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.”