Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interview with Angus Deaton on Death Rates, Inequality, and More

The Knowledge@Wharton website at the University of Pennsylvania has posted a 36-minute podcast interview with Angus Deaton, titled "Is Despair Killing the White Working Class? Ask Angus Deaton." Deaton has been writing on this subject for several years: a recent example is "Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century," coauthored with Anne Case, and written for the Spring 2017 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. There's lots of good stuff and detail in the interview, but here are a couple of passages quote from the edited transcript of the interview that caught my eye.

Rising death rates for less-educated midlife white Americans
"[I]f you look at white, non-Hispanics in midlife, in their early 50s for example, their mortality rate after 100 years of declining had turned the wrong way or at least flattened out. This is not happening to other groups in the U.S. It’s not happening to Hispanics. It’s not happening to African-Americans. And it’s not happening in any other rich country in the world. This is happening to both men and women. Perhaps the most shocking thing is that a lot of the deaths come from what you might think of as behavioral factors, which are alcohol – alcoholic beverages – from suicides and from drug overdoses. Many of those drug overdoses are accidental overdoses from prescription drugs. People often think the health system is responsible for our health. In this case, the health system is responsible for killing people, not actually helping them. ... It’s like there are two Americas out there: the people with a B.A., and people without a B.A. The mortality rates of white non-Hispanics without a B.A. are going up faster than the average. They’re much more subject to opioid abuse, suicides, alcohol-related liver disease and heart disease, which has been a major cause in mortality decline. Mortality from heart diseases stopped declining and started rising. There’s a lot of really bad stuff going on, especially for this group without a B.A."

Some graphs, one with US data and one with international comparisons, help to tell the story



On the concerns about inequality inequality 

"There’s literature out there claiming that income inequality is bad for everything, including health. I’ve argued against that for many years. It’s not clear why Mark Zuckerberg, or someone who develops Facebook or does some other thing that benefits many people and gets very rich in the process, is responsible for the poor health of people at the bottom who are not doing as well as he is. That’s really important because otherwise you get led to the thing where the cure for the bad things that are happening to health is higher taxation and redistribution, and I don’t endorse that for that purpose. I might endorse it for other reasons ..
"I think that if you’ve got two people, one of whom is richer than the other, and neither is in distress in any way, I don’t see why it makes the world a better place to bring them closer together. ... I just don’t think inequality by itself is bad. That puts me at odds with a lot of economists, a lot of people on the left, a lot of liberals. But that doesn’t mean the inequality that we have is a good thing. The issue is if instrumentally inequality is bad. So, if someone gets very, very rich and other people don’t, that person might use that wealth to hurt those people, and it might not even be in an income space. It might be what I said about schools, or they might undermine the health system or nullify your votes, or that Congress only listens to rich people. That’s a concern that goes back to the Greeks, which is that rich people might effectively take over the state and, at worst, enslave poor people or have poor people acting totally in their interests. That’s the sort of thing I think is really bad about inequality."
"You asked about rent-seeking, and that is part of it. I think a lot of the inequality that we get in the U.S. today comes through people seeking special favors from the government by lobbying, by getting special deals, getting the rules changed. A lot of that is going on now. We’re supposedly having a bonfire of regulations, but a lot of these regulations are to prevent rich people stealing stuff from poorer people or from the nation as a whole, which is sort of the same thing. So if you just contrast what Mark Zuckerberg did with rent-seeking, I think, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think it’s okay to get rich by making things. It’s not okay to get rich by taking things by theft, as it were."
There's also a shorter interview by Jeff Guo with both Angus Deaton and Anne Case at the "Wonkblog" run by the Washington Post (April 6, 2017).