Consider this 2000+-word article by Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of the Washington Post, and one of the leading lights of the mainstream media. It's about Finland. The article is the capstone of a series of articles--26 by my count--that Kaiser and Lucian Perkins wrote this spring and summer.
The article explains that Finland has wonderful, free child care. Finland has wonderful, free K-12, undergraduate, and professional education. Finland has wonderful medical care that costs half of ours. Finland has good, indefinitely long unemployment benefits.
The thesis statement of the article is this: "Americans could easily get used to the sense of well-being that Finns get from their welfare state, which has effectively removed many of the tangible sources of anxiety that beset our society."
Excuse me, but I have one little, picky question. With all these wonderful social services, social services that eliminate so many of the sources of anxiety in society, why does Finland have one of the highest suicide rates in the world? More specifically, why is it nearly double that of the anxious U.S.?
I understand that cross-country comparisons of suicide rates might be problematic. There could well be important differences in data collection and reporting that make comparisons misleading. But Kaiser doesn't make that case.
In fact, Kaiser, in this final article, doesn't mention the suicide rate at all. And in a search of the preceding 26 articles, I find only one brief mention of the issue, a question to a leading Finnish scholar, who replies 1) it can get really cold in Finland, and 2) Finns' great empathy for each other, the empathy that supports all those wonderful social programs, "occasionally" turns into "self-destructive melocholy".
Regarding #1: dubious. Sweden seems to be about as cold as Finland, but has a suicide rate comparable to the U.S. Norway and Iceland seem to be almost as cold as Finland, but the suicide rates are, again, comparable to the U.S.
Regarding #2: if this is a good explanation--I have no idea--shouldn't Kaiser reveal it as a Dark Side to the society that supports all those social programs? If those programs were proposed by Republicans, I'd bet a lot of money that the Washington Post would solemnly inform us that empathy has an Important Downside. But Kaiser's love letter to the Finns doesn't provide that caveat.
(My quick Googling for explanations of the high Finnish suicide rate didn't turn up much other than an interesting suggestion that there may be a genetic component.)
(And I note that Kaiser concludes that what the Finns do, Americans probably can't or won't accept. But he does sound awfully wistful.)
For some good news about Anxious America, look at David Brooks's most recent column:
Obviously, we're not living in a utopia, where all social problems have been solved. But these improvements across a whole range of behaviors are too significant to be dismissed. We in the media play up the negative, as we always do. The activist groups emphasize the work still to be done, because they want to keep people mobilized and financing their work.
But the good news is out there. You want to know what a society looks like when it is in the middle of moral self-repair? Look around.