Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case, have released a new study, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” enumerating how many unprivileged whites have died from despair while privileged whites prattled about the curse of white privilege.
Judging from mortality statistics, something very bad has happened to working-class white Americans in this century.
The downturn in life expectancy has occurred despite continued advances in medical technology that are steadily boosting life spans in other countries. In 2015, life expectancy fell for Americans overall, stemming in part to a sudden spike in black male death rates, perhaps due to the Ferguson Effect of blacks shooting blacks in increasing numbers following the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014.
But mostly the decline was caused by continued increases in death rates for young and middle-aged whites. The White Death hasn’t gotten as bad yet as the horrifying drop in Russian male life expectancies during the Yeltsin years. Yet it’s reminiscent of the tendency of Russians to react to the slow moral decay of Communism and to the sharp shock of defeat in the Cold War by drinking themselves to death.
Nonetheless, until just 18 months ago, barely anybody in positions of authority or influence in America had noticed it, so pervasive is our system’s animosity toward whites of humble backgrounds. (Matt Stoller here lists homicidal comments about working-class whites left on the Huffington Post.)
In fact, it’s possible that the only reason the White Death is talked about today is a coincidence in the fall of 2015.
On Oct. 12, 2015, Angus Deaton of Princeton was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Granted, economics isn’t a real Nobel, but it’s treated as one. So Deaton’s name was still in the news three weeks later when he and his wife, Anne Case, released a paper on how death rates among middle-aged whites had been rising since the end of the 1990s.
Deaton and Case had previously had their paper rejected by two prestigious medical journals.
The big killers driving this increase have been what Deaton and Case now call “deaths of despair”: overdoses of prescription painkillers and heroin, alcoholic liver disease, and suicide.
Veteran science reporter Gina Kolata reported in The New York Times in 2015 on how surprising this was:
David M. Cutler, a Harvard health care economist, said that although it was known that people were dying from causes like opioid addiction, the thought was that those deaths were just blips in the health care statistics and that over all everyone’s health was improving. The new paper, he said, “shows those blips are more like incoming missiles.”
Why the obliviousness?
For one reason, there are virtually no respectable organizations that make it their mission to care about the well-being of whites. Countless government agencies and NGOs scan statistics for evidence that blacks are getting a bad break. But looking out for whites is a good way to wind up on the SPLC’s list of people to hate, so nobody paid much attention to life-and-death trends among 200 million people.
Fortunately Angus Deaton, Nobel Laureate, demanded attention.
It quickly emerged that the White Death was focused among whites without college degrees.
To some extent, this is a statistical artifact as college graduation rates have drifted upward for each successive age cohort: Therefore, a 55-year-old in 2015 is more likely to be a college graduate than a 55-year-old in 1999, so non–college graduates today are somewhat more likely to be concentrated among people with problems.
But on the whole, it’s very much a real problem.
A postelection study by The Economist last November found that the only measure that better predicted a swing from Romney to Trump at the county level than percentage of noncollege whites was a composite measure of public health. Trump swing voters tended to see it as their civic duty to elect somebody who would at least promise to do something to stop the trend in their neighborhoods toward disease and death.
Deaton and Case summarized their latest thinking at the Brookings Institution last week.
Below is their graph showing the growth of deaths of despair for non-Hispanic white working-class cohorts born five years apart.
The mortality patterns for those born in 1935, 1940, and 1945 were all similar, but the drift toward early death from drugs, alcohol, and suicide began with those born in 1950, and greatly accelerated among those born in 1955.
I find it useful to mentally add 18 years to birth dates to understand when a cohort reached the beginning of adulthood.
Thus, the children born in 1945 (mauve line) turned 18 in 1963. Hit songs in 1963 included “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys and “Walk Like a Man” by the Four Seasons. The most drug-oriented hit was “Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul, and Mary.
In baby-boomer mythology, 1963 is the last prelapsarian year before the generational loss of innocence that was the JFK assassination that November. By the time the Beatles landed at JFK in February 1964, the world had changed. This oft-told tale doesn’t sound plausible, but we keep stumbling upon evidence for it, such as this graph.
In contrast, those born in 1950 (red line) were 18 in 1968. The biggest hit of the year was “Hey Jude” by the Beatles. The Beach Boys didn’t have a major single that year because Brian Wilson was an acid casualty at age 25.
Those born in 1955 were 18 in 1973, perhaps the nadir of the ’70s. The biggest-selling album released that year turned out to be Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
Deaton and Case offer an economics-centered view of what went wrong.
Tentative story: slow collapse of white working class
—Each birth cohort entering the labor market without a BA after those born in 1945
—Men start with lower real wages
—Have worse subsequent careers, lower returns to experience
Those lucky enough to be born in 1945, the year before the baby boom began, went through life with supply and demand tilted in their favor. Relatively few babies were born from 1930 to 1945, so the labor of young men born in 1945 was well compensated when they reached 18 in 1963.
Those born just before the baby boom often grew up to be leaders of large numbers of younger people: e.g., John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Mick Jagger. Similarly, people born in the year 1946 who went on to enjoy some success in life include Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.
By 1950, the baby boom was in full swing. By 1955, so many babies had been born in the previous decade that when they reached physical maturity in 1973, the high-wage era of a limited supply of labor was drawing to a close. Moreover, corporations in the 1970s were welcoming women into the workforce, and immigration was ramping upward. Meanwhile, the Energy Crisis arrived with the Arab oil boycott in October 1973.
Thus, 1973 is usually portrayed as the last year of broad prosperity for male wage laborers of 1946–73.
Case and Deaton go on to suggest that one cause of the White Death is that what I named Affordable Family Formation became more unaffordable from roughly 1973 onward:
—Lower marriage rates, higher divorce for those who get married, worse family lives
—Leaving the labor force, more mental distress, difficulty socializing, more pain, more drugs, more alcohol, more suicide
—All of these follow the same pattern over birth cohorts as do earnings
—Starting off worse, and getting worse at a faster rate with age
On the other hand, there’s a supply-side theory for the White Death, as best illustrated in Sam Quinones’ 2015 book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Quinones points to a one-two punch of white drugs.
First, prescription opioids like oxycodone flooded the market in the early 2000s. When the government then tightened up on painkillers, Mexican cartels stepped in with black-tar heroin. They targeted sleepy white parts of the country because the Mexican drug dealers didn’t want to have anything to do with violent and attention-grabbing blacks.
Deaton and Case admit that Quinones has a point, but the roots are deeper:
—This process was unfolding before heavy-duty prescription opioids flooded the market, but their presence has heightened its impact
In summary, the future looks bad for the United States:
—These cumulative effects are unlikely to disappear at retirement
—The next generation of retirees are likely to be in worse health and mental health than current retirees, and those that follow in worse health still
Deaton and Case conclude their new paper:
Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.
I would add to this analysis that a close study of death rates by birth years suggests that the White Death is in part a long-term echo of the most important cultural change of my lifetime: the ’60s.
When the economy was at its moon-landing peak in the late 1960s, the White Death was already getting its grip on cohorts turning 18. So I suspect Deaton and Case’s economics theory, while highly persuasive, isn’t complete.
Cultural changes from, say, 1963 to 1973 also played a role. In the later 1960s, drugs, while heavily publicized, tended to be an obsession largely of elites such as Harvard professor Timothy Leary. The democratization of drug culture probably dates to the early 1970s, with 1973 as the year the counterculture had clearly won in a rout.
Thus, white people who reached 18 before the late 1960s are not dying at a high rate today. Those born in 1935–45, who hit 18 in 1953–63, tended to reach adulthood thinking that drugs were only for commie beatnik weirdos, while swinging hepcats like Dean Martin preferred martinis. Therefore, pre-baby-boom whites are less likely to turn in old age to fake heroin, or, for that matter, to real heroin.
In contrast, the data shows that the single worst exacerbation of the trend toward the white working class putting themselves in an early grave came between those who were 18 in 1968 and those who were 18 in 1973, the Dark Side of the Moon era.
Still, drugs were, along with long hair, merely the most obvious manifestation of an attitudinal change known as the ’60s.
The ’60s were, in reality, the Smart Liberation era. Much of 1960s liberalism begins with: “Assume everyone is above average in intelligence.” This belief can make life more convenient for people who actually are above average in intelligence.
Granted, a few smart people like Brian Wilson and Ken Kesey never quite recovered from the ’60s. In general, however, high-IQ ’60s people, such as Steve Jobs, tended to do pretty well for themselves.
A liberated culture gave the Steve Jobses more room to run. In contrast, the Left Half of the Bell Curve is still paying a toll for the destruction of the old strictures on how to live. People who aren’t as smart aren’t as good at deciding for themselves.
Black men took the hit first, with black male life expectancy being lower in the mid-’90s than in the mid-’80s due to AIDS, smoking crack, and being murdered by other crack dealers.
Society went to vast expense to protect black men from themselves, largely curing AIDS and building a huge prison system to incarcerate the most dangerous.
On the other hand, American culture hasn’t paid much attention at all to the White Death. For example, Trump remarked that he hadn’t really heard of the heroin scourge until he started campaigning across the country.
Thus, the more often we’ve heard in this century about white privilege, the more often white people have dropped dead in despair.
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