Living and Dying in America: An Essay on Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
Christopher J. Ruhm
- Journal of Economic Literature (Forthcoming)
This essay reviews Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (DEATHS), by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, a fascinating account of life and death in the United States during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While primarily targeted toward a popular audience, the volume will be of interest to many economists and other social scientists. It postulates how American capitalism run amok, combined with and partly causing the declining economic and social circumstances of less educated, has led to increased mortality from drugs, suicide, and chronic liver disease. After describing the material in DEATHS in considerable detail, I suggest a variety of research questions that need to be answered to confirm or refute Case and Deaton’s arguments and describe challenges to their key hypotheses. Among the latter are the ability of the postulated relationships to explain the sharply differing mortality trajectories of non-Hispanic whites, compared with other groups, and the timing of the observed mortality changes. Along the way, I raise doubts about the usefulness of the “deaths of despair” conceptualization, with its strong implications about causality.
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