Saturday, June 23, 2012

Longer life, thanks to the government

Ezra Klein notes findings in The Lancet that the average life expectancy of the citizens of the New York City have gone from being the shortest lived in the country to the longest over the course of about 20 years. And what do New Yorkers have to thank this remarkable turnaround?
New York City, meanwhile, was accustomed to trailing the rest of the country in life expectancy by a full three years through the 1980s. That changed in the 1990s for two main reasons, according to The Lancet, a British medical journal: The city’s murder rate dropping 75 percent and new antiretroviral therapies that could combat the cities AIDS epidemic. The next decade saw the advent of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public health crusade, replete with public smoking bans and restrictions on trans fats.
What Ezra isn't mentioning here is that the city's murder rate dropped precipitously in the '90's for one very specific reason: Mayor Rudy Giuliani's focus on aggressive law enforcement.* New York City's two liberal Republican mayors engaged in prolonged programs of government intervention in the life of the city, one relentlessly arresting and prosecuting offenders for even minor crimes and flooding the streets with police officers, and the other enacting a stringent program of government regulation of the marketplace in the form of health code tightening and enforcement. People complained about the "Disney-ification" of gritty old NYC, having to stand outside in the cold to have a smoke with your beer, and Nanny Bloomberg making people's decisions for them. 20 years later, however, the effects of those programs are not just undeniable, but transformative.

Who knows? Maybe New Yorkers would still argue that the benefits aren't worth the changes in the character of NYC, that they'd prefer old New York with its crime, drug dealers, trans fats, smoke-filled bars, and shorter life spans. I doubt it, though.

The lesson? Government policy can be a force for good. It can change things for the better. We saw it nationally in the '60's when President Johnson's Great Society cut the poverty rate in half in 10 years, and now we've seen it more recently in New York. Reagan's nonsense about how government can never fix anything just isn't true.

* Yes, crime rates dropped nationwide during the 1990's, and yes, the drop in NYC's crime rate began during Dinkins' last term as mayor, but the drop in NYC's crime rate dwarfs the drops everywhere else. It's pretty clear nationwide factors don't sufficiently explain it.

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