"There is a darkness spreading over part of our society":
Despair, American Style, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: A couple of weeks ago President Obama mocked Republicans who are “down on America,” and reinforced his message by doing a pretty good Grumpy Cat impression. He had a point: With job growth at rates not seen since the 1990s, with the percentage of Americans covered by health insurance hitting record highs, the doom-and-gloom predictions of his political enemies look ever more at odds with reality.
Yet there is a darkness spreading over part of our society. ... There has been a lot of comment ... over a new paper by the economists Angus Deaton (who just won a Nobel) and Anne Case, showing that mortality among middle-aged white Americans has been rising since 1999..., while death rates were falling steadily both in other countries and among other groups in our own nation.
Even more striking are the proximate causes of rising mortality. Basically, white Americans are, in increasing numbers, killing themselves... Suicide is way up, and so are deaths from drug poisoning and ... drinking... But what’s causing this epidemic of self-destructive behavior?...
In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.
That sounds like a plausible hypothesis..., but the truth is that we don’t really know why despair appears to be spreading across Middle America. But it clearly is, with troubling consequences for our society...
I know I’m not the only observer who sees a link between the despair reflected in those mortality numbers and the volatility of right-wing politics. Some people who feel left behind by the American story turn self-destructive; others turn on the elites they feel have betrayed them. No, deporting immigrants and wearing baseball caps bearing slogans won’t solve their problems, but neither will cutting taxes on capital gains. So you can understand why some voters have rallied around politicians who at least seem to feel their pain.
At this point you probably expect me to offer a solution. But while universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on would do a lot to help Americans in trouble, I’m not sure whether they’re enough to cure existential despair.