One of the more dramatic sessions at the just-completed ASSA meetings in San Diego was an AEA panel on “Deaths from Despair and the Future of Capitalism” on Saturday at 2:30. Chaired by Angus Deaton, it focused on the book by him and his wife/coauthor Anne Case with the same title as the panel session. Case spoke on their book. This was followed by Robert Putnam, who spoke on his forthcoming (in about six months) new book, The Upswing, which this post will focus on. This was followed by Raghuram Rajan, who spoke about his recently published book, The Third Pillar: The Community. Finally Ken Rogoff commented on the Case/Deaton book, although he has no new book of his own.
So all of these focused on the declining life expectancy in the US, along with the associated broader breakdown of community and equality and so on. Putnam presented a series of figures showing the long term trends on various variables from equality to memberships in organization to degrees of political polarization to the relative use of the words “we” and “I” in books published from the 1880s to the present. He showed a trend where basically there was improvement from around 1900 to the 1960s (1970s in the case of equality) All of these have since gone down basically steadily to the point that we are now “in about the same condition as we last were in the gilded age.”
This leads to Putnam posing a possible optimism the possibility of the “Upswing” in the title of his forthcoming book. He argued at the end of his talk that we should consider what happened back then: the emergence of the Progressive movement that started that upward trajectory of social capital. He argues that since we did this back then, it can happen again, the Upswing. Can it? I do not know, but maybe he is right to push for such an outcome, although it may take getting rid of our current president.
In his book Ages of Discord and his blog Cliodynamica, Peter Turchin has talked about inequality and well- being running in cycles. In other words periods of high inequality/low well being followed by periods of lower inequality/higher well being.
I am not endorsing or agreeing with Turchin, but offering examples of his work as food for thought in regards this post.
In reading Turchin’s post that I linked to above, I think his ideas have some merit. However, I got his book Ages of Discord from my local library and in skimming through it I found it somewhat average. I think Turchin’s ideas have some merit but great ideas/articles do not always transfer well to a book length treatise. My sense is he views his model of Cliodynamics as a “theory that explains everything” or i.e. everything runs in cycles but in reality things are more complex.
In response to the post above, my sense (following Turchin’s model) is that there may be an upswing in our future but I believe things will get much worse overall before there is an Upswing.
I read somewhere recently that there is a sort of line of demarcation between two views of the world. Essentially the article said that much of the issues of US society are due to the beliefs and power of people older than 50. And that when people younger than 50 (specifically the Millennials and younger) get more influential in politics and business then things will begin to improve.
In other words many of the sins/consequences of our current society have been felt by the younger generations in the form of high college tuition, high housing costs, job instability, etc. And as a result they will be a force for change. An example of this might be that much of Bernie Sanders base is the younger generations.
Of course any Upswing might be short lived (5, 10, 20 years) as the effects of resource scarcity (water, fossil fuels) and climate change become more severe and impact those less able to adapt i.e. poorer countries, poorer people. Another cycle?