Hispanic white people. When you control for income, in fact, they live a lot longer -- Latina women are virtually immortal insofar as they can afford health care. But the Journal didn't have a quotation, so I thought it might have just been sloppy reporting. Will Saletan has the goods, the Journal had the story right. It just didn't dawn on them to, you know, point out that this is a bald-faced lie. An easily falsifiable bald-faced lie, I hasten to add. Another day, another scam.

March 24, 2005 | Permalink


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Our president is trying to sell his life expectancy argument to Latinos. Matt debunks this one. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 25, 2005 9:02:25 AM


Slate is wrong or at least deceptive. Longer Hispanic lifespans are an artifact of sloppy data collection. Most of the discrepancy can be explained by the tendency of sick Mexican immigrants to return home. There are a number of potential problems with the census figures that Slate cites.

See this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A9472-2004Dec17?language=printer
(link via the Volokh Conspiracy).

Posted by: Xavier | Mar 24, 2005 11:21:39 PM

Also, African-American life expectancy is low primarily due to high infant mortality rates and, genenerally, dying at a young--like not even close to retirement--age. Actually, once African-Americans reach retirement age, on average they live longer than whites. Yea statistics!

Posted by: Ryan | Mar 24, 2005 11:50:36 PM

Is "has the goods" a reference to that obnoxious commercial where the over-the-top Latina woman says she wants "checking that has--the goods?"

Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Mar 25, 2005 12:06:28 AM

As it turns out, the data supports Matt, but the facts are likely something different. Does anyone suppose that matters to Matt? Never forget: it's a system we're trying to save!

Posted by: Thomas | Mar 25, 2005 12:36:28 AM

Latina women are virtually immortal insofar as they can afford health care.
I did not know that.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 25, 2005 1:16:36 AM

I am not aware of this phenomenon in which the data says one thing and the facts are likely different. Please expand.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Mar 25, 2005 1:26:52 AM

washerdryer: The officially collected data says one thing, but that data may not be an accurate reflection of the facts. I wouldn't have chosen to express it that way, but if you read the Washington Post link, I think you'll understand.

It's a complicated issue and Bush probably shouldn't have said that Hispanics have shorter lifespans than non-Hispanic whites, but Matt is wrong to call this an "easily falsifiable bald-faced lie." That's a much bigger exaggeration than anything Bush said.

Posted by: Xavier | Mar 25, 2005 1:33:50 AM

The sayings of Chairman Petey:

"We Should Encourage a Culture of Life Expectancy."

"It Is Wisest to Always Err on the Side of Life Expectancy"

Posted by: Petey | Mar 25, 2005 2:00:35 AM

Xavier- I appreciate the clarification, that does make more sense. So Matt should have said something like, "President Bush made a statement which he has more reason to believe is false than true, but which would make people more likely to agree with his policies if they believed it were true."

Posted by: washerdreyer | Mar 25, 2005 2:10:25 AM

Xavier, you're wrong on this. Even the journalistic source you cite does not support your statement. See where it reads
"But the puzzle wasn't completely solved. Hispanics living in the United States who were born in foreign countries other than Mexico also lived longer and healthier lives, despite the absence of a salmon effect."
You forgot that part. It also doesn't say anthing about most of the effect being due to salmon effects.

I'm an Ph.D. level economic demographer. Within demography, mortality is my field of interest. I've read more or less all the papers and run a few multivariate proportional hazards mortality regression myself.

I've cowritten a paper with Prof. Wilmoth of UC Berkeley on the accuracy or inaccuracy of matching deaths to death records through the National Death Index. Data quality IS more of problem among non-whites, especially immigrants. This causes the death rates of non-whites, and especially immigrants, to be underestimated. (Note this also implies that black death rates are probably undermeasured.)

Much of the Hispanic mortality advantage goes away once we control for whether an individual is foreign born. Foreign born individuals have (measured) mortality rates that are 50% lower than natives. (How much of that is due to salmon-effects and how much due to immigrants being healthy people who embrace control over their lives is subject to dispute. Probably a mix.)

Native-born Hispanic men (all else equal) have mortality rates statistically indistinguishable from those of white men. Native born hispanic women (all else equal) have mortality rates about 15% lower than white women.

Posted by: DeadHorseBeater | Mar 25, 2005 2:26:40 AM

Latina women are virtually immortal insofar as they can afford health care.

Since it is pretty clear that Latina women are not in fact virtually immortal, the logical conclusion from this (assuming it is an accurate characterization of the data) would be this: Latina women almost uniformly become too poor to afford healthcare before they die.

Posted by: cmdicely | Mar 25, 2005 12:26:02 PM

Another likely explanation of the foreign-born effect is that traditional diet is more healthful than a contemporary US diet. When I visit the grocery in a largely immigrant Latino and Asian neighborhood near where I live, I'm always impressed by the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables they have.

Posted by: janet | Mar 25, 2005 2:47:43 PM

While not exactly a lie, the privatizers are also doctoring the truth when they tell us how the general life expectancy back at SS's founding was only 65. True enough as an isolated fact, but that's the life expecancy at birth, and it is not the relevant figure. More important to the debate is what the life expectancy at 65 was back then: that's what determines how long people collect benefits. In the pre-antibiotic past life expectancy at birth was skewed downward by the ghastly childhood mortality rate (even today that is slightly true, though we do much, much better in that area than our great-grandparents' world did). But even back in 1935 a young or middle-aged adult, having survived the Darwinian selection gantlet of childhood diseases, was quite likley to make it to 65 and beyond.

Posted by: JonF | Mar 25, 2005 10:51:29 PM

I would believe Asian diets are more healthy, but Latino? (At least if Latino means Mexican?)
Helloooo? Lard?

I would guess that your typical Latino market carries a smaller variety of fruits and veggies than an equivalently sized 'general audience' supermarket. I've never seen bok choy or swiss chard in a Latino market. The fact that many of the fruits and veggies in a Latino market are 'exotic' would probably make them stand out, whereas it's hard to notice the absence of others.

And variety carried does not imply high per capita consumption, of course.

Posted by: DeadHorseBeater | Mar 25, 2005 10:58:24 PM

"Also, African-American life expectancy is low primarily due to high infant mortality rates and, genenerally, dying at a young--like not even close to retirement--age. Actually, once African-Americans reach retirement age, on average they live longer than whites. Yea statistics!"

One is the flip side of the other; Killing off the sickly early DOES tend to result in an elderly population that's more vigorous than it would othewise have been.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 26, 2005 12:58:13 PM

I am a browser of many websites, but seldom a participant. I found this to be a curious string. My contribution is an editorial rant, and a cynical one at that, so I won't pretend to support it with statistics. I want you to think about the surrounding issues and study this thing from a naturalistic perspective.

As a B.Sc. in Marine Biology (though I spent four years in the library, pouring over books on evolutionary theory and philosophy) I am amazed at the power of the Darwinian idea. Good God! God is dead and Darwin (or Malthus, depending on your "favorite") is telling us how to run the country, run economies, and run our lives! The ethical and moral mess of a dead God cannot be underestimated: What happens if power and money determine life expectancy? What happens if the "fittest" are simply those who are the biggest liars (i.e. the most efficient users of statistics)? What sort of ethics do we Americans embrace? What happens when humans start counting things and asking the question "Why does my neighbor have more "X" than I have?"?

(I apologize for the cynicism, but I have been unemployed for 3 years! I have seen all sorts of unfair treatment (perhaps, dare I say, "discriminatory") at the hands of government and private institutions. You can imagine my view of human nature is rather low at the moment, buoyed only, occasionally, by the kindness of a few close friends.)

And, by the way, what is the best measure for a successful society? One that covers the planet? One that excludes all other societies and encourages a stifling conformity over thoughts and actions? One that exhibits an unsustainable lifestyle, leading to unusually large population numbers? Well my friends, the bacteria have us beat, as do the insects. I suppose we make a close third, though there are probably numerous examples that could prove me wrong on that point (algae?, Plantae?, rodents?, etc.).

So let's speak a bit about quality of life. Personally, I like to work, and if given a suitable job I would never want to retire. Aye, there's the rub! There are jobs out there that Suck! With a capital "S"! I know, I've worked my share and I am preparing to work a few more. So we must consider the fact that, in old-age, people generally do not want to have jobs that suck. This is a reasonable assumption. If my observations may be relied upon, old people like to work and, furthermore, they wake up early anyway! The elderly and infirm, however, do need a short work week, a living wage, and a suitable (i.e. low-stress, low impact) work environment.

While on the subject of social security, I am wondering how many capable and intelligent young men like myself have been pigeonholed into oblivion? Couldn't my employment in some useful intellectual occupation help to feed the social security trust fund and alleviate some of the pressure on those funds? Is my lack of payment into such a fund hurting my future retirement prospects as well as the prosepects of current retirees? Am I in the middle of some sort of "game theory" game wherein paying a respectable wage to an intelligent, ambitious young man is an admission of defeat? Am I not free to do the work that I have prepared for over the past ten years? Would it be such a bad thing to send me to graduate school and create another scientist that could help to explicate and alleviate the problems surrounding the present human condition? These questions are my own personal gripes, and I must stress that they are simply observations, and by no means are they objective ones.

How about the fundamental issue of population growth. 6.5 billion people on earth today. Divide that by the land surface area of the earth. Surprised? It is scary. If we wanted to return to an agrarian society, we could not (This is a simplified picture, on inumerable fronts, but it is the core of the issue. I am not a Comm-ist or Soc-ist, but I do have a brain and I do see the common fountain from which all of "our" problems spring.).

My present state of perpetual unemployment has soured me. The debate over social security is silly, at best. The president should concentrate on creating jobs and maximizing the USEFUL products of our economy, and stop harrassing present and future generations of retiring Americans. "Pie in the sky" you say? Certainly! In this area, I am afraid, the math of "being nice" does not compute. Good luck to Mr. Bush! He's going to need it!

Here is a good point. If I enter the work force, then some elderly person gets to leave (or, at least, obtain a different sort of job). Couldn't this help to solve some of our many budgetary troubles?

The question of consumption complicates things. How does the trade defecit fit into this picture? And the War? U.S. Securities? The value of the dollar? Good God don't get me started! It makes me want to go to Vegas and try my luck there.

I hate to reference the king of all paranoid fantasies, but I am beginning to see the bliss that can be attained by repeating the phrase "four legs good, two legs bad". If only God weren't dead and Monarchies ruled again! At least my indentured servitude (slavery, perhaps?) would be recognizable as such!

"How Beauteous mankind is! Oh Brave new World, that hath such people in't"~ Shakespeare's The Tempest, or Aldous Huxley's (the son of Darwin's bulldog, T.H. Huxley) Brave New World.

Posted by: Randall Meyer | May 20, 2005 7:25:20 PM

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