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.