Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Deaths of Despair, Part II—The Wall of Ignorance

 Answering the Kennedys’ Call


Something can be done about the “Deaths of Despair” among the non-college educated white males that Anne Case and Angus Deaton have been writing about that I discussed in Deaths of Despair, Part I, and has been exacerbated by the current COVID-induced recession.

But first we must counteract the wall of ignorance that has blocked efforts to ameliorate their suffering to date, a wall that was built on the denial of scientific studies from epidemiologists and the Trump administration’s own experts at the CDC and other NIH entities.

The Trump administration is responsible for the misinformation campaign that has denied the efficacy of mask-wearing and testing to control the pandemic, for starters. And, harsh as it may sound, the Republican Party is largely responsible for the dumbing down of its electorate with its continual denial of basic scientific knowledge that confirms even the most basic scientific facts, such as for global warming and even evolution.

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc among the less-educated Americans, according to Case and Deaton, who wrote about the growing divide between those with a four-year college degree and those without in their recent book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.

“The rise in deaths that we describe is concentrated almost entirely among those without a bachelor’s degree, a qualification that also tends to divide people in terms of employment, remuneration, morbidity, marriage, and social esteem – all keys to a good life,’ said Case and Deaton.”

The economic disparities are growing due to the pandemic. In April, nearly 12 million low-wage workers were laid off, while some 6 million workers who were earning between $18 to $29 an hour were laid off. By November, all but 400,000 of those workers earning $18 to $29 an hour had returned to work, Raj Chetty, a Harvard economics professor, has said. Meanwhile, some 6 million workers who earned less than $13 an hour have yet to return to work.

The pandemic and recession were associated with a 10 percent to 60 percent increase in deaths of despair above already high pre-pandemic levels, according to a working paper by Casey Mulligan, professor of economics at the University of Chicago. He found these non-COVID excess deaths are disproportionately experienced by men aged 15-55, per the above NBER graph.

“Mortality in 2020 significantly exceeds what would have occurred if official COVID deaths were combined with a normal number of deaths from other causes,” he wrote. “The demographic and time patterns of the non-COVID excess deaths (NCEDs) point to deaths of despair rather than an undercount of COVID deaths. The flow of NCEDs increased steadily from March to June and then plateaued. They were disproportionately experienced by working aged men, including men as young as aged 15 to 24.”

Because drug epidemics tend to follow major episodes of “social upheaval and destruction”, we can expect more of the same economic disparities and consequent social unrest that has followed, unless something is done.

And that requires a major educational effort to bolster K-12 public education institutions that have been purposely downplayed by Trump’s own Department of Education, in favor of private, for-profit learning, even transferring funds earmarked for public education to for-profit programs.

The high wall of ignorance that has built up over more than a decade of denial of scientific knowledge by one political party is a wall that needs to be torn down to even begin to mitigate the social unrest among those suffering from Deaths of Despair and rebuild their faith in democratic processes.

Harlan Green © 2020

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

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