A Storyteller and His Conscience

(Photo Credit: Rebecca Wilcox, Purdue University)

Economics Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton — Beyond “Deaths of Despair”

By Donald Gilpin

You might think that Anne Case and her husband Angus Deaton, both economics professors emeritus at Princeton University, would be the epitome of ivory tower academics detached from the vicissitudes of the everyday world.

The title of the book they recently co-wrote, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, might lead you to believe that that ivory tower would be a dark and gloomy place to inhabit.

On both counts you would be wrong.

Deaton and Case — or “Sir Angus and Lady Angus” since 2016 when Deaton, a 2015 Nobel laureate, was knighted at Buckingham Palace by Prince William, or “Dada and Lady Anna” as they are known by their grandchildren — joined me for a Zoom interview in July from their home on Pretty Brook Road in Princeton.

Economics may have been labeled as “the dismal science,” but Case and Deaton are a warm, engaging, and entertaining couple — committed to making an impact on one of the most troubling problems plaguing our country, as they wield significant weight in the corridors of power.

Deaths of Despair, which depicts the decline of the American dream amidst a surge in deaths of working-class men, has been cited as one of the most influential books written in the past decade.

“I think most academics would tell you that no one in power listens to them,” Deaton said. “We can’t say that. People in power listen to us, and we know that the people who are running the country know the work.” He recalled the couple’s visit with President Obama in the White House following the announcement of Deaton’s 2015 Nobel Prize for economics.

He continued, “If they’re not doing something about it, it’s because there’s really nothing they’re able to do. One of the stories in our book is about just how difficult it is to reform things, with a system that’s helping keep rich people rich, often at the expense of poor people.”

“Economics is the language of power,” said Case. “We would be delighted if people in positions to make decisions read our book and took it on board. It’s clear that some of them have. Janet Yellen, secretary of the treasury, is a fan of this work. Cecilia Rouse, who was the dean of the [Princeton University] School of Public and International Affairs and is now the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, is also a fan of the work. So, we’re really hoping that we’ll be able to make some progress through the writing.”

As they state in the preface to Deaths of Despair, “We hope this book … will help put us back on track to make the progress in this century that we have generally made in the past. The future of capitalism should be a future of hope and not of despair.”

“Out of Dragons’ Eggs”

The couple described the very different routes each had taken into the world of academics, the field of economics, their focus on poverty, and on their journeys to Princeton.

Deaton provided the short version: “Economists come out of dragons’ eggs.” Case filled in the details. “Neither of our parents were educators,” she explained, “but they did believe in education. When I went to college, I studied economics and thought I wanted to go out and do good, so I came to Princeton and studied at what was then the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.” 

Deciding that getting a Ph.D. in economics would be “a step along the way of going out to do good,” Case proceeded to earn her doctorate from Princeton in 1988, and realized, “I really loved the research. I loved teaching. I loved the idea that I could be in the classroom and also do field work. I was entirely smitten with life as an academic.”

Case worked as an assistant professor at Harvard University for three years before returning to Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, where she has served on the faculty for the past 30 years, becoming the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs in 2007.

An award-winning scholar, Case has written extensively on health economics and currently serves on the Committee on National Statistics. She described her interests that led up to their landmark 2015 paper and Deaths of Despair five years later.

“As long as I’ve been an economist, I’ve been interested in how poor people cope, how they keep body and soul together,” she said. She did research work in South Africa for about 12 years before deciding to tackle problems closer to home. “I realized it was time to tie off that work in Africa and begin to look at what was going on in the U.S. And that’s about when Angus and I started this project.”

Deaton, who grew up in Scotland and has both British and American citizenship, described a different journey to Princeton and to the pinnacle of the world of academics. 

“Neither of my parents graduated from high school,” he said. “My dad started out life as a coal miner and wanted me to have a much better education than he had. My mother was not so convinced. She was a carpenter’s daughter and thought working with your hands was a really good idea. But she liked to tell stories, and I think that was something important I learned from her and inherited from her.”

Starting out as a mathematician, Deaton attended the University of Cambridge in England. He had always read a lot, and the transition into economics came naturally. “To me one of the great things about economics is that it combines mathematics with history,” he said. 

He described contrasts between himself and Case in their approaches to the field of economics, contrasts that have contributed to their success in collaboration as researchers and writers.

“I’m not sure I was dedicated to doing good,” Deaton continued in reflecting on his early interest in economics, “not as dedicated as Anne was. She’s the conscience of the two of us. I like to play with data and see patterns, which is what this book was almost entirely about — just seeing those patterns.”

Deaton described economics as the “imperial science,” which confers a certain power to its practitioners. “We can trespass in a way that’s harder for sociologists or demographers or political scientists,” he said. “Our training trains us about how to handle data, and that’s a big advantage in doing this sort of work.”

Stressing the importance of drawing from many different fields in working to address problems, Case added that Deaths of Despair would not have been as rich and extensive as it is if they had not read sociology, psychology, and history.  “We’re believers in the interplay,” she said. “We don’t believe that economics should take over all of social science. We need to coordinate with others.”

Deaton pointed out that he has “always been interested in what makes people tick, why some people are poorer than other people.” He continued, “I began my life studying savings and spending patterns and differences between people, and it’s not a big step from there into studying poverty.”

He emphasized that poverty is about much more than just money. “It’s about your health,” he said. “It’s about your education. It’s about deprivation in multiple forms, so I think both of us moved towards health-related things over the years.”

Deaton was happily and successfully ensconced at the University of Bristol (England), “a lovely place which I really liked,” as a professor of econometrics, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979. Thatcher, he claims, precipitated his emigration to the United States.

“It was Mrs. Thatcher who did it,” he said. “Mrs. Thatcher was taking a lot of the budget away from British universities, and it became very unpleasant at Bristol and very difficult to work there. I visited Princeton between 1979 and 1980, and I had friends here in the economics department, and when I made it clear that I would consider moving to the U.S., this was one place it was suggested I come. I’ve never regretted it.” 

Deaton joined the Princeton University faculty in 1983 and is currently the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Economics and International Affairs at SPIA and the Department of Economics. Since 2017 he has held a joint appointment with the University of Southern California, where he is the Presidential Professor of Economics. He was previously widowed, with two children born in 1970 and 1971. Deaton and Case were married in 1997.

Sir Angus is knighted by Prince William at Buckingham Palace in 2016 as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. “It’s a wonderful tribute to scholarship, and much more fun than having to find a horse, a suit of armor, and a lance, so to ride into battle for the Queen,” said Deaton. (Photo courtesy of Anne Case and Angus Deaton)

“Alpha Dogs”

A marriage is one thing, but a working partnership between two strong-minded writers and economists is another. Despite their extraordinary successes over the years as co-authors, it has not always been easy.

“When we first got married, we tried to work together,” Deaton recalled. “I remember we were writing a paper together and we were on New Jersey Transit coming back from New York. By the end we were barely speaking to each other. We were so angry.”

Case has not forgotten the incident. “We literally fought over every word,” she said. “So that wasn’t going to work if we were going to write a book together. We’re both sort of alpha dogs, so we had to figure out how this was going to work.”

She continued, “We worked on an outline, then a chapter outline. Then Angus would take the first stab at the writing, and I was the numbers person, and then we would kind of flip around and each do what the other one had been doing and clean it up or reword it or whatever, understanding that it was something that could break, that it wasn’t just a given that this was going to work well.”

Their dedication to the work and the collaboration prevailed. Case went on, “I think we almost felt like — it’s a little strong to say this, but I think we almost felt as if we were on a mission. We really wanted this to work. We really thought it was important to get the word out, so we were willing to check our egos at the door and just plow into the work, more so than we might have otherwise.”

“Also, we’ve found it works,” Deaton added. He went on to point out a particular strategy that helps the collaboration: “We’ve often gone to nice places when we have a deadline to write something.”

The introduction to Deaths of Despair describes how the book “was born in a cabin in Montana,” where they spend August each year, in the town of Varney Ridge on the Madison River overlooking the mountains of the Madison Range. They were especially looking forward to the trip this year, and after the intense pace of their work over the past year they were hoping to find time for rest and recreation. “So, we booked two fishing trips a week instead of one,” Deaton said.

Deaton and Case were recipients of the 2017 Franklin Founder Award, one of the numerous accolades they have received for their work in economics. (Photo courtesy of Anne Case and Angus Deaton)

Life-Changing Honors

Case and Deaton talked about how the events of 2015 changed their lives. In early October of that year Deaton was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in helping to achieve economic reform and reduce poverty by first illuminating individuals’ consumption choices. “His work has helped transform the fields of microeconomics, macroeconomics, and development economics,” read the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences citation.

Case and Deaton’s landmark paper, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” came out less than a month later. “We’d just recovered from the tsunami that came with the Nobel Prize,” said Deaton, “but the tsunami associated with the paper was much, much more overwhelming.”

Case and Deaton’s carefully documented discovery that the American dream was in decline; that mortality rates were rising significantly among middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic men, particularly the less-educated; and that hundreds of thousands in the U.S. were dying “deaths of despair” from suicide, drugs and alcohol abuse sent shock waves throughout the country.

In following up on their discovery over the next five years, they expanded their research leading up to the publication of Deaths of Despair in 2020. “There is something going on in America that is different, and that is particularly toxic for the working class,” they wrote in the book’s introduction. “Much of this book is concerned with trying to find out just what that something might be.”

In 2015, in the days between the announcement of the Nobel Prize and the award ceremony in Stockholm, Case and Deaton were invited to the White House. “We went to the Oval Office,” he said. “President Obama came to the door and opened it. I put out my hand. He shook my hand, and I said, ‘I’d like to introduce Anne,’ and he said, ‘Professor Case needs no introduction. I’m a great fan of her work. You guys come in here and we’re going to talk about that paper you’ve just written.’”

Case added, “He gave us very good advice. We had been grappling with the fact in our first paper that these deaths from suicide, drugs, and alcohol were happening to white people who don’t face overt discrimination. It was this group where all of the dysfunctions were taking place.”

She continued, “He said, ‘You need to make sure you look at what happened in the Black community in the 1960s and ’70s, because that’s the point at which a lot of the dysfunctions you see now happening in the white working class were happening in the Black working class.’ And that was incredibly helpful as we made our way through thinking about how to put this group into the broader picture of what has happened in the U.S.”

Princeton Locals

Case and Deaton’s emeritus status does not seem to have any correlation to retirement, as they continue to be an active, visible presence at the University and around town. Case will be teaching graduate courses this fall on Poverty, Inequality, and Health in the World and Economic Analysis of Development.

“The local community has always been interested in hearing about our work,” said Deaton. “Non-University people in Princeton like to know what’s going on at Princeton University.”

Case and Deaton have spoken a number of times at the Princeton Public Library, and participated in several events at the Nassau Club, the Center of Theological Inquiry, and with the Old Guard of Princeton. They have also bought burial plots in the Princeton Cemetery, “next to Grover Cleveland,” Deaton reported.

“This is our home,” said Case, “and I love the fact that when I walk down the street I often see people I know, and I stop and chat, catch up a bit. You feel like you’re part of a community here and that’s enormously important, that kind of connection.”

Princeton also seems to fulfill two of Case and Deaton’s shared lifelong passions: for music and fish.

“At Princeton we love the fact that there are concerts at the University and lectures, open to the public, where everyone is welcome,” said Case. “The town has a real sense of self, and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

Deaton expressed his love of fish and fishing. “We eat a lot of fish in Scotland,” he said, and he noted his disappointment when he lived in England to find that “the fish was terrible, and I hated it.” When he first came to Princeton there was no fish shop, but he and Case are now very happy to have Nassau Street Seafood in town. He added, “We know them well and they know us well, and we’re in there often.”

An avid fly fisherman, Deaton is not entirely happy with the Stony Brook. “It has trout in it, but it’s not what you’d call a fly-fishing stream,” he said. “I have fished in the Stony Brook, but only in desperation.”

Looking Ahead: “A Dangerous Position”

Unsurprisingly, life for Case and Deaton in the 18 months since Deaths of Despair came out has been extremely busy. There were many questions early in the pandemic, with callers asking what COVID-19 would mean for deaths of despair. But there was no data available and little Case and Deaton could say definitively. A long, complicated international book tour, which was originally scheduled to start at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street, was conducted almost entirely through Zoom readings and discussions online.

“I believe the book continues to have legs,” Case said, “because we haven’t solved the problems that were there that we think are structurally undergirding this mid-life mortality. Because we haven’t dealt with those, the problems aren’t just going to solve themselves.”

Deaton went on, “I really think we’re in a dangerous position. In the long run the American economy has been working well for well-educated elites. But it’s not working well for everyone else, and that is not a sustainable situation. We’ll see enormous hype by the people who have benefited from the system, and that’s going to be really hard.”

There are potential solutions, Deaton pointed out, but not the willingness to implement those solutions. “We have the remedies,” he said. You would have thought, just to take an example, that we’d give the IRS more funding to collect what is due, right? Well, there’s a huge uproar about that from the right, saying ‘How dare you try to make us pay the taxes that we owe?’ Well, if you can’t do that, you know, it’s going to be really hard.”

Insisting that he remains optimistic, “at least in the evening when we’ve had a glass of wine or two with a meal,” Deaton went on to note that there is evidence of progress. “I think our work has actually helped, because before our work a lot of people would say, ‘You know these people are actually not doing so bad. You’re just not measuring it right. The price index hasn’t been going up as much as you think. Poor people have actually done really well over the past 50 years. All this pessimistic stuff is from Marxists, Communists, or something. But when you tell people that they’re dying — you might lie about your paycheck, but you don’t lie about being dead. And so I think that had a big impact, especially among conservatives who thought that everything was OK.”

Case and Deaton will be pursuing their ongoing research and their mission to combat these deaths of despair and to reshape the future of capitalism.

“This fall will be very busy,” said Case. “A lot more quantitative research papers will come out of the book, and we’re trying to write them at a level that the average person can just pick up and read. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Deaton added, “We love Princeton. We’re very grateful to both the University and the community for giving us such a great place to live and work.”