Mexico has consistently ranked above the U.S. on the World Happiness Report index. Not by much, but given the gargantuan socioeconomic differences, one might reasonably expect Mexico to be in the bottom quartile with, say, Lesotho or Honduras.
Instead it finds itself sharing the top quartile (of the 106 countries surveyed) with Iceland, Finland, Norway, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others.
The United States’ GDP dwarfs that of Mexico’s. America’s middle class, adjusted for population, is larger by a large margin. Americans don’t witness the mass murders of students by local government officials in cahoots with drug gangs, or the escape of her most notorious criminals from federal prisons with the help of government officials.
Violent crime has been declining in the U.S. for over three decades, and has been increasing in Mexico during the same period, with more Mexicans killed in the narco wars than Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Understandably, then, Yankee migrants are not exactly clamoring to slip over the border into Mexico, while the poorest Mexicans still reach for economic opportunities by entering the U.S. illegally (although now the best evidence suggests that the number of illegal Mexican immigrants crossing the border is outpaced by the number returning home).
But surely there must be an explanation as to why Mexicans are happier than Americans in spite of the obvious dichotomies of governance, economies and socioeconomic well-being.
To help guide meaningful public policies, in 2011 the United Nations initiated the Gross Happiness index to complement the Gross Domestic Product index, which ranked countries solely on wealth. The obvious impetus for this new index was the rather forward-looking proposition that there might be things more important than money to provide a barometer measuring the well-being of a country’s residents: per-capita GDP, social support, generosity and life expectancy, to name a few.
Countries like Switzerland expectedly rank near the top, while other countries like Nigeria, also expectedly, rank near the bottom.
I think Paul Krugman’s November 9 column in the New York Times, “Despair, American Style,” is a plausible if not a prescient explanation of this conundrum. Krugman notes, citing the work of Princeton social scientists Agnus Deaton and Anne Case, that mortality rates among 55 million blue-collar white Americans has been rising steadily since 1999.
They’re killing themselves softly not with song, but rather prescription drug overdoses, chronic liver disease from alcohol abuse, and often not-so-softly with self-inflicted bullets to their brains. Interestingly, Hispanic Americans enjoy a much lower mortality rate than whites, despite being poorer and less educated.
Could it be that, as Deaton suggests, middle-aged American whites, traditionally the most privileged of the privileged socioeconomic demographic, have “lost the narrative of their lives” leading to “a darkness spreading over part of our society,” as Krugman then wonders?
Could it be that the proverbial cat has finally escaped from the bag, and the promise of the American Dream is being increasingly recognized for what it is – a lie? Untangling the many causal possibilities contributing to this phenomena may be an impossible task, but I think Krugman is on to something.
Neoliberals both on the Left and Right prescribed America three bad medicines, which when combined, became a toxic cocktail. The first, NAFTA, resulted in the “great sucking sound” of jobs going to Mexico (Ross Perot was bat-shit crazy but sometimes even a blind bird catches a worm).
The second, deregulation, among other disastrous side effects such as increasing environmental degradation, gave us ENRON. Finally, the third ingredient of the cocktail (the catalyst if you will) – and the perfidious dream of Milton Freidman – gave us a globalized free market system where the rich enjoyed the spoils of the war against the working class, and nothing trickled down. It never even dribbled.
The result was a boon to Mexico and a bane to the US. Since 1994 the U.S. has lost a million well paid manufacturing jobs – the majority going to Mexico. American corporate profits boomed, as did wealth and income inequality.
Mexico is now a net exporter of many agricultural products such as avocados and tomatoes, and the U.S. now has a $181 billion trade deficit with Mexico and Canada. The Mexican middle class grew from 9.1 million 15 years ago to 14.6 million today – almost half of the country’s households.
Rigidly clinging to a purblind neoliberal economic ideology (that Keynes warned us against) led to this. And Mexico was the largest beneficiary. After suffering centuries of bullying, cooptation, military invasion and belittlement by the U.S., all I can say is – good for Mexico.
When comparing the social and economic histories of Mexico and the United States, one thing becomes abundantly clear. The reality of the uniquely American idea of exceptionalism – where the future would always be brighter, where an economic dream was achievable by everyone who had the will and daring to reach for it, has only really existed for three decades, and those decades have been behind us for some time now.
By way of contrast, for five centuries Mexicans saw the middle class as an aberration rather than a right. When the foolish economic dogma of her northern neighbor inexplicably dumped into her lap enormously beneficial trade policies, she was suddenly allowed something previously forbidden – hope.
And hope is the sine qua non for happiness.
Conversely, America’s plutocrats with their spurious attachment to an ideological model that can be summed up with the simple idiomatic (and idiotic) expression “a rising tide raises all ships” turned out to be, for the dystopian yet hopeful underclass, a shadow of an illusion.
The purchasers of tickets (steerage deck) on the once-thought unsinkable ship of upward economic mobility, have now had to reluctantly redeem their coupons for their current market value – despair.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily.