Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

No way for a man to live: suicide and the bureaucratic state

Jerry Stratton, March 23, 2016

Band of Brothers: The 101st “Band of Brothers” in Iraq, October 6, 2005.; military; Iraq

Men need a mission.

To hear people talk about it, there is an epidemic of suicide running through the military. In the January 9, 2016 Science News, Bruce Bower quotes an 18.7 per 100,000 suicide rate in the military, compared to only 12.6 per 100,000 in the general U.S. population. That sounds like a big difference until you remember that the article states two pages back that “Men represent 78% of all suicides” in the U.S.

Men make up 85.5% of the military and 48.8% of the U.S. population. This means that if we were to see the same number of suicides in the military as we see in the U.S. population, we would expect to see 18.0 suicides per 100,000 rather than 12.6.

A rate of 18.7 observed vs. 18.0 expected is a much smaller difference—probably statistically identical1. The real issue isn’t that soldiers are committing suicide—it’s that men are committing suicide. The numbers are growing for everyone since 2010, but men still far outstrip women when it comes to suicide.

Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, writes about how men have to be out doing things. For them, time is a precious resource that must be spent wisely in purposefulness. Whereas things need to happen to women. Time for women is a burden that must be endured by finding things to fill it.

This is probably why de Beauvoir is disliked by modern feminists, but there’s an element of truth to it. Part of it is—or was in her time—training. But some is biological as well. A pregnancy can’t be action-itemed to finish earlier than it’s going to happen.

Today, however, we are, and especially, comparatively, men, caught in a vast machine. Purpose disappears. You can’t, as men did in the past, go in with nothing to start a business that will change the world. You need to go in and hire a lawyer first, and then some human resources health regulation experts, and jump through mostly meaningless government regulations. Despite all that, you will inadvertently break federal laws and probably local ones. Much of your enterprise will be spent, not in building the great new things you might have envisioned, but in skulking around bureaucrats trying not to attract their attention, because it’s impossible that you’re not running afoul of some obscure regulation.

That’s no way for a man to live.

In the article, researchers are surprised to find that suicides decrease when soldiers are deployed in combat, but increase when they are deployed in non-combat positions. Part of their surprise is that they seem to think that mere nearness to firearms cause suicide3 but this also tends to disprove the other idea for why men commit more suicides, that they’re afraid to ask for help when they’re under stress. Not only do men have more access to means to die when they’re in combat, they’re also under more stress. If stress triggers suicide and access to weapons enables suicide, combat should be filled with suicides. But according to the research Science News reported on, the opposite is true.

It doesn’t make sense if the issue is stress and weapons. But it does makes sense if the issue is purpose vs. bureaucracy.

Why would suicide rates increase for soldiers after they leave combat? Because they have experienced raw purpose and know what it feels like compared to a domestic bureaucracy where every process and person conspire to keep them from achieving a purpose.

If true, it means that the bureaucratic state kills, especially men. This immediately made me think of the Soviet Union. I expect it’s hard to find good data on suicide in the Soviet Union, because a suicide rate is going to be one of those things a socialist country engaged in a culture war will not want made public. However, I was able to find a book by some Estonian psychiatrists, Baltic suicide paradox, that attempts to address the issue.

This is not a comprehensive search: I found it, I tried a little harder to find something else so as not to commit the fallacy of stopping once I found what I wanted, but most of the suicide rate studies in the former Soviet Union that I found were about alcoholism rather than about comparing the Soviet era to the post-Soviet era4 But:

Suicide was a prohibited topic in the Former USSR. During perestroika (1985–90) data on suicide morality were released. Total suicide rate was 29.6 in 1984, in the last year of stagnation, and varied widely between different 15 [sic] constituent republics due to national and cultural differences with the highest rates in the Slavic and Baltic regions, and the lowest in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Between 1984 and 1986–88 during the political reforms of perestroika suicide rates decreased in all republics (34.5% for whole USSR). Decrease was much stronger for men (from 69.1 to 41.6 per 100,000).

The authors note that during economic difficulties of 1988–1990, suicide increased again, “but did not reached [sic] the values of 1984”.

It may be worth looking into whether, on average, freedom to compete correlates negatively with male suicide rates.

In response to The Bureaucracy Event Horizon: Government bureaucracy is the ultimate broken window.

  1. Science News doesn’t provide the margins of error for their figures. And just as an aside, the way they use these unrelated numbers pull-quotes make them sound like the old USA Today. Even in the one year I’ve been subscribing, their quality seems to be dropping. Now get off my lawn.

  2. The “null hypothesis” is a basic concept in statistics—unfortunately often forgotten today—that there is no statistical difference between two groups on the behavior or phenomena being measured.

  3. They don’t question that assumption even in the face of contradictory evidence. “The association between deployment and suicide is not as simple as we expected.”

    Yes, when you are invested in the sun orbiting the earth, your geometries are not going to be simple.

  4. And the post-Soviet era, for Russia at least, hasn’t been marked by low levels of bureaucracy.

  1. <- A big House
  2. Killing jobs swiftly ->