Americans on a Financial 'Tightrope'
On January fourteenth in the first of a year long series of Book Review Live Events. My colleague Jennifer Celaya the critic here at the New York Times interviewed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn about their new book tightrope. The following is a little bit of an excerpt from from that event and that conversation. I wanted to start off by talking about the genesis of this book project. which you know is it's really interesting for a variety of reasons but one of the things that struck me was that this is your fifth book together and your other books have taken you across the world you've looked at AH poverty initiatives Kenya you've looked at education for girls in China? And you know this is something. That's much closer to home home. I mean literally is home for you neck. So can you tell us a bit about how you decided to write about Yam hill well. It's partly exactly that we were traveling around the world covering humanitarian crises. And then we would go back to my beloved hometown of the Am Hill. Where my mom still lives on the family farm and we saw a humanitarian crisis unfolding there and You know I my old school busses. This is kind of a network of old friends and you know we realized that about a quarter of the kids on that bus had passed passed away from consequences of Drugs Alcohol Suicide Ruckus accidents and and and related pathologies. And this was. This wasn't just one towns problem. This was a nation's problem and that there is something of a great social depression Russian happening across the country even in the Great Depression. Life expectancy didn't fall the way does. Now it's three years in a row in the US and it seemed to us is that this wasn't getting adequate attention that we could write about it and to some degree. Use My this town that I care very very deeply about as a narrative thread to tell that story nick and channel I I want to talk about the themes in this book on the subject took the spokane the issues and the questions that it raises because those are really important. The really urgent and I think it's something that everybody needs to think about and confront but I it did want to have a bit of a process question because I think there's a number of people I know maybe myself included. Who the idea of writing a book with one Spouse House seems maybe complicated and so this is your fifth book together and I just wanted to know a little bit about how that works the division vision of Labor? What happens when you disagree about something was so I write the subjects and he writes the verbs? We each right half a book but the Nice thing is that you only have to write half a book somehow magically appears to be a whole book but we we are we do have very similar views have a slightly more sort of economic business taken. He is slightly more sort of political socio economic. Take so it's actually very complimentary and we do discuss things a lot We you know the treatment of certain topics we really do discuss. We each right sections We don't necessarily know what's going to be a full chapter in the very beginning and then we mix and match and then our editor speaks up and then this chapter the two goes to chapters sixteen and sixteen goes to chapter four. And you know. There's a lot of mixing and matching and moving around when editing. Of course the voice of the book is very much in a unified voice. I mean do you end up going over each other's chapters just to make sure that we coast constantly totally editor I mean and that's because we were. I'm I'm a former report but we're both sort of journalistic experience and so we're just used to being edited fair. That's we're still married so one of the things that I noticed in the book from the from the get goes that you start off with some some really arresting analogies so you make mention of Dante's inferno you call the situation in America Today Today Twentieth Century futile them. I think you know and I think for a number of Americans. Those are really striking. Maybe startling analogies and I was wondering during what did you mean when you decided to use those those words so we talked a lot about that because they are very striking images and we used to to think that when we were traveling around the world visiting some of the places both in China and other other parts of the developing world that the poverty and the pain and the suffering that we saw their overseas was of a dimension that was just far greater than anything that one could see here here in America and then when we started learning more about what was going on in our own backyard. We started learning a lot more about how the pain and suffering that people were. Were feeling here and it really is about the human condition and it's about just the Catharsis sometimes but also the intense searing depression that that people feel and so it really is very comparable it was it was surprising surprising to us and shocking to us. And if you look back at what is happening in many towns across America. It isn't inferno for these people and for these families. I mean we were really searching for metaphors to Kinda grab people by the Lapel and high offered the metaphor. I'm going to go but great great social depression you know. At least in the Great Depression there was an enormous effort through government policy to address it and mitigated and it feels as if now there is this horrendous suffering out there and there isn't a similar government effort to address it and indeed that that suffering isn't all that even noticed by those who were doing better at in the first class deck. There's a party going on. And meanwhile the ship of state is kind of capsizing in ways that obviously affect those below decks but it ultimately affect our whole country and we were searching for ways to convey that urgency. And that's what we hope. Tight rope will will do to try to broaden the conversation from just trump's tweets of the day to this larger convulsion that the country is enduring part of the country is just feeling something far worse than the Great Depression because what is driving that decline in life expectancy is depths of despair. It's basically the debts let's That had been well documented by Angus Deaton and Anne case Very elegantly in their research. That shows that These debts are basically three of three types. Alcohol related deaths deaths from overdose related to drugs and suicides. We're at the highest rate of suicides in this in in this country since World War Two. These are stunning statistics. And somehow or other they're not yet rising to the surface