Deaths of Despair

I was listening to NPR One via my Amazon Echo yesterday, and heard an interview with Anne Case, an economist at Princeton University, and co-author of Deaths of Despair And The Future of Capitalism, which looks at the gap between those who did and didn't go to college.

She has a much more concrete and succinct way of articulating the compounding issues I wrote about a few days ago in Zooming Out.

Well, it turns out that from the late 1970s through to today, there's been this long downward trend in wages for men without a BA. And simultaneously, there's been a long downward trend in their attachment to the labor force. And if you look at what happened with how we fund our health care system, employers pay a large share - on average, about 71% of the premium - for workers' health insurance. And that has become costlier and costlier every year. And the employer looks at their low-wage workforce, and they think, can we afford these workers? So jobs have been cut because the insurance premiums go up and up and up every year.

She continues:

But we think it's not necessarily the loss of wages that are causing people to take their lives one way or another. We think it's the knock-on effects - that without a good job, without prospects, it's really hard to get married. So work life is unstable. Home life is unstable. Community life has disappeared. And so the pillars that used to hold up life and make life worth living have really crumbled terribly for this group - not so for people with a BA. And so it's really become two Americas, one for people who went to college and one for people who didn't.

This is an incredibly complex problem, because it's not very clear where to start.  There's a ton of surface area, but moreover, many of the issues that compound the overall problem (like the notion of employers covering health care) is defended by gatekeepers in our government.  Political change rarely happens over night because the system is designed such that gatekeepers are highly incentivized to maintain their place in the hierarchy.

The complexity of this whole system also makes it challenging to see whether you're ameliorating the symptoms of the issue vs. the cause of the disease.  Both are worthy endeavors, especially considering her calculation that each year this epidemic takes about 158,000 lives, which she's compared to "three fully loaded Boeing 737 Max jets falling out of the sky every day for a year."

It would seem like the simple act of sharing the research publicly would spur a rational person to action regardless of what their self interests are.

However, to add on to the complexity of this, we have an administration that represents the interests of those who actually benefit from an uneducated populace, and is actively leading lambs to the slaughter:

Yes, this underscores the importance of voting in the next election.  However, just a changing of the guard, as significant as that may be, isn't going to be enough given the vicious cycle of:

  • a hyper-networked world with information networks that are overly reliant on ad-driven business models, and
  • a post-industrial economy with a growing population of people willing—if not needing—to place blame somewhere

and a host of more factors that would probably fill up a PhD thesis.

All of this is to say the obvious: we have an incredible mess on our hands, and those in power are failing to truly fix it.  Shore up frontline resources with PPE and feed them with free meals address the symptoms of a flawed system breaking under load, but those acts don't necessarily indicate a willingness to enact the systemic change needed to fix this for the long term.

And, if even a pandemic can't summon the will and remove the blinders from those in power, I suspect we'll see this event in time as an inflection point that blows the gap even wider than from where we started.