Anatomists of Melancholy in the Age of Coronavirus

Spencer Lee-Lenfield:

Before 2015, few people would have thought of not finishing college as a public-health issue. That changed because of research done by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, economists at Princeton who are also married. For the past six years, they have been collaboratively researching an alarming long-term increase in what they call “deaths of despair” — suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholism-related illnesses — among white non-Hispanic Americans without a bachelor’s degree in middle age.

The term “deaths of despair” has taken on a life of its own, becoming ubiquitous in newspapers, magazines, and op-eds. It has been the subject of think-tank panels, conferences, and even government inquiry. “America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why,” proclaims a New York Times article that visualizes some of their research. This past fall, Congress’s Joint Economic Committee issued its own report on “Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair.”

Case and Deaton’s new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton University Press), takes their message even further. Capitalism itself, they argue, needs serious reform if it is to make good on its potential to improve the lives of all Americans. In particular, as Case pointedly observed in a lecture last year at Stanford University, “We don’t think [American capitalism] is working for people without a four-year college degree — and that’s two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64.” The coronavirus outbreak, the dire economic forecast, the millions of newly unemployed — all of these recent events raise the stakes of their research.

What difference does education make to a life?