Lenin’s maxim that “there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen” can be tough on writers. You spend years carefully marshaling an argument, anticipating objections, tightening your focus, sacrificing claims that might interfere with the suasion of your central point, and then—bam, the gun goes off. Something happens that makes the point toward which you were gently cajoling the reader not only obvious but insufficient. Your thoroughbred stands ready, but the rest of the field has already left the gate.
So it is with Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. In 2014, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the latter a Nobel Prize winner, noted that for the first time, the mortality rate among white Americans without a college degree was climbing rather than dropping; further, while members of this group remained relatively advantaged compared to their black peers, the two cohorts’ mortality rates were moving in opposite directions. Case and Deaton found that a significant portion of this hike in mortality was due to deaths from alcoholism, drug use, and suicide—phenomena which, bundled together, they labeled “deaths of despair.”
Six years later, in this new book, the two economists attempt to turn these observations into a thesis: What can this horrifying data can tell us about American society at large? Instead of linking the deaths to any single deprivation, the authors place them in a context of wholesale loss of social status and coherent identity for those without purchase in the knowledge professions—a loss that encompasses wage stagnation, the decline of union power, and the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.
For Case and Deaton, the closing of a factory involves all three, and cannot be understood strictly in terms of lost earnings or job numbers. Even in a “success” story, in which workers get new jobs at a staffing agency or an Amazon fulfillment center, a qualitative catastrophe occurs: to the prestige of difficult, directly productive work; to a measure of democratic control over the conditions of work; to the sense of valued belonging to socially important organizations; to the norms governing work, marriage, and sociality that developed in a particular material context, and which cannot simply transfer over or remake themselves overnight. At least some of these losses are downstream of sectoral transition only insofar as firm structure and historic labor organization is concerned. There is no purely sectoral reason for companies to outsource all non-knowledge jobs to staffing companies, or for Amazon to fire whistleblowers. The differences between NYC taxis and Uber lie in the fact that one has a union and the other classifies its workers as independent contractors, not in NAICS codes. But however carefully you parse the causes, deaths of despair are the final result of a long, slow social death.