In their recent book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Anne Case and Nobel economics prizewinner Angus Deaton, both emeritus economists at Princeton University, show that the death rate for middle-age whites without a college degree bottomed out in 1999 and has risen since. They attribute the increase to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Their data on deaths are impeccable. They are careful not to attribute the deaths to some of the standard but problematic reasons people might think of, such as increasing inequality, poverty, or a lousy health care system. At the same time, they claim that capitalism, pharmaceutical companies, and expensive health insurance are major contributors to this despair.
The dust jacket of their book states, “Capitalism, which over two centuries lifted countless people out of poverty, is now destroying the lives of blue-collar America.” Fortunately, their argument is much more nuanced than the book jacket. But it is also, at times, contradictory. Their discussion of the health care system is particularly interesting both for its insights and for its confusions. In their last chapter, “What to Do?” the authors suggest various policies but, compared to the empirical rigor with which they established the facts about deaths by despair, their proposals are not well worked out. One particularly badly crafted policy is their proposal on the minimum wage.
This is from “Blame Capitalism?“, my review of The Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” in Regulation, Fall 2020.
To understand what is behind the increase in the death rate, the authors look at state data and note that death rates increased in all but six states. The largest increases in mortality were in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The only states in which midlife white mortality fell much were California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. All four of the latter states, they note, have high levels of formal education. That fact leads them to one of their main “aha!” findings: the huge negative correlation between having a bachelor’s degree and deaths of despair.
To illustrate, they focus on Kentucky, a state with one of the lowest levels of educational attainment. Between the mid-1990s and 2015, Case and Deaton show, for white non-Hispanics age 45–54 who had a four-year college degree, deaths from suicide, drug overdose, or alcoholic liver disease stayed fairly flat at about 25–30 per 100,000. But for that same group but without a college degree, the deaths in the same categories zoomed up from about 40 in the mid-1990s to a whopping 130 by 2015, over four times the rate for those with a college degree.
Why is a college degree so important? One big difference between those with and without a degree is the probability of being employed. In 2017, the U.S. unemployment rate was a low 3.6%. Of those with a bachelor’s degree or more, 84% of Americans age 25–64 were employed. By contrast, only 68% of those in the same age range who had only a high school degree were employed.
That leads to two questions. First, why are those without a college degree so much less likely to have jobs? Second, how does the absence of a degree lead to more suicide and drug and alcohol consumption? On the first question, the authors note that a higher percentage of jobs than in the past require higher skills and ability. Also, they write, “some jobs that were once open to nongraduates are now reserved for those with a college degree.”
I wish they had addressed this educational “rat race” in more detail. My Econlog blogging colleague Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, argues in his 2018 book The Case Against Education that a huge amount of the value of higher education is for people to signal to potential employers that they can finish a major project and be appropriately docile. To the extent he is right, government subsidies to higher education make many jobs even more off-limits to high school graduates. Yet, Case and Deaton do not cite Caplan’s work. Moreover, in their final chapter on what to do, they go the exact wrong way, writing, “Perhaps it is time to up our game to make college the norm?” That policy would further narrow the range of jobs available to nongraduates, making them even worse off.
On the second question—why absence of a degree leads to more deaths of despair—they cite a Gallup poll asking Americans to rate their lives on a scale from 0 (“the worst possible life you can imagine”) to 10 (“the best possible life you can imagine”). Those with a college degree averaged 7.3, while those with just a high school diploma averaged 6.6. That is not a large difference, a fact they do not note.
And note their novel argument for why improved health care, better entertainment through the internet, and more convenience don’t count in people’s real wages:
So, what are the culprits behind the deaths of those without college degrees? Case and Deaton blame the job market and health insurance. Jobs for those without college degrees do not pay as much and do not generally carry much prestige. And, as noted above, Case and Deaton mistakenly think that real wages for such jobs have fallen. Some economists, by adding nonmonetary benefits provided by employers and by noting the amazing goods we can buy with our wages such as cell phones, conclude that even those without a college degree are doing better. Case and Deaton reject that argument. They do not deny that health care now is better than it was 20 years ago, but they write that a typical worker is doing better now than then “only if the improvements—in healthcare, or in better entertainment through the internet, or in more convenience from ATMs—can be turned into hard cash by buying less of the good affected, or less of something else, a possibility that, however desirable, is usually not available.” They continue, “People may be happier as a result of the innovations, but while it is often disputed whether money buys happiness, we have yet to discover a way of using happiness to buy money.”
That thinking is stunning. Over many decades, economists have been accused, usually unjustly, of saying that only money counts. We have usually responded by saying, “No, what counts is utility, the satisfaction we get out of goods and services and life in general.” But now Case and Deaton dismiss major improvements in the happiness provided by goods and services by noting that happiness cannot be converted to money. That is a big step backward in economic thinking.
Read the whole thing.