‘Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism’ Book Review

Apr 28, 2020 by

From the cover of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton University Press)

By Robert VerBruggen –

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (Princeton University Press, 312 pp., $27.95)

In 2015, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton garnered a lot of media coverage for an academic paper documenting a rise in “deaths of despair” — from alcohol, suicide, and drugs — among American whites, especially middle-aged whites without a college degree. Now they have fleshed out their thoughts on the issue in a book. Their argument is that in order to combat this plague, the U.S. needs to boost wages, bring back unions, fight crony capitalism, and deeply reform the health-care system.

If that strikes you as a preexisting wish list that’s been tacked on to a problem that happened to present itself but is only tangentially related, you’re not alone. Case and Deaton’s arguments linking deaths of despair to their proposed remedies are far from airtight, and as a result the book is underwhelming.

Let’s start by taking a look at the scope of the problem. In their definition, “deaths of despair” comprise three different categories. Drug deaths are overdoses that, according to the medical examiners and coroners who fill out death certificates, were either accidental in nature or of an “undetermined” intent. Alcohol deaths have several causes, including cirrhosis and other liver diseases. And suicides consist of all intentionally self-inflicted deaths, including intentional drug overdoses.

Case and Deaton note that drug overdoses make up by far the biggest share of deaths of despair, but, bizarrely, they don’t provide a clear breakdown of how all three categories have changed over time. Fortunately, Senator Mike Lee’s Social Capital Project released a report late last year with the relevant data, most pertinently this chart tracking deaths of despair among Case and Deaton’s main demographic focus, middle-aged whites:

Source: ‘Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism’ Book Review | National Review

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