In today’s newer, whiter story of despair, access to a B.A. degree has almost come to determine a man’s life story. Increasingly, it predicts joblessness; among whites age 25-54, a woman with a B.A. is more likely to work than a man without one. That degree also increasingly predicts a man’s wage, because earnings for B.A.-haves have gone up over the last decades, while for B.A.-have-nots, they have gone down.
And where might the blue-collar man work? Often for a temp agency or contractor with high turnover, and little employer commitment. So he won’t attend the office Christmas party (there won’t be one) or play on the union baseball team (there is no union). He’s less likely to go to church, organize the Lion’s Club fund-raiser, coach Little League or vote. Most important, four out of 10 such men won’t be coming home to a wife. Many are several girlfriends past the one who is their children’s mother, and a fair number are tragically out of touch with the children themselves.
The surge in drug overdoses has been pushed by criminally irresponsible companies like Purdue Pharma. But drugs fueled a fire already ablaze, the authors note. Because of competition from cheap labor in the global south and robots at home, capitalism is failing the blue-collar man, and while the answer is not to eliminate so-called free enterprise, the authors caution, they say that we urgently need to fix it. In the meantime, “deaths of despair reflect a long-term and slowly unfolding loss of a way of life.” And this loss occurs, we can add, alongside a parallel crisis of a missing public narrative. Its victims are not dying in heroic wars or battling firestorms. One by one, they are dying in solitary shame with pill, alcohol or gun unmentioned in the death notice.
Though repetitive, the prose in “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism” is clear, the style is discursive and the spirit reflects the boundless curiosity that led the two economists to sociology — where they found in the French sociologist Emile Durkheim the key to suicide: loss of community. They might have discovered another useful idea in the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s idea of “loss aversion.” For it’s not those who never had anything who are killing themselves, but those — like these blue-collar white men — who have lost what they once had. In the age of automation, this may lie in store for us all.
One issue this book does not raise is how, at a time of great partisan divide, readers will receive its message. Those on the conservative side might question the idea of deaths of despair since they tend to see addiction and suicide as moral flaws. They might also resist the authors’ steady focus on social class and search instead for more all-encompassing measures of well-being, like G.D.P., which obscure the growing class divide. As for the authors’ call to counter capitalism’s unrestrained impulse to distribute up, the conservative might counter, “Not to worry, benefits will trickle down.”