Josh Marshall at TPM has some interesting insights into a recent study showing rising mortality rates in the white working class. There’s no question that the dismantling of the manufacturing sector is a huge part of this, with the long-term consequences only now becoming apparent. With falling wages and lost opportunities, we now see a rise in drug and alcohol abuse, as well as preventable diseases such as heart disease, which are brought on by stress.
Most interesting is the correlation Marshall finds between what’s happening in the US now with what happened to Russians after the fall of the Soviet Union:
Some point to post-Soviet privatization or “shock therapy” as one cause of the collapse, with declining investment in public health service provision driving the fall off. But this explanation is belied by data from post-Communist states in Eastern Europe which underwent similar and often more radical market transitions but showed no comparable drop in lifespans. In Russia, the key drivers appeared to be increases in alcohol and tobacco use, especially homemade alcohol, aftershave, cologne and other alcoholic drinks that are close to being poisons. There is even some evidence of an increase is simple accidents as a driver of declining lifespans.
In Russia, the post-Soviet lifespan collapse does not appear to be tied to the arrival of particular diseases, acute economic stress as such or a dramatic decline in the quality or availability of healthcare. The evidence suggests a broad societal collapse coinciding with or coming in the wake of state collapse, one played out through the mechanisms of chronic substance abuse, but stemming from a broad loss of hope in the future or even commitment to living. Though the scale differs greatly, the phenomenon revealed by the Case-Deaton study suggests something similar. The causes of death – suicide and chronic substance abuse – are similar. In the US case, economic factors clearly plays a role. But the clear role of race confounds any simple economic explanation.
One could argue that working class society, once the bedrock of American culture, has completely collapsed in much the same way that the Soviet Union fell. Anyone who was a part of that world, and I would count myself among them, knows that it was a distinct nation that once constituted the majority of Americans. It’s this group that Donald Trump and his nihilist rhetoric appeals to. For a not insignificant number of people, America really has collapsed and its best days are behind it. And no amount of political optimism will change it.