Obligation to the Public

Kevin Guskiewicz

When the Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton first started examining mortality data in the United States, he assumed there must be an error. Alongside his wife and fellow Princeton economist Anne Case, Deaton found that life expectancy in the United States had not just slowed, but actually declined in the last several years, driven by increasing mortality rates for white Americans without a college degree.
“We were pretty shocked when we found it, that’s for sure,” he told my class of Ph.D. students last week. “It’s not what we were looking for.” He said that most of the time when you find something so dramatic and unexpected, it turns out there’s a flaw with your calculations. But you have to run it down, he said, because if you turn out to be right, the implications might be huge.
“Knowing when to probe data, to some extent, it’s about having a prepared mind,” he said. “You know enough to know what you’re seeing, and know that it’s strange.”
Deaton and Case had uncovered something very strange and very troubling: deaths of despair. White Americans without a college degree have been dying in tragic numbers from drug overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide — enough to reverse a centuries-long trend of rising life expectancy. Those findings delivered a shock that echoed across disciplines — economics, public health, criminal justice, education — and profoundly influenced American politics.
Deaton was visiting our class — via Zoom, like all of us — because he and Case found that these deaths of despair were overwhelmingly concentrated among people without bachelor’s degrees. Across a range of important indicators, from employment prospects to social, mental, and physical health, the gap between those with a degree and those without has gotten wider. And the consequences of that chasm in American society have become so severe that they show up in the most basic indicator of all — life expectancy.
“Two-thirds of Americans do not have a four-year degree,” Deaton said. “And lots of things that make life worth living are getting worse for two-thirds of the population.”
He and Case detailed their findings and some of their recommendations in a book released earlier this year. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism looks at shifting labor markets, the skyrocketing cost of health care, changes in marriage and child-raising habits, and a host of other factors that contribute to our crisis in mortality. He covered much of that ground in class.
But one of the key lessons that I hope our students took away is that following your curiosity — running down those anomalies in the data — is one of the highest responsibilities of a professor or a researcher. Deaton has made his Nobel-winning career from exploring a series of hard questions that often yielded counterintuitive answers. He questioned many of the prevailing assumptions about market prices and consumer spending; reexamined the way people think about savings; and did pathbreaking work on flaws in economic development models around the world. And that was before he upended the political discussion in America with a shocking discovery about early deaths and a deepening social crisis.
This is one of the most important commitments that higher education makes to the broader society. In exchange for academic freedom and public support, we’ll put some of the world’s best minds to work on very hard, very complex problems. No one told Deaton, a world-class economist, to apply his expertise in the realm of social science and education policy. But that’s where the data led him, and he was obliged to follow.
It will be up to the rising generation of professors and college leaders to answer the profound challenge that Deaton and Case have raised: how does the 21st-century university serve all Americans, not just those who walk across the graduation stage?
“It’s something I’ve worried about for a long time,” Deaton said. “I think the great universities… are in real danger by being totally separated from the majority of Americans.”
That’s not what I want for this great university, and not what I expect from the people who work and study here. Building a society that serves all of us, a future where Deaton’s “deaths of despair” are outliers and not an entrenched pattern, is an urgent mission. I know our world-class faculty are up to it. If we remain strategic, bold, and student-focused, we’ll continue making a difference, one student at a time.


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