Painful Dynamics (Tragedy Of The Excluded)

Late last month, in “Superfluous People And The Arraignment Of Capitalism,” I cited economist Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton, whose book “Deaths of Despair” paints a disconcerting picture of a nation plagued by white midlife crises.

And not the kind of white midlife crises that compel a 48-year-old man to cash in a chunk of his retirement fund to buy a Corvette Z06. Rather, the kind of crises that are conducive to rising mortality rates and deaths attributable to drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

One key takeaway from the book is that education matters. Whites without a college degree are at higher risk of suffering, broadly construed, and the situation seems to be getting more acute over time in America.

If you read the book, you’ll discover that this is an epidemic on its own. In other words: Case and Deaton’s account isn’t just an exercise in reiterating the intuitive. Consider, for example, the figure (below) from the book, which is wholly bizarre.

For US whites, the fraction of those experiencing pain is larger in midlife than in late life.

“There is something very odd about this,” Case and Deaton wrote, describing the black line in the figure. “Age normally brings pain [but] people in their sixties are actually in more pain than people at age eighty,” they added. The fraction reporting pain for those aged 80 is roughly the same as it is for those aged 50.

(And, yes, if you read the book, Case and Deaton explore all manner of explanations for this and other phenomena which tell a similar story, so before you endeavor to enumerate a list of caveats, you may want to peruse the actual book, as it likely addresses your questions.)

What becomes abundantly clear over the course of what is a truly depressing tale, is that it’s very difficult to disentangle a number of well-documented trends when it comes to explaining the observed increase in deaths associated with alcohol, drugs, and suicide. Indeed, it’s hard to say, definitively, whether a drug overdose is itself a suicide or not.

Societal trends — the same kind of socioeconomic decline described in these pages for years — play a role in explaining the worsening physical and psychological plight of US whites, and especially those without a college degree.

With all of that in mind, have a look at the figure (below), derived from Fed data current through the third quarter of 2020.

83% of stocks are concentrated in the hands of those with a college degree. That’s up 21 percentage points (!) from the low hit during the Clinton years. If you throw in the “some college” category, the chart isn’t even worth creating because the combined ownership share rises to 93%.

Those with no high school education own no stocks. The figure is less than 1%. That wasn’t always the case. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about this data is that the figures for high school and no high school have fallen precipitously over the past three decades, albeit from very low levels.

That chart is likely explainable by reference to a number of the underlying dynamics discussed in “Deaths of Despair,” including, but not limited to, jobs which used to be open to those with a high school degree now requiring a bachelor’s degree.

Relatedly, the disappearance of key industries around which entire communities were built has reduced (to nearly zero) the opportunities for those without a college education to find long-term employment at companies offering benefits. In decades past, someone with a high school diploma could still find a sense of purpose as a valued employee of a respected US corporation, even if the job description entailed menial tasks. You were still part of “the company” and in many cases, the menial work came with a livable wage and benefits.

And that’s to say nothing of opportunities for advancement. This is a purely speculative assessment on my part, and I make no claims whatsoever to being able to support it with any data, but it seems likely that the chances of the proverbial janitor becoming a foreman were far greater five decades ago than the chances of a teller at a Chase branch becoming Jamie Dimon today. That’s an apples to oranges comparison — a foreman isn’t equivalent to the CEO of a bank, but I’m using hyperbole to make a point which I think probably has quite a bit of merit.

Part of the problem with broaching these subjects in daily commentary is that they aren’t generally conducive to cursory treatment. Raising these issues cries out for more — more charts, more analysis, more caveats, more citations, and so on.

That’s why I’ve endeavored to create a series of running narratives around a handful of core subjects with which regular readers are very familiar. (It occurs to me that I may need to redefine or otherwise reimagine the way pieces are categorized to make these narratives easier to follow.)

Regarding everything said above, I’m reminded of the following quote which serves as the introduction to a recent album that miraculously found its way onto my one and only Apple playlist, which is as sparse as it is eclectic:

“Now here are all these people… I look down the street everyday I see all these young men standing on the corner. It used to be you could drop out — even when Kenny was growing up — you could drop out of high school and get you a job over there at Ford — you know, at them factories. You didn’t have to stand on the corner — 8th grade kid, long as he could pick up somethin’, he had a job.”

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18 thoughts on “Painful Dynamics (Tragedy Of The Excluded)

  1. Maybe we need to think outside of the box.

    The difficulty for some (many?) is the need for income to live while in school while not being burden by large debts.

    Could we pay people to get higher education? And reward based on “success”? Whether that is grades, or progress, etc.

    Provide bonuses for finding jobs and staying in those jobs?

    What other incentives and support can the USA provide to support and incentivize “success”?

    And if jobs can’t be found in the private sector would a govt job provide an opportunity? More educators, more counselors, more health care providers, better services, etc?

    These may be the path to a better answer, they may not be anywhere near the right path but discussing, trying, etc might give us a path to a better place.

    I am NOT a big govt person BUT the current path is not going to work for 10s of millions. And if we can get more productivity out of more people it is possible the cost may be far less and even be contributory in the future.

    But sadly, tis country is in no position (nor it will be anytime soon) to get together to solve real issues. It benefits too many to live in the status quo.

    1. As we say – UBI will be fiercely opposed until automation reach higher middle class/white collar jobs. Then it’ll become the most obvious solution we all knew we needed…

      Funny how consent works in a democracy…

    2. We, as a country, did have a solution for this in generations prior. Public university tuition was very low, supported by federal and state funding. This funding source as dwindled, and so per a Fed report, public school tuition has increased 146.59% since 1968 (accounting for inflation). Simultaneously, federal minimum wage (adjusted for inflation) has decreased 31% since 1968 (accounting for inflation). These are only 2 factors of many, but we certainly aren’t making it easier for this generation.

      We incentivized success in the past by reducing the financial risk/burden of higher ed. It could be done again, but “free college” is too radical an idea for the same people who paid minimal tuition for federally- and state-funded colleges.

  2. Assuming these data are correct it sure does seem that all those who say college is a stupid waste of time are wrong. Grads own more stock, have greater wealth, and a more certain future. Now anecdotally, probably many people will say they know someone who didn’t go to college and they’re doing “Ok.” Perhaps. Not surprising since two-thirds of the work force does not have a degree. But look again at that data.

    1. Yeah, the benefits of a four-year degree are clear. However, that doesn’t preclude the distinct possibility that going forward, money would be better spent pursuing a two-degree in some kind of “craft” that makes one immediately employable. That will become more and more true over time if the cost of four-year degrees keeps rising.

      But what I think might get lost in the discussion is that while it might anecdotally be “easier” to get “good” employment as, say, a tech at a Honda dealership or (I don’t know) a craftsman for a contractor, that’s not the same as having a good, manual labor, union job five decades ago. In a downturn, Honda can just lay you off. The housing market could tank. Etc. etc. In that situation, the lack of a four-year degree could become a vexing problem, especially if competition for the jobs that are still available involves people with college degrees.

      It’s obviously true that spending tens of thousands of dollars and four or five years obtaining a degree in something like the performing arts is a risky proposition compared to, say, spending a smaller amount on a two-year degree learning how to fix cars. But that’s the extreme example. If you go into a university and you decide to major in something that you know doesn’t guarantee a path to economic prosperity, I would argue that’s an “at your own risk” type of decision. And, I mean, those degrees don’t comprise as large a percentage of what’s offered at four-year schools as critics sometimes suggest. People like to deride sociology or political science, for example, but those aren’t the same as something like theater. If you get a PhD in sociology or political science, you’re probably going to get a good job. You might even get a great job.The question is whether it was all worth it after racking up $80,000 in debt and spending a decade of your life to get there, when you could have spent much less, be debt free, and changing the oil on people’s Hondas for a decent salary.

      These aren’t easy questions to answer.

    2. I think the issue there is this is not differentiated by generation. It is easy to see that millennial and even gen X wealth is orders of magnitude smaller than boomer wealth was at the same age. So yes getting a college education back in 1970 was a great idea and worked out terrific. If you compared just the net worth of millennials with or without college… they may own some stocks but it doesn’t offset the incredible burden of college. Especially when even STEM degree jobs are decades behind inflation.

  3. I have the Case and Deaton book on order.

    For those looking for what I suspect is a companion reader to Deaths of Despair, check out Coming Apart by Charles Murray. Murray goes deep into social outcomes as they relate to educational attainment. A takeaway is that self reinforcing mechanisms have been constructed that help ensure educational attainment. The book is haunting.

    I’m looking forward to reading Case and Deaton’s Deaths of Despair . Murray relied heavily on census data. Even so, I’m curious to see what conclusions Case and Deaton come to, having at their disposal several additional years of data compared to 2012 when the Murray title was published.

    1. This H Report article was published on January 3, 2021, already so long ago that readers might never come back to it, thinking it irrelevant. For those who do land here…or land here again…a piece published on Jan 8th in Foreign Affairs, authored by Branko Milanovic, is particularly germane to this post, and to many others, to be sure. (The Milanovic article also provides further support to some conclusions in the Murray book that I mention above.)

      The article by Mr. Milanovic is notable for a couple of reasons. First, he introduces a new term, homoploutia. I won’t go into it. Suffice it to say it’s immediately relevant to many of the outstanding posts on H Report that critique the state of our system.

      The other notable point is that in the subtitle of the article, and a couple of times in the body, the word aristocracy is used. Now, Foreign Affairs is about as establishment as it gets. That an establishment publication dare use this word is quite telling of the fulcrum in time we find ourselves.

      The author is not using the word in an incendiary way (of course), and the audience for Foreign Affairs isn’t exactly the group of people who are suffering at the hands of the current system. Still, 100 years on since the last pandemic and about as many for the death of the last aristocracy vis-a-vis WWI. The aristocracy is rebuilding. Perhaps one message from Jan 6th is that some would welcome it back.

  4. “… it seems likely that the chances of the proverbial janitor becoming a foreman were far greater five decades ago than the chances of a teller at a Chase branch becoming Jamie Dimon today. ”

    Case history supporting this thesis: my Dad graduated public HS in Nashville, TN in 1931, took a job as a machinist’s apprentice at a factory owned by General Shoe Corp. After moving up the ranks in various manufacturing departments as Asst Foreman, Foreman, then Superintendent and, later, General Manager of a large factory division, he eventually became VP of HR in the company that had “evolved” into Genesco. At that time it had 55,000 employees.

    My Dad’s only advanced education included a few week-long courses in management skills in the 1960’s, plus Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

    Dad’s is a rare story, no doubt helped by native intelligence, patience, and long hours of work based on the dictum: “Concentrate on helping workers solve problems, not on criticizing workers.”

    1. Nice outcome.The trouble today is the factory is no longer here in the US. Not only shoe factories but all sorts of factories that provided the opportunity your dad enjoyed.

  5. A lack of an education involving clear rational thinking and being able to use common sense and logic. A lack of the ability to apply even simple math in everyday life, to be able to write a cogent sentence with no spelling errors, a grasp of the basics of the sciences…a huge task to upgrade the millions to a minimal standard. When you realize that we’re only one of many countries facing this task…daunting.

  6. Initially, the industrial revolution resulted in displaced workers. However, with continuing automation and invention of machinery, those displaced workers were ultimately reabsorbed into the growing/larger economy – with the help of education and additional learned skills. Although this did not happen overnight or in a straight, always upward trending line, the net effect of the industrial revolution was positive- in terms of increasing the mean standard of living.

    Seems that we are once again facing the likelihood of an increasing pool of displaced workers as a result of further automation/AI.

    Mankind is very resourceful and naturally inventive when faced with a problem. Not sure where the next waves of invention will take us, but we certainly have not run out of areas where we can improve life for all.
    A shift from an economy that focuses on providing more and more “stuff” to an economy that provides better quality of life for all (solving medical problems, clean air and water, reducing global warming, clean energy, cleaner transportation) might provide the next generation of economic growth and job creation.

    Our federal government could do a better job of providing long term leadership, facilitating education and fostering invention and scientific discovery- similar to the NASA/space program, which resulted in economic growth/job creation.

    Maybe 2020 was the year we realized that the US government has unlimited money printing capacity- but using that power wisely for the best long term results for the country seems to be the short coming of our current group of elected leaders.

  7. This is a good topic. I think we need a higher highschool grad rate plus the diploma needs to have higher integrity. Then we need an aa degree that
    s pretty close to free to supply workers that have a proper skill set for the industries that have a future.. I think this will take time, but it will help. Lastly, we need to address drugs and alcohol the way we got down the smoking rate…

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