Slow down Barack, you’re killing us…

Slow down, Barack. According to The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal that I often read before bedtime, a ground-breaking analysis by three extremely well-educated British doctors seems to indicate that sudden changes in a country’s economic philosophy can actually kill you…and not just you, but millions of people. The study, by Doctors David Stuckler, Lawrence ...

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on December 8, 2007 in London. This action is part of a global protest in more than 50 countries around the world. The worldwide protests will coincide with the UN Climate talks in Bali and demand urgent action from world leaders to prevent the catastrophic destabilisation of global climate.

Slow down, Barack. According to The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal that I often read before bedtime, a ground-breaking analysis by three extremely well-educated British doctors seems to indicate that sudden changes in a country's economic philosophy can actually kill you...and not just you, but millions of people. The study, by Doctors David Stuckler, Lawrence King and Martin McKee (two Oxbridge sociologists and one specialist in something called European Public Health which sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me given all the smoking and sausage eating that is going on over there) examined the death rates of working adults after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The results called to mind the famous assessment of the end of kung-fu star Bruce Lee after he was rumored to have died in flagrante: "after little death, big death." Except in this instance, it was after the death of an idea came the death of millions who had been living that idea all their lives. Specifically, the study found that countries that embraced so-called shock therapy -- stepping out of the warm shower of communism directly into the ice cold realities of capitalism -- saw much higher death rates than those that eased their way into the new McWorld of post-Soviet competition and reality television. As reported in the fun-loving Times of London:

[In] Russia, when the sell-off of state-owned companies was at its height, the death rate of working adults rose by 18 percent and the life expectancy dropped nearly five years. Men of working age, suddenly bereft of both employment and the healthcare that frequently accompanies it, found themselves greeting the Grim Reaper well ahead of schedule, sometimes having downed a bottle or two of aftershave."

Slow down, Barack. According to The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal that I often read before bedtime, a ground-breaking analysis by three extremely well-educated British doctors seems to indicate that sudden changes in a country’s economic philosophy can actually kill you…and not just you, but millions of people. The study, by Doctors David Stuckler, Lawrence King and Martin McKee (two Oxbridge sociologists and one specialist in something called European Public Health which sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me given all the smoking and sausage eating that is going on over there) examined the death rates of working adults after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The results called to mind the famous assessment of the end of kung-fu star Bruce Lee after he was rumored to have died in flagrante: “after little death, big death.” Except in this instance, it was after the death of an idea came the death of millions who had been living that idea all their lives. Specifically, the study found that countries that embraced so-called shock therapy — stepping out of the warm shower of communism directly into the ice cold realities of capitalism — saw much higher death rates than those that eased their way into the new McWorld of post-Soviet competition and reality television. As reported in the fun-loving Times of London:

[In] Russia, when the sell-off of state-owned companies was at its height, the death rate of working adults rose by 18 percent and the life expectancy dropped nearly five years. Men of working age, suddenly bereft of both employment and the healthcare that frequently accompanies it, found themselves greeting the Grim Reaper well ahead of schedule, sometimes having downed a bottle or two of aftershave.”

While this account mistakenly underplays the cocktail hour preferences of many in Russia for anti-freeze or industrial strength pesticides rather than after-shave (which was really considered a drink of the re-emergent bourgeoisie and chorus boys at the Kirov Ballet), it has caused quite a sensation nonetheless. World-famous shock therapy advocate, the preternaturally youthful celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs, has apparently taken the critique personally, as well he might. Known for preaching to leaders in transitional economies that one must move quickly to capitalism because, as it was said back in the day, “you cannot cross a chasm in more than one step”, Sachs undoubtedly felt that being accused of complicity in mass murder would undermine his reputation as a humanitarian. (I’m kidding, of course. No one would accuse him of being a humanitarian. No. Stop. Again, I’m kidding. He genuinely is a man who cares very deeply about the plight of the poor and has done genuinely great things on behalf of the people of Africa. The fact that I am willing to make fun of him anyway says more about me than it does about him…which is precisely how I like it. Let him write his own blog.)

As reported in the Times article, Sachs has challenged the conclusions of the doctors, blaming the deaths on the failure of new regimes to sufficiently promote anti-alcohol campaigns and lousy Russian food. The doctors, not taking the criticism sitting down (and recognizing that food has been awful in Russia for eons — Ivan the Terrible actually having earned his nickname as a chef), shot right back stating that “the countries Professor Sachs cites as successes (in terms of their transition to free-market economies) were only successful because they did not follow his advice.”

Me-ow. What did Henry Kissinger once say? “Academic fights are so fierce because the stakes are so low.” Still, very entertaining if you’re not one of the ones who lost relatives to bad economic advice. Or worrisome if you live in a country that is about to undergo a massive economic transformation

The Times article worries aloud about the implications for China and India. But frankly, as an American, I always worry about us first. And Jeff Sachs’s old rival to be the youngest tenured professor at Harvard Larry Summers is making us all communists! (Again, I exaggerate for humorous effect. First of all, Summers and Sachs received tenure at Harvard on the same day in 1983–shortly after each graduated from middle school. Further, Summers is not doing it alone. He is being helped by Tim Geithner, Barack Obama, and the sculpture of Leon Trotsky that they put in the Oval Office where George W. Bush once had his beer-dispensing bust of Winston Churchill. Again. I jest. They are not making us communists. They are actually mainstream economists, as capitalist as Jim Cramer’s first attempts at market manipulation. But just in case, they should know that if they do try to nationalize everything and make every high school student wear little red scarves, it will kill us all.) Three million apparently died as a result of the dislocations associated with the absolutely peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. In countries that undertook what the study’s authors called “mass privatization” saw death rates rise by an average of 13 percent resulting in almost one million “extra deaths.” In just the first three years after communism, the life expectancy for men in Russia fell six years to age 58. Boris Yeltsin himself set an example, so thoroughly pickling himself that he looks better today than when he died nearly two years ago. The study notes that countries that more gradually made the move to capitalism, like Slovenia and Croatia, didn’t see the same kind of spikes in their death rates. Of course, those people did have to continue living in Slovenia and Croatia, which, according to Dante, is just like where you would end up if you were envious, wrathful or slothful (somewhere between the second and fourth terraces of Purgatory). So perhaps it is all less of a distinction than the doctors made out. (Again, before Ratko Mladic, head of the Tourism Council of the Former Yugoslavia sends me a nasty letter: I’m just kidding. I spent many a joyous childhood afternoon frolicking on the vampire invested hillsides of Ljubljana. My father, having been stationed near there during the war, used to bring us during the summer to search for little Slovenians who he said might look just like us. I wonder what that was all about…) 

In any event, the point is sudden changes in economic systems can kill you. Consequently whether we are, in your estimation, making the leap from Greenspanian capitalism to Pelosi-ite socialism or alternatively we are making the leap from an era of corrupt, out-of-control hyper-capitalism to something vaguely honest and equitable, it doesn’t matter because we are all doomed. Have a nice weekend.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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