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Tyler Cowen was right and Paul Krugman was wrong about life expectancy.

Before I started blogging, there were claims made in a debate by liberal bloggers that bothered me. While the particular debate is of course old and stale now, the topic, comparing the U.S with Europe, never dies. So let’s not let the left get away with this.

Tyler Cowen
wrote a post saying:

“At birth, someone living in the Netherlands can expect to live 2.35 years longer than someone born in the US, but at age 65, the difference is reversed, and someone living in the US can expect to live 0.4 years longer than someone living in the Netherlands. This difference can be explained by assuming that semi-socialized health care is better for young and worse for old people, or, at least as likely, different policies are not the main cause of the difference.”

Matthew Yglesias
answered

“Americans over the age of 65 participate in a Canadian-style national health insurance scheme known as Medicare. The data, if we want to take it seriously, indicates that the Dutch system is better than private sector medicine but worse than Medicare and tends to support a “Medicare for all” approach”

Paul Krugman wrote:

“As Yglesias points out, such arguments weirdly miss the fact that older Americans are covered by Medicare. If you say that American health care works well for the elderly, then the part of our system you’re praising is the “socialized” part.”

I compare life expectancy in Sweden and US 1950 and 2001-2005, for all, and for those aged 65.

Medicare was introduced 1965 in the US. Public health coverage for the elderly existed by 1950 in Sweden, but full universal coverage dates to 1955 in Sweden (a public health insurance was founded in 1891, and public municipal public health existed for even longer).

In 1950, before Medicare, and before Universal coverage in Sweden the difference was +2.6 at birth and +0.3 at 65. In 2001-2005 the difference between the Sweden and US was +2.7 at birth and +0.3 years at 65. Identical!

First, regarding the life expectancy at birth we can note that 50 years of different health policy, labor mark policy, welfare state coverage seems to have had zero effect on total outcome.

Second the pattern of large differences at birth but small differences at 65 existed well before the introduction of Medicare in the U.S, refuting Yglesias and Krugmans automatic attribution of differences in outcomes to the differences to policy.

It suggests a shallow understanding of the world to attribute every national difference to policy. Reality is more complex than that. Health outcomes in Europe and the U.S differ for other reasons, especially having to do with lifestyle, including auto accidents, the murder rate, smoking, diet, and demographic differences.

Last note: around 1900, before the expansion of the welfare state, the estimated life expectancy at birth was 54.0 years in Sweden and 47.3 years in the US, a difference of 5.3 years, twice the current gap. I don’t know if we can rely on comparatives that far back, when for example child mortality was high.

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