UCSB recently hosted a debate between Eric Alterman and Tucker Carlson. The topic of the debate was to be media bias, though there was a lot more agreeing than disagreeing. However, one interesting moment came as the two journalists discussed the crisis of ideas facing American liberalism. Interestingly, they both agreed on a general narrative- that movement conservatism has flourished while liberalism has withered. Alterman, who is working on a book about the prospects of American liberalism sought to encapsulate it’s position by arguing that “American liberals essentially want to live in Europe”. He cited Finnish health care and education programs, and while his choice of Finland as an example of a universal welfare state was somewhat odd, his overall point was well taken. Social Democracy, for all its flaws, is still a compelling counter model to Reagan-Thatcher-Bush style Social Darwinism. It is, perhaps the “maximal program” that the American left should orient itself around, even defending the gains of the New Deal serve as our day to day priority.
At this point, Carlson, who was cordial, even conciliatory in the main, busted out the old conservative saw that there was somehow a link between equitable social provision and the desire to take one’s own life. “If things are so great in Finland, someone forgot to tell the Finns,” he said, stating that “Finland has the second highest rate of suicide in the world, after Cuba.” Nice. In one sentence, he lumped democratic Finland and authoritarian Cuba together while insinuating that state intervention leads to suicide. Interesting, if true. Unfortunately for Carlson, it is not.
Setting aside the dubious notion that suicide rates are linked directly to free education, let’s look at available data. As of 2003, the most recent global survey
, Finland’s rate, while disturbingly high, was lower than that of Japan, Sri Lanka and almost the entire former Eastern Bloc, including neighbors Russia and Estonia. Some of this data is old, as countries are often slow to report indicators like this one. However, a 2004 report
stated that suicide rates in Finland are declining, while South Korea, Mexico and Japan continue to see annual increases. South Korea, in fact, has the fastest growing rate in the OECD. China leads in female suicide
, while Southern India
tops youth suicide statistics. The United States has mid-level suicide rates, while, surprisingly, sunny and laid-back Australia is in the top tier. While Cuba’s is not the highest, Tucker was on to something, as the island nation boasts the highest rate in Latin America. Theirs is still lower, however, than Japan’s.
Serious medical personnel point to job losses, loneliness, high rates of alcohol abuse and other depressive factors as conditions leading to spikes in suicides. No doubt major economic downturns are important causes here, as well. This would certainly explain the high rates in Warsaw Pact countries as well as Cuba and Japan. There doesn’t, however, seem to be any correlation between suicide and generosity of welfare states. Within Europe, rates go down as you get warmer and sunnier...Greece is lowest, Finland highest. Hmm...
Domestically, the coasts have lower rates than the west- New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado are all at the top of the list. Would Carlson argue that voting Republican is related to suicidal tendencies?
In researching this post, I found that Tucker is not alone in his attempt to politicize suicide. The Chinese government points to high Japanese rates, anti-choice activists claim that abortion leads to suicide, and, of course, Miami Cubans rejoiced
when they heard that suicide rates in Cuba have been skyrocketing.
I questioned Carlson after the debate, and he was remarkably friendly and willing to research his claim a bit more. We talked a bit about Finnish winters and the Nordic penchant for drinking home-made liquor. Alterman also took issue with his suicide theory, and challenged him to back it up on AlterCation, Alterman’s blog. Carlson promised to look up the stats on the UN’s website. I emailed them to him as well.