Assisted Suicide: The GOP continues to supply more of the policies that are killing its white working-class voters.

AuthorMencimer, Stephanie
PositionDeaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism - Book review

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

by Anne Case and Angus Deaton

Princeton University Press, 312 pp.

In early January last year, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson took to the airwaves with a 15-minute rant about the way that American capitalism was crushing families and decimating white working-class communities. He blamed small government conservatives and liberal elites alike for ignoring the economic cause of the collapse of the working class. Conservatives, he complained, blame the problem solely on the breakdown of the traditional family. "Like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct," Carlson said. "The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it."

His indictment of American capitalism went viral and set off a familiar, if heated, debate, mostly on the right, where conservatives weren't used to hearing such an assault on free market economics from one of their own. Yet Carlson's assessment was rooted in solid academic research. In fact, his monologue could have served as the prologue for Deaths of Despair, a new book written by the married Princeton economics duo Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton. They're the academics who first shocked the country in 2015 with a new study finding that the mortality rates of white people, particularly those without college degrees, had spiked, after nearly a century of sustained decline.

At the time, they were hard pressed to explain exactly why white people were suddenly dying in such large numbers when everyone else--African Americans, Hispanics, and white working-class people in other countries--seemed to be doing better. Five years later, with Deaths of Despair, they've returned with a book-length investigation of the trends they first identified in 2015. Their updated data points are stark: Deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related disease among middle-aged white men and women skyrocketed from 30 per 100,000 in 1990 to 92 per 100,000 in 2017. The spike in these deaths is almost exclusively confined to white Americans, both men and women, without a college degree. Mortality rates among college-educated Americans have continued to fall. Mortality rates for white-working class people in other wealthy countries are similarly in decline.

Case and Deaton note that these premature deaths are the reason that American life expectancy at birth has fallen for three straight years. Such a drop is unparalleled in modern U.S. history. The only comparable disaster came during the First World War and the flu epidemic that followed. The authors compare what's happening with the American white working class to what happened after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, where the resulting countries saw radical change and dire economic straits. "It is no exaggeration to compare the long-standing misery of these Eastern Europeans with the wave of despair that is driving suicides, alcohol, and drug abuse among less educated white Americans," they write.

Deaths of Despair is an academic book, laden with charts and facts and figures, and the authors devote a significant amount of ink to shooting down...

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