The Life and Death Stakes of Labor Power
Inequality kills, and it's getting worse.
There is a new research paper out from Anne Case and Angus Deaton (the economists who coined the term “Deaths of Despair”), which is always an exciting opportunity to reflect upon a new way in which the United States of America’s shiny facade conceals a monstrous soul. The problems they identify, though, carry with them an inspiration for how to build a better path forward.
Their new study looks at mortality differences over time between Americans who do and do not have college degrees. The findings are grim. Those with degrees have always had longer life expectancies, but the gap has widened considerably in recent years. In 1992, people with degrees could expect to live 2.6 years longer than those without. By 2021, that gap had grown to 6.9 years—and for men, 8.3 years. Here are two charts which illustrate the trend unambiguously. First, the long term trend in America:
And second, for context, the long term trends for the US and 22 other wealthy countries, which make it plain that we are a global outlier:
This is not a story about education. This is a story about inequality. The David Brooks brigade—those who profess to care about social problems but prefer to focus exclusively on fuzzy cultural solutions that do not require any real rearrangement of the existing power structure—are sure to prescribe an increase in college education as a result of this. (Education is often the preferred solution to social problems of people who are rich, because it carries the illusion of being able to raise up those at the bottom without asking anything from those at the top. This study cites research that indicates that the raw increase in the percentage of people getting college degrees is not the cause of the worsening mortality in the non-degree group.) But as Case and Deaton make clear, college degrees here are a proxy for socioeconomic class, and the differing life experiences that America inflicts on different classes.
As you can see, the mortality lines have been diverging for some time, and took a sharp break when the pandemic hit. Much of the long-term growing gap is attributable to Case and Deaton’s famous “deaths of despair”—deaths from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. The ways that poverty and the stifled life horizons that come with inequality feed directly into these deaths is obvious. Crucially, they note that the trend in mortality has continued even as the causes of mortality have changed over the years: “The years between 1992 and 2021 were years in which patterns of mortality changed dramatically, and those changes were different for men and for women. What is remarkable is that the widening of the gap transcended these changes in the mortality patterns,” they write. “We see it in deaths whose rates have risen in the last thirty years, like deaths of despair and COVID-19, we see it in deaths whose rates have fallen in the last thirty years, like cancer, we see it in deaths whose rates have fallen and then risen, like deaths from cardiovascular disease, and we see it in deaths whose rates were originally higher for those without a BA, most diseases, and those that were originally lower for those without a BA, colon, liver, ovarian and breast cancer for women, and prostate and pancreatic cancer for men. Even though the mechanisms and stories are different for each disease, and sometimes different for men and women, the widening gap is almost always there.”
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The weapons that are used to inflict pain in the class war change, but the pain is always there. The college wage premium—how much more money people with college degrees earn—has doubled during my lifetime, from 41% in 1979 to 83% in 2019. The income gap between families in which someone has a college degree and families in which no one does has increased by more than 50% since 1970, with the bulk of that increase happening in the Reagan-fueled 1980s. And here’s an even more staggering way to measure what has been happening economically: “In 1990, the fraction [of household wealth] owned by those without a college degree was 49 percent, a fraction that had fallen to 27 percent by 2023, so that those with a college degree had moved from owning half of wealth to nearly three-quarters over this period.”
Let’s talk about what can be done about a problem this all-encompassing. Case and Deaton have long advocated for public health care, which they reiterate in this paper; they also cite the declining power of workers relative to corporations. In order to have an honest discussion, we must first kill the myth that a college degree is, systemically speaking, anything other than the price that people pay for a ticket to the middle or upper class. It is a tax on anyone who wants to not live badly in America. If you can pay it, and get a degree, you earn the chance of having a good life. If you can’t pay it, you will be forever stuck in the anteroom of material success in this country. This is a little bit reductive, but not much. A college degree is not an achievement worthy of admiration so much as it is one more example of capitalism’s tendency to see any life necessity as a good place to erect a tollbooth.
Could Medicare for all and a European-style social safety net fix this? Probably. That is a pretty uninteresting observation, though. What do we do to get what we need? The answer to this is that we need to change the self-interested sorting that increasingly makes a college degree the one and only ticket to jobs good enough to live well on. Just as the investment class has spent the past 40 years desperately sucking a larger and larger portion of all wealth produced into its own pockets and out of the pockets of workers, so too is there a deep and entrenched self-reinforcing cycle between businesses, the higher education industry, and the college-educated class to make a college degree more valuable, in turn leaving less of society’s wealth for everyone else. How do we begin to get back to the classic American postwar era of shared prosperity, in which middle class jobs were more widely available for everyone? Organized labor, my friends. Organized labor.
For all of the complexity of America’s socioeconomic problems, the overriding practical solution to most of them is straightforward: Labor power must increase. Union density must go up. More workers must be able to organize and collectively bargain and strike. Remember a couple months ago when the Teamsters won a healthy six-figure pay package for hundreds of thousands of UPS workers, by exerting unified labor power? Yeah. That’s how it’s done. Blue collar jobs held by people without college degrees do not automatically carry with them shitty pay and nonexistent benefits leading directly to poor health and despair and death, due to some sort of natural economic law. No. Why do UPS drivers have great, livable wages and health care and Uber drivers have the opposite? Why do Las Vegas casino workers have decent middle class jobs but casino workers elsewhere do not? Because the first group has strong unions. They won decent wages and benefits, with labor power. That’s it. There is no natural law on either side of this. The investment class has not gotten filthy rich for the past half century because they are so smart from going to Wharton. They won that with power in a dirty, cutthroat class war, whose weapons are politics and money. They have been winning for a long time. But they don’t have to forever.
These are the real stakes for the labor movement. Life and death. Millions of collective years of life that never happen because working people are left at the bottom of the income distribution and the wrong side of the educational binary and then have everything they need to live on extracted from them, and turned into wealth for the upper class. Labor must get much, much more powerful in order for this to change. This is not about saying “Gee, we would be so much better off if we had all these utopian policies.” This is about: How to wrest all that wealth back from the top? You unionize and you win it collectively. That is the real, non-utopian mechanism. When I harangue and harangue and harangue my weary readers about how it is vital for unions to invest in organizing and not sit on their asses and accept decline, this is why. Death! People die younger because of this! Because they do not have unions to protect them. Who else is going to see to it that hard working people without college degrees get a fair share of what they produce? Fucking Silicon Valley? Washington? Wall Street? No. Those power centers have been very successfully propelling this trend in the wrong direction for decades. Only the labor movement will change this. Look around. There is no one else riding in to save the day.
Fundamental cause theory says that, whenever there exists the means to prevent death, those means will be more effectively seized by those with power and resources,” Case and Deaton write. “What we are seeing here is fundamental cause mechanisms on steroids; the gap is not just present, but expanding, and expanding at an accelerating rate.” Got a problem with that? Tell every last institution to spend every last dollar unionizing every last person. Utopia doesn’t create itself.
I also wrote a book about this topic, called “The Hammer,” which is going to be published in February of 2024. You can preorder it now. It’s really great if you do, so that the CAPITALIST LACKEY book stores are FORCED to display it prominently to shoppers thirsty for knowledge. I am just now beginning to think about my book tour and publicity for this book. If you are interested in hosting an event early next year, you can email me at Hamilton.Nolan@gmail.com. More on this in the future.
Let me extend a hearty “thank you” to you, my treasured subscribers, who choose to spend your mornings reading me giving some kind of diatribe about death or poverty. If you are one of the sickos who enjoys this site, How Things Work, please “strongly consider” becoming a paid subscriber. This site only exists with the support of you, my fellow sicko class war addicts. Independent media is good.