In a dreadful year when, for various reasons, some good, some bad, there was a mighty chorus from the media, major corporations and academia leading us away from thinking about class, it's time we remembered that America's problems in general and the harm of the COVID-19 pandemic in particular are still mostly about class. This point is made lucidly by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in a piece on Project Syndicate, "Living and Dying in America in 2021". (Their overall argument was first laid out in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of American Capitalism, which you should read if you haven't already).
"American capitalism is not serving most Americans. While educated elites live longer and more prosperous lives, less-educated Americans – two-thirds of the population – are dying younger and struggling physically, economically, and socially.
This growing divide between those with a four-year college degree and those without one is at the heart of our recent book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. The rise in deaths that we describe is concentrated almost entirely among those without a bachelor’s degree, a qualification that also tends to divide people in terms of employment, remuneration, morbidity, marriage, and social esteem – all keys to a good life.
The COVID-19 pandemic is playing out similarly. Many educated professionals have been able to work from home – protecting themselves and their salaries – while many of those who work in services and retail have lost their jobs or face higher occupational risk. When the final tallies are in, there is little doubt that the overall losses in life and money will divide along the same educational fault line....
In our past work, we showed how suicides and other deaths of despair tracked with the slow destruction of working-class life since 1970. It is now entirely plausible that deaths in the US will rise again as the structure of the economy shifts after the pandemic. For example, cities will likely undergo radical change, with many businesses moving out of urban high-rise buildings and into suburban low-rises. If there is less commuting as a result, there will be fewer service jobs maintaining buildings and providing transportation, security, food, parking, retail, and entertainment. Whereas some of these jobs will move, others will simply vanish. And while there will be entirely new jobs, too, there is sure to be much disruption in people’s lives....
The US economy has long been experiencing large-scale disruption, owing to changes in production techniques (especially automation) and, to a lesser extent, globalization. The inevitable disturbances to employment, especially among less-educated workers who are most vulnerable to them, have been made vastly worse by the inadequacy of social safety nets and an absurdly expensive health-care system. Because that system is financed largely by employer-based insurance, which varies little with earnings, it places the greatest burden on the least skilled, who are priced out of good jobs.
Chronic legislative gridlock in Washington, DC, makes it hard to be optimistic about ameliorating these problems. But if ever there were a time to break the political impasse, it is now."
That's right, the time is now. This broad, overarching class problem is what the Biden administration needs to focus on. Time to put 2020 behind us and get our priorities straight. The fate of the progressive movement, the Democratic party and the country as a whole depends on it.
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