Labyrinth Books, Princeton Public Library, and the Woodrow Wilson School were scheduled to present Princeton University economists Anne Case and Nobel laureate Angus Deaton to discuss their new book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street on Thursday, March 12. The event has been canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
The Princeton University Press publication is an investigation of the rise of mortality rates among of white Americans between the ages of 25 to 64 and its place in a larger and more disturbing social trend.
As the married couple note in their book’s preface, “This book documents despair and death, it critiques aspects of capitalism, and it questions how globalization and technical change are working America today. Yet we remain optimistic. We believe in capitalism, and we continue to believe that globalization and technical change can be managed to the general benefit. Capitalism does not have to work as it does in America today. It does not need to be abolished, but should be redirected to work in the public interest.
“Free market competition can do many things, but there are also many areas where it cannot work well, including the provisions of healthcare, the exorbitant cost of which is doing immense harm to the health and wellbeing of America. If governments are unwilling to exercise compulsion over health insurance and to take the power to control costs — as other rich countries have done — tragedies are inevitable. Deaths of despair have much to do with the failure — the unique failure — of America to learn this lesson.”
Later they examine the roles of money and education and write:
“Deaths of despair are concentrated among those with less education, and the epidemic is widening the gap in years lived between those with and without a bachelor’s degree. But we have said little about money, or about its absence, and just how income or poverty fits into the story. Even for those who are not poor, people with higher incomes live longer, and there is evidence that education matters too, even among people with the same incomes. In America, money buys access to better healthcare, and beyond that, life is easier when you do not have to worry about how you are going to pay for a car repair, or childcare, or an unexpectedly large heating bill after an especially cold winter month. Financial worry can suck the joy out of life and bring on stress, often a trigger for pain and ill health . . .
“The United States has a much less comprehensive safety net than other rich countries, in Europe and elsewhere. The absence of benefits gives people sharp incentives to work and earn, which is good for those who can, but can be disastrous for those who, for one reason or another, cannot. The United States is also different from other rich countries in having several million extremely poor people, who arguably live in conditions as bad as poor people in African and Asia. Poverty is an obvious place to look when trying to explain an epidemic of death that is unique to the U.S.
“Income inequality often features in popular discussion of deaths of despair and of American ill health more generally. Inequalities in income and wealth are higher in the U.S. than in other rich countries, so inequality is a popular candidate to explain other outcomes where the U.S. is exceptional . . .
“Deaths of despair and income inequity are indeed closely linked, but not, as is often argued, with a simple causal arrow running from inequality to death. Instead, it is the deeper forces of power, politics, and social change that are causing both the epidemic and the extreme inequality. Inequality and death are joint consequences of the forces that are destroying the white working class.”