Is It Dumb to Bring Up U.S. Life Expectancy?

One of common arguments for the inefficiency of the US health care system is that we pay more for care than many countries whose citizens live longer. Economist Greg Mankiw jumps all over this argument, calling it "schlocky" and quoting Nobelist Gary Becker, who notes that there are a lot more variables to a country's average lifespan than access to health care, such as obesity. Let's take a look at this assertion...


Becker writes:

A study published in Lancet Oncology in 2007 calculates cancer survival rates for both men and women in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union as a whole. The study claims that the most important determinants of cancer survival are early diagnosis, early treatment, and access to the best drugs, and that the United States does very well on all three criteria. Early diagnosis helps survival, but it may also distort the comparisons of five or even ten-year survival rates. In any case, the calculated five-year survival rates are much better in the US: they are about 65% for both men and women, while they are much lower in the other countries, especially for men. These apparent advantages in cancer survival rates are large enough to be worth a lot to persons having access to the American health system.

On the one hand, I have a kind of gut-sympathy to Becker's point. It seems overly crude to make sweeping statements based on different countries' lifespans. But is the US system really so effective? Consider this graph, from David Leonhardt of the New York Times:
healthcareefficiency.png So look, as Ezra Klein notes, this isn't a reason to import Canada's health care system. It's a complicated picture rather than Exhibit A for either side of the debate. We do great, comparatively, with breast cancer, and not so well with colorectal. The graph does not end discussion on the issue of health care effectiveness, but it does complicate the assertion that our cancer survival rate is an argument for the status quo.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Desegregated, Yet Unequal

A short documentary about the legacy of Boston busing

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

Social Media: The Video Game

What if the validation of your peers could "level up" your life?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Business

Just In