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Now that you’re unemployed, don’t you feel healthier?

As the economy sinks ever deeper into a rerun of the 1930s depression, it's worth considering the effects of the crisis on our health. Are stockbrokers jumping out of windows on Wall Street? No - but they typically don't, even in the worst of times. This enduring urban legend is apparently based on just two people who jumped to their deaths after the crash in 1929; there have been no confirmed cases since then. Are suicides in general increasing as a result of unemployment? If past trends hold true, the answer is yes: people who are out of work are more likely to take their own lives. Are any other causes of death likely to increase at the same time? Remarkably, the answer is no: suicides are the exception, not the rule. A substantial body of research in several countries, stretching back to the early twentieth century, finds that on the whole, unemployment is better for our health. With more people out of work, there is less work-related driving, and fewer traffic accidents. On average, unemployed people exercise more, drink less alcohol, take the time to prepare and eat healthier food, see their friends more, and enjoy lower levels of stress. Cardiovascular deaths reflect long-term risk factors, but have short-term triggers: among the working-age population, but not others, heart attacks are most frequent on Mondays. In Israel, heart attacks peak on Sunday, the first day of their work week. In the past, more people died of infectious diseases when they were at work and exposed to sick co-workers; now the death rate from such diseases is very low. This is not just a happier way to reframe individual misfortune ("Aren't you glad we finally escaped from that boring office-and-paycheck routine? I'll see you on the bike path!"). It is also the refutation for one of the anti-environmental claims that became fashionable under the Bush administration. The free-market fundamentalists who came to power in 2001 argued at length that environmental regulations were disastrous for the economy. One of their most overwrought conclusions was that regulations were literally killing people: first they said that regulations were hurting the economy, leading to lower average incomes; then they observed that richer societies are healthier and have longer life expectancies. Put these two ideas together and voila - by making us poorer, environmental protection is a covert form of murder. Both premises are dead wrong: there is no real evidence that environmental protection harms the economy; and if regulation somehow did slow down economic growth, throwing additional people out of work, it would lead to fewer, not more, deaths. (Maybe environmental protection is killing people by creating all those green jobs and increasing employment - but that's too much to handle in this week's comments.) For more on these topics, see my recent book, Poisoned for Pennies - especially Chapter 3, "The Unbearable Lightness of Regulatory Costs," which includes references to the research on death rates and unemployment, and much more. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Frank Ackerman is an economist who has written extensively about the economics of climate change and other environmental problems. His new book is Poisoned for Pennies: The Economics of Toxics and Precaution.