Angus Deaton on physical pain, mortality and disgruntled voters

Each weekend the Financial Times publishes “Lunch with the FT”. It is always worth reading, but this week’s column is especially good. Shawn Donnan, World Trade Editor at the Financial Times, interviews Princeton economist Angus Deaton, who received the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics for his analysis of consumption, poverty and welfare.

Just weeks after he won the Nobel Prize, Deaton and his wife, fellow Princeton economist Anne Case, published a paper revealing an alarming trend in US society: a surge in suicides and other “deaths of despair” among high school-educated white men had reached such an alarming level that middle-aged whites collectively had become the only demographic group in America in decades to see rising mortality. By their calculations, between 1999 and 2013 as many as 490,000 extra lives were lost as a result of the shift.

The Case/Deaton study was seized on as causal evidence for the rise of Trump and his appeal to disgruntled white voters in the American heartland. ….

[Deaton] is scathing about the Clintons, and Hillary Clinton in particular, for their links to a broken establishment. “One of the great benefits of the election to me is that I don’t have to pretend that I like her,” he tells me at one point, even as he confesses he reluctantly voted for her.

But his bigger frustration is with what he sees as the detached and technocratic backgrounds of so many people in centrist politics nowadays. ….

Deaton retired from his position at Princeton in the spring but he and Case are continuing to dig into the data. Since the election others have seized on the correlation between places with high white mortality rates and votes for Trump. But the link to those who report suffering from physical pain is even greater, Deaton says. He sees an epidemic of pain and a related flood of opioids into communities over the past decade as being, more than globalisation or economic dislocation, the real cause of rising mortality among middle-aged white Americans.

….  What is causing that epidemic — and its links to Trump’s rise — remains unclear, he says. He seems more willing to blame pharmaceutical companies and doctors for overprescribing opioids. A surge in addiction (drug overdoses caused more deaths in the US last year than auto accidents) has, he argues, proved far more fatal than globalisation. ….

Asking whether inequality is bad for economic growth is, Deaton says, a “simple-minded question”. Yet inequality manifested in wealthy people or corporations buying control of government is a different matter. “That surely is a catastrophe. So I have come to think that it’s the inequality that comes through rent-seeking [the use of wealth to influence politics for selfish gain] that is the crux of the matter.”

I ask him what we should make of president-elect Trump’s installation of fellow billionaires in his first cabinet?

He shrugs. “I know. But then the Obama administration was elected on that platform [of change] and tried and didn’t succeed very well. And the Clintons just seem like the opposite of the way you want to do this stuff.”

Shawn Donnan, “Nobel economist Angus Deaton on a year of political earthquakes“, Lunch with the FT, Financial Times, 24 December 2016 (metered paywall).

There is much more in the full column, including Deaton’s views on the UK’s exit from the EU, and Scotland’s exit from the UK. (He opposed the first exit, and initially opposed the second as well.)

Scottish-American economist Angus Deaton (born 1945) was educated at the University of Cambridge (BA, MA, PhD), then taught at the University of Bristol (UK) until 1983, when he left England for the USA to take up a post at Princeton University. He is author of numerous books, including The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton University Press, 2013).

Deaton has appeared before in TdJ: here, here, here, here and here.

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