Some of us draw the short straws in life. You could put Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, in this short-straw camp. Allen passed away earlier this week at the unripe old age of just 65.
In the United States today, a male who reaches the age of 60 can expect to live another 24 years. Allen only had five. Short straw.
Others might dispute this short-straw label. Allen, they could point out, may have departed too early. But he did get to live most of his adult life as a fabulously rich individual able to realize his every boyhood whim.
Own a professional sports franchise? Check. Allen owned two, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.
Play in a rock n’ roll band? Better than check. Allen didn’t just play the guitar Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock. He bought it and started his own rock n’ roll museum.
Zip into outer space? Almost. Allen bankrolled SpaceShipOne, notes Time, the outfit that became the “first privately developed manned spacecraft” to reach beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
Allen collected an assortment of other toys as well. He had a 292-acre private island north of Seattle, a $27-million mansion in Silicon Valley, and a $200-million yacht that stretched longer than a football field. And private jets, too, including a Boeing 757 he later sold to Donald Trump for $100 million.
By his 65th year, Allen had accumulated a personal fortune of over $20 billion. The enormity of a stash that immense can be almost impossible for us mere mortals to fathom. But try this: With $20 billion in assets to your name, you can spend $1 billion a year on anything your heart desires and still most likely end the year — thanks to your investments — richer than when the year started.
All this wealth, alas, could not buy Paul Allen good health. As his fellow human beings, we should all feel sorry about Allen’s unfortunate fate. But we should also feel sorry for ourselves and our own loved ones. The same deeply unequal economic order that let Paul Allen amass a fortune north of $20 billion has a profoundly negative health impact on every one of us.
Epidemiologists — the scientists who study the health of populations — have been making this point for several decades now. Inequality, their data show, is taking years off our lifespans. People who live in distinctly unequal societies — like the United States — live shorter, less healthy lives than people in more equal societies.
Life expectancy in the United States, as the University of Washington’s Stephen Bezruchka pointed out earlier this month in the Harvard Health Policy Review, currently lags life expectancy in Japan, one of the world’s most equal nations, by 4.5 years.
In epidemiological terms, a difference of 4.5 years amounts to a staggering gap. How staggering? Dr. Bezruchka offers a useful thought experiment. Imagine that someone invents a pill that somehow totally eradicates heart disease, America’s leading cause of death. If every American took that wondrous pill, people in Japan would still on average live longer than people in the United States.
In a new special report on “The Science of Inequality,” the Scientific American journal zooms in even tighter on our global “health-wealth gap.”
“The growing gulf between rich and poor,” the journal pronounces bluntly, “inflicts biological damage on bodies and brains.”
Not just the poor suffer this damage. Every step down our economic ladder, explains Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolsky, “is associated with worse health.”
Scientists can attribute less than half that slide to unhealthy personal habits — smoking, drinking, too much fast food — and the impact of not having adequate health insurance coverage. In fact, in nations with guaranteed universal health care, that same slide appears. Richer people consistently live longer than those below them who happen to be not quite as rich.
Why? Sapolsky and many other researchers see the “stressful psychosocial consequences” of lower socio-economic status as the chief reason.
“Health,” as Sapolsky puts it, “is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have.”
In more unequal societies, that rubbing becomes relentless, a defining daily reality.
Researchers have made great strides in recent years demonstrating how the stresses from this reality “do their dirty work inside the body.” They’ve traced “physiological connections from external inequality,” the new Scientific American special report details, to phenomena that range from chronic inflammation to chromosomal aging.
“Life in societies with wide gaps between rich and poor creates ongoing social and psychological stresses,” Scientific American sums up. “These grind down the body in a host of unhealthy ways, affecting our brains, our immune systems, and our DNA.”
And that leaves Americans with the great health paradox of the early 21st century. As a people, we are living ever shorter lives than our peers in other developed nations. Yet we’re paying more attention to what we eat, smoking less, and exercising more than we did back in the mid-20th century, a time when Americans lived longer than most of our peers elsewhere in the world.
What we’re not doing today: living in a society becoming more equal. In the mid-20th century, the United States fashioned the world’s first mass middle class. Here in the 21st century, millions of Americans are barely hanging onto that middle-class status. They’re working longer hours and sinking deeper into debt while a fortunate few lavish millions on politicos who dependably protect their grand private fortunes.
Paul Allen ended his life as a modest player in this billionaire political sweepstakes. Just last month, the Seattle Times revealed that Allen was donating to the Republican “Protect the House” political action committee for this year’s crucial midterm elections, but only to the tune of $100,000.
Allen, his admirers note, spent far more than that over the years on charitable contributions. In 2010, he even signed the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett “Giving Pledge,” vowing to give away half his fortune.
Let’s assume that Paul Allen’s will follows up on that pledge and directs the bulk of his $20 billion fortune to charity. Should we be cheering that outcome? Would that outcome justify the unequal economic order that enabled Allen to become so preposterously rich?
Tax attorney Bob Lord, a veteran critic of the accounting games America’s super rich play to avoid taxes on their windfalls, thinks not. He worries about what the disposition of Allen’s fortune says about the health of our democracy. Allen in death, Lord points out, will impact public policy more than millions of average Americans ever will in life.
The math tells that story. Suppose Allen leaves $20 billion to charity. That $20 billion would equal a bit more than the federal government figures to collect in estate taxes in 2018 from all the other super-wealthy Americans dying this year.
“So Allen allocates $20 billion the way he sees fit, and the other 300 million of us get to allocate the other $20 billion,” says Lord. “Fair, huh?”
Not fair. Not fair all around. Not fair that Paul Allen died so relatively young. Not fair that our inequality is undermining our collective health. Not fair that grand concentrations of private wealth are distorting our democracy and freezing that inequality in place.
We’ll never totally erase the personal tragedies of early departures like Paul Allen’s. But grand personal fortunes like Paul Allen’s? Those we can erase — and must.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, has just been published. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.