Make America (Measurably) Great Again

Help Americans get here.

Photographer: Matt Green/Durrant/Getty Images

Is there a way to measure a country’s overall success? Gross domestic product indicates how well the economy is working. Labor-force participation rates and median wages say something about how workers are faring. Newer measures of happiness, pride and other intangibles may fill in some soft details.

There is one metric, however, that speaks volumes about how well any country or society operates: life expectancy. Last year, average life expectancy in the U.S. fell for the first time since 1993, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That should come as a wake-up call. 

The CDC report doesn’t say what’s causing the decline, but it offers three clues. Life span shrunk only among the non-elderly. The cause of death that increased most, after Alzheimer’s disease, was unintentional injury. And death rates rose most among white groups. All these signs point to the opioid addiction epidemic in Middle America.    

State and federal efforts to stem that epidemic have clearly been inadequate. President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to make better progress, by restricting the flow of drugs into the country, approving more treatments for addiction and providing more services for people with substance-abuse problems. Legislation that Congress passed this month to provide more money to states to fight overdoses may also help. Trump and Congress should also work to improve drug courts and overcome resistance by doctors to treating addiction.  

QuickTake Obamacare

Yet Trump will also want to consider how his other policy promises might impede progress. The most obvious concern is his pledge to do away with the Affordable Care Act, which has extended health insurance to at least 20 million people who didn’t have it before, and free preventive care to tens of millions more. The health-care law also mandates that insurance plans cover substance abuse, something that one-third of individual plans previously didn’t pay for.

The latest CDC numbers demonstrate that policy decisions have consequences, and give Trump and the new Congress a clear way to show whether they can improve on the American success story.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.