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Why ‘Deaths of Despair’ May Be a Warning Sign for America | Moving Upstream


(ragtime music)
– [Host] America has always prided itself
on being the land of opportunity.
That image, for many people, is fading.
Nobel-prize-winning economist Angus Deaton
and his wife, fellow
Princeton professor Anne Case,
say that, for the majority, the reality
of the American dream is disappearing.
– I do worry about a
world in which the rich
get to write the rules,
which the rest of us
then have to obey.
– [Host Voiceover] In this
episode of Moving Upstream,
I head to Princeton to find out what’s led
these provocative thinkers
to ring the alarm bells.
– This 250-year experiment
we’ve had with democracy
could be coming to an end.
– Might be on the edge of a precipice.
(string music)
– [Host] Professors Deaton and Case are
on a mission to solve a mystery:
what’s behind the decades-long rise
in suicide rates in America,
and what does it say about our country?
– In every state, in prime-age whites,
deaths from suicide went
up between 1999 and 2016.
Well we think it’s a real sign
that something is not right.
– [Host] The professors
note that the suicide
rate among middle-aged African Americans
isn’t on the rise, and it’s
far lower than that of whites.
– Even though whites are wealthier,
within an African-American community,
you feel you are part of the community.
– [Host] Suicides are
striking especially hard
in a most unlikely area, one where
the myth of America was made.
– [Deaton] There’s a
suicide belt in America
right up the Rocky Mountains.
– [Case] Arizona, New Mexico,
all the way up through–
– [Deaton] To Alaska.
– [Case] Montana, and then then a few
extra miles further, into Alaska.
– Is that really a thing, a suicide belt?
– That’s what they call it.
– Yes.
– Do a colored map of the U.S.,
showing where the suicide rate is higher.
Looks like the Rocky Mountains.
– Are we talking about a despair
caused by economic hardship?
Or is it something in
the spirit of America?
– I think economics may
trigger some of these things,
but in the end it’s a failure
of spiritual and social life
that drives people to suicide.
– Is it reasonable to think that
if some of these people had more money,
that they wouldn’t fall
into the pits of despair?
– I don’t think that anyone doubts that
if they had more money
they’d be better off, right?
I mean, we’re economists after all.
But you can’t link these deaths
to having more money or less money,
it just doesn’t work.
– [Host voiceover] If you
take a look at the data
from the great recession,
you see what they mean.
Even though the economy tanked,
and many Americans lost their savings,
it didn’t significantly
move the suicide trend line.
– You used the term “deaths of despair.”
Did you guys coin that?
– Yeah, yeah.
– [Deaton] The addiction
thing is so close to suicide.
Some of the opioid doctors
talk about a lost generation.
– [Host Voiceover] One of
the things that intrigues
the researchers is that it seems
to be a North American phenomenon.
– [Deaton] This is where the comparison
with Europe is very important,
’cause you don’t really
see deaths of despair.
– Though in southern Europe
you do see really high unemployment,
particularly for young people.
– We’re not talking
about unemployment here.
It’s much more to do with the, you know,
things that you would correlate
with a spiritual crisis.
– The Europeans are not killing themselves
the way that the Americans are.
They’ve lost jobs, technological change
has come to Europe, so one of the places
our research will go next is:
what are the big differences between
the Europeans and the Americans
that is helping the Europeans
keep body and soul together?
– [Host Voiceover] Deaton and Case offer
some theories: one, the
breakdown of families.
– [Deaton] The things that make people
want to kill themselves or
lose the meaning of life
are to do with things like your marriage
has never worked out, you know,
you don’t know your kids anymore.
– Social bonds deteriorating,
is that what we’re talking about?
– Yeah.
– [Host Voicevoer]
Another theory: Americans
making a religious
migration to churches that,
Case thinks, are changing the way
faith connects in the community.
– You’ve said something
really provocative on this.
You’ve singled out the Evangelical church.
– That is a church that more people
are identifying with, and it’s a church
which encourages my personal relationship
with my savior, but it’s a
very individual experience,
whereas the mainline Protestant churches,
or the Catholic church would be,
you’re part of a community.
– We’ve nothing against
the Evangelical churches,
and we’re certainly not
correlating Evangelicals
with the deaths, we don’t
have the data for that.
But one of the things you might think,
if a community is coming apart, is you see
less religious observance, and you do not.
– [Host Voiceover] But
there is one correaltion
they find in the numbers.
– All this bad stuff, by and large,
is happening to people
who do not have a BA,
and people who do have a BA
are largely exempt from this.
The economy is no longer offering
a good life to people
without a university degree.
– [Host Voiceover] People in the U.S.
that only have a high-school
diploma are more than
twice as likely to kill themselves
as those who hold a college degree.
Today, fewer than a third of Americans
ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree
before reaching the age of 29.
– If we can only generate good lives
for an elite that’s about
a third of the population,
then we have a real problem.
– [Host Voicevoer] The real problem,
as Deaton and Case see it,
is that deaths of
despair are an indicator.
– So, I mean, I would go as far as to say
if we can’t fix this, it really
is a crisis of capitalism.
You know, it doesn’t seem to be working
for the people who are
not very well educated.
Up until the Second World War,
the dominant intellectual views then was
that capitalism was sort of broken.
– [Footage Narrator] Little man, what now?
– [Deaton] There were a lot of people who
were flirting with Communism or Socialism
in one form or another.
And what seemed to happen after
the Second World War is that it started
delivering for more or less everybody.
And so you get this long period,
from 1945 through to the early seventies,
when all boats rose together.
Working-class people, people
without a college degree,
who entered the labor
market right in 1970,
had a great world, and
that was a world in which
you could belong to a
union, there was a fabric
of working-class life which looked like
it was going to go on forever.
And that world has been sort
of coming apart since 1970.
You know, median wages, in real terms,
have been pretty stagnant for 50 years.
– [Host Voiceover] The
professors think conditions
are ripe in America for one
of two things to happen:
one, a resurgent left declaring war
on laissez-faire economics.
– Capitalism in America is much more
anti-worker than it is in Europe.
I mean, the income tax
rates are not very different
from what they are here, but in Europe
there’s a value-added tax that generates
a huge amount of revenue which is used
to maintain an elaborate
social safety net.
We don’t have that here.
– We’ve produced the Bill Gateses,
the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Steve Jobses.
They’ve come from
America, not from Europe.
Some of the greatest minds on this planet
have emerged from this society.
– Well a lot of them are immigrants.
So, something like half of
the Fortune 500 companies
were started by immigrants.
The year I got the Nobel Prize,
there were four Americans.
Three of us were immigrants.
Do we have a free society?
We don’t look after each
other, and in the end
it’s rough and tumble, a lot of people
fall right through the cracks.
But, on average, we do well. Right?
But the question is, is
“on average we do well”
okay if it’s only the top third?
If it’s only the people with BAs?
You know, in the end, you’d want a world
where people don’t have
to go to college, right?
– [Host Voiceover] The other possibility,
with inequality reaching
such a high level,
they say it may be the
fabric of our society
that could be the next casualty.
– You know when you see a
society’s life expectancy
beginning to tip over for
like three years in a row,
which it has been for
whites, and two years
for the whole population, the only time
that’s happened before was,
you know, because of smoking.
So this is, you know, that does suggest
that something really bad is going on
under the surface.
– Canary in a coal mine kind of situation?
– Yes, exactly.
And that’s very worrying.
And you know the world
is a much better place,
but it’s a very fragile place.
What happens if, say, the
stock market fell by 50% again?
You could have some constitutional crisis.
You could have a lot of things
like that that go together.
North Korea is the most obvious thing.
Put a couple of those things together
and the world would not look
quite such a happy place.
– These acclaimed Princeton professors
think the American ideal
of self-reliance is,
due to changes in the
economy, becoming outdated.
Is the isolation and
despair being experienced
by so many people in this country,
less-educated whites in particular,
pushing us towards some sort of crisis?
What do you think?
We look forward to reading your comments.

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