Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has drawn a lot of scorn from the Mainstream Media and the nation’s political chattering class by insisting that countries like China, Mexico, and Japan are “killing” America on trade. The vast majority of them know nothing about U.S. trade policy, and those with a smidgeon of familiarity with the subject don’t take seriously the idea (drawn straight from conventional economics) that growing trade deficits subtract from America’s growth and employment levels.
But last week, the nation received stunning news that Trump literally may be right, along with new insights into why a White House aspirant blasting U.S. trade (and immigration) policies in the harshest possible terms has gained such traction despite a personal style and background that are highly unconventional in elective politics – to put it mildly.
A new study claiming that middle-aged American whites have recently been dying at much higher rates than their counterparts in other high-income countries also points to a strategy through which Trump can dramatically improve his standing with the religious conservative voters who still view him with such skepticism, but who wield major clout in early caucus state Iowa, and early primary state South Carolina.
The study was co-authored by no less than Angus Deaton, the Princeton University professor who just won the Nobel prize for economics, and his wife Anne Case, also a noted Princeton economist. It purports to show that, between 1999 and 2013, there has been “a marked increase in the all-cause mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.”
Moreover, according to Deaton and Case, “This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround.” And just as intriguingly, this trend in mid-life mortality, which marked a major reversal from an overall decline in death rates for Americans aged 45 and older, “was confined to white non-Hispanics.”
But what really links the Deaton and Case findings to economic developments are the data they present shedding light on the causes of increasing mortality among this white cohort – which they themselves argue reveals the connection. Their summary is worth quoting in full:
“This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. Although all education groups saw increases in mortality from suicide and poisonings, and an overall increase in external cause mortality, those with less education saw the most marked increases. Rising midlife mortality rates of white non-Hispanics were paralleled by increases in midlife morbidity. Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and inability to work, as well as clinically measured deteriorations in liver function, all point to growing distress in this population.”
The authors continue:
“Although the epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, ties to economic insecurity are possible. After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education. However, the productivity slowdown is common to many rich countries, some of which have seen even slower growth in median earnings than the United States, yet none have had the same mortality experience.”
As Deaton and Case explain it, American workers’ feelings of economic insecurity are so much greater than those of their European counterparts mainly because their retirement arrangements are so much shakier. Most American employers who still provide pension plans have moved to the defined contribution model – “with associated stock market risk.” In Europe, by contrast, most employers still offer defined benefit plans.
I have no doubt that the authors have identified a big piece of the problem. But here’s another, and one that’s directly related to the Trump campaign: Whereas recent U.S. presidents from both major parties have pushed a long string of trade deals that have encouraged American businesses to offshore massive numbers of high wage industrial jobs, Europe’s governments have worked much harder to keep that employment – and the underlying production – at home.
As made clear in my book on globalization, The Race to the Bottom, the resulting job loss and wage stagnation (and often declines) have rippled throughout the entire American middle and working class. And although it’s eminently reasonable to believe that the U.S. economy has significantly outperformed the Europeans for many years, these death rate data indicate that this outperformance has been scarcely relevant to the most important test of a successful society by far – improving the lives of the great majority of its people.
And here’s another Trump-ian tie-in overlooked by Deaton and Case. European governments obviously have been as eager as the U.S. government to admit huge numbers of immigrants from very low-wage countries into their economies. But where European and U.S. immigration policies differ significantly entails their openness to immigrants with relatively high levels of skills and education. In other words, there’s nothing in Europe remotely like the American H-1B program, which has fostered major immigration-related job displacement (and therefore wage decreases) in white collar occupations that were supposed to be immune to competition from much cheaper foreign workers. More generally, this kind of offshore outsourcing has hit a wide variety of jobs in the professions in addition to technology positions.
So this is nothing less than a golden opportunity for Trump – both with the downwardly mobile whites in general who have flocked to him not only in great numbers but on a sustained basis so far, and with the so-called evangelicals who represent so much of the Republican primary electorate. For the causes of rising white mortality described by Deaton and Case are inarguably both causes of family break-up – especially divorce – and symptoms of the strains placed on families by economic angst.
Of course, faith-focused voters have long blamed the weakening of the traditional American family overwhelmingly on the rise of more permissive social and cultural values since the 1960s. But some U.S. politicians – notably pundit and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has run this year and in 2012, have made the connection with economic forces. And the Eaton-Case study gives Trump the kind of ammunition that Buchanan – who, unlike Santorum, went after U.S. trade policy – never had. Moreover, Trump has the kinds of communications skills both to capitalize on the new data, and to present it in exciting and fresh-sounding – not to mention somewhat sensationalistic – ways.
The Deaton-Case findings aren’t accepted by everyone. But whose are? More important, in politics, it’s all too easy to make persuasive claims that have no credible sources. Making claims that come from supremely credible sources can be even more effective – including by blunting lots of Mainstream Media and chattering class scorn. So I’m really looking forward to Trump’s next appearance on “Meet the Press” or some similar brain-dead national media outlet, when he tells the moderator, “Our trade and immigration policies are literally killing us! And you don’t have to take my word for it!”