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[This post expands on an invited talk to a conference on “Distance by Design” at the Taub Center for Social Policy, Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2021.]

A defining feature of the modern world is that people are in quick, even instantaneous, contact. Media scholar Keith Hampton put the key change this way: Our newest communication technologies create persistent contact—we never really have to lose touch—and pervasive awareness—we always know what’s going on with those who matter to us. The new tools can actually restore, he suggests, many features of village-like community.

As earlier communications technologies emerged over a century ago, many observers ventured predictions about their consequences. In 1881, Scientific American editors said that the telegraph was bringing forth the “kinship of humanity.” Starting in the 1890s, some people asserted that the telephone would “abolish loneliness.” Over centuries, many have claimed that mail, telephone, automobile, radio, and the like would finally keep youth on the farm, others that they would make all places and regions culturally the same. These failed predictions should humble anyone claiming to know what today’s novel technologies are bringing.

Caution is warranted, too, because people often use new technologies in unanticipated and even paradoxical ways. (For example, fast cars enabled many voyagers, previously train passengers, to slow down and enjoy stops along the route.) In this post, I look at how contemporary Americans deal with barriers of distance in ways that, despite all our space-transcending tools, have actually reinforced the importance of place.


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In 2015, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton grabbed public attention by reporting that overall death rates for middle-aged White Americans had risen since the 1990s, sharply breaking with prior trends; they counted hundreds of thousands of new “deaths of despair.” Much news coverage, contention, and controversy followed.[1] By 2020, there was enough confusion that some people accepted the surge of deaths as fact and some dismissed it as just another academic kerfuffle.

This is a good time to revisit the claim. Last year, Case and Deaton produced a best-selling popular treatment, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, and late this year they released two academic updates (here and here). Last March, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a draft “Consensus Study Report” on High and Rising Mortality Rates Among Working-Age Adults. Meanwhile, the tide of studies that followed the initial controversy just keeps rising. What do we know?

We know that about three generations ago, newborn girls could be expected, on average, to live to about 71, newborn boys to about 65.This graph shows what happened then.

Lifespans rose and then they didn’t. Because more Americans in their prime years were dying, life expectancies leveled off for women and turned down for men,[2] despite continuing advances in health care and medical treatments. What happened?

Here are key questions: Who has suffered the rise of premature death rates? What kinds of deaths account for this trend? What distinguishes the individuals who were most vulnerable? And what social causes might explain their vulnerability in this era?

The tl;dr version of this post is that: Yes, there has been an unusual surge in American deaths in the last two decades; it has been concentrated among working-age, working-class Whites; “deaths of despair” is too expansive a description and explanation; the surge was basically due to the opioid epidemic and rising obesity; the opioid epidemic was mostly due to increased supply; economic and social dislocations mark the communities that have been most vulnerable to the opioid epidemic and thus premature deaths.The surge is real; Big Pharma and cardio health are most responsible; “left behind” communities have been the most vulnerable.


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In 1920, for the first time, women nationwide could vote in a presidential election. In 2020, for the first time, a woman was elected on a presidential ticket.

Nothing has altered the personal lives of Americans over that century as deeply as the ascendance of women. A recent book by three sociologists provides intimate views of how great events upset patriarchal family arrangements and laid the groundwork for twenty-first century women’s empowerment.

Woman Car

1937 (Photographer: Ray Lomax)

Researchers usually identify social change by comparing snapshots at different periods, contrasting, for example, Americans’ parenting practices in the 2020s to their parenting practices in the 1920s. Rarely can we follow average people over the course of their lives to see how they encountered, handled, and were shaped by events. Such “longitudinal” studies are hard to do; a project has to survive over several decades and several changes in researchers. We have but few (though the British film documentaries in the “Up” series provide a taste of the method).

A 2021 book, Living on the Edge: An American Generation’s Journey Through the Twentieth Century, by Richard Settersten, Jr., Glen Elder, Jr., and Lisa Pearce, reports the journeys of about a hundred families living in Berkeley, California, from the early to the late part of the last century. “Berkeley?!,” you burst out. But Berkeley was not always the “People’s Republic of”; for much of the twentieth century it was a more conventional city of manufacturing as well as of a university and it housed many first- and second-generation immigrants. (U.C. researchers also started a roughly parallel study of Oakland families at around the same time. I’ll have occasion to mention findings from one of its reports, John Clausen’s American Lives, too.)

Settersten, Elder, and Pearce describe changes in several dimensions of their subjects’ lives, such as social class, job opportunities, and new styles of parenting, but none is more striking than the expansion of women’s self-sufficiency and the shrinkage of men’s.


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There is much discussion these days about the hammer of government regulation that may come down on internet companies–Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Microsoft. It’s already happening in Europe. One observer commented that 

Woman with fridge

Georgia farm woman with electric refrigerator, 1930s — http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.01761

“Around the world, governments are moving simultaneously to limit the power of tech companies with an urgency and breadth that no single industry had experienced before.”

But many new industries in the past have experienced a rush of regulation–at just about this point in their development. What starts out as a novelty begins to spread, gets cheaper, spreads more, becomes an important practical tool for many if not most people, and finally becomes a necessity of modern life, a public utility (“a firm providing essential services to the public”) calling forth government intervention.

Two kinds of intervention in particular: One is to subsidize, require, or even directly provide universal access to a technology that started out as a luxury for the few. The other is to regulate the provision of that technology so as to reduce its cost, maintain minimal standards, and avoid negative externalities–accidents, extortionist pricing, pollution, unsightly equipment, and so on.

The tech past may be the tech prologue here.


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Opening Day, 2021: Baseball’s Crises

Baseball is back! Well, sort of. The Toronto Blue Jays may still be banned from playing in Toronto. At least initially, fan attendance (outside of Arlington, Texas) will be limited to no more than one-third of ballpark capacity. Some players will end up on the can’t-play list because of exposure to Covid. And Covid concerns postponed today’s opening game in Washington.


“Fans” in the stands, 2020

But, a day with some baseball is always better than a day without. This year, unlike 2020, will have a 162-game schedule. Real fans–not just cutouts (see pic)–will be there. (We have our Opening Day tix to Oracle Park.) It’s 6 months or more of fandom ecstasy and agony (usually more of the latter).

The anxiety is that major-league baseball’s future, even after Covid, is precarious.


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A few months ago, I sketched preliminary explanations of last November’s election; those conclusions still hold up well. This post addresses how well–or, poorly–the election polling did, why, and with what implications for using polls as a voice of popular opinion.Truman-Dewey

Putting the major polls together, their miss in last year’s presidential election was, on average, 4 percentage points, mainly because they underestimated the Trump vote; they also underestimated the Republican down-ballot votes by about the same margin. (Fivethirtyeight.com’s final averages of polls gave Biden an 8.4-point lead; he ended up winning by 4.4 points.) As presidential elections forecasting in recent decades go, this error was roughly average.

However, the 2020 polling stirred considerable and appropriate consternation; Politico declared the morning after that “the polling industry is a wreck and should be blown up.” The reasons for consternation include these:

* Although the polls got the electoral college winner right this time, the 2020 error was actually larger than the 2016 error, which was only 1.8 percentage points (Clinton was predicted to win the popular vote by 3.9 points, but won it by 2.1 points).

* This deterioration in accuracy occurred despite major efforts by polling organizations to fix the apparent 2016 problems and notable improvement in the 2018 off-year elections. The average 2018 error in forecasting party shares of the congressional vote was exactly zero. FiveThirtyEight.com declared that the “Polls are Alright.”

* In particular states (e.g., Wisconsin, Florida) the 2020 presidential polling error was much larger than the national 4 points.

* Many projections for down-ballot races, such as the Senate race in Maine, performed a lot worse than the presidential ones.

* The polls’ errors leaned in the same direction as in 2016, underestimating the Republican vote yet again.

Post mortems on the election now have some analysts and some political action groups (e.g., Swing Left) looking to rely less on polling going forward and more on “fundamentals” such as how a district voted in prior elections.

What happened?


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The Political Census

Just two days before the end of Trump’s reign, his appointed Director of the Census Bureau resigned following Bureau professionals’ resistance to his efforts to issue premature numbers in the waning hours of the administration. This was just the latest battle in the political warfare that enveloped the 2020 Census.

It’s not as if previous censuses avoided politics–they didn’t, as I discuss below–but 2020 was notable. For one, the Trump administration tried to add a citizenship question for the first time in 70 years, everyone understanding that its purpose was to scare immigrants, both documented and un-, into evading the count. The Supreme Court blocked that tactic. The administration also shortened the time available to complete the census even as inadequate funding and the Covid-19 pandemic made the work much more difficult. These moves would all produce underestimates of the population, especially in heavily Democratic districts and states. For the same purpose, the Trump administration asserted that House seats should be apportioned, for the first time ever, based only on the number of citizens and legal immigrants rather than of the number of “persons” as stipulated in the constitution (Art. I, Sec. 2).

But census politics goes back a long time–indeed, to the Constitutional Convention, where one of the North-South compromises ended up counting slaves as three-fifths of a person in the census, although, of course, without allowing slaves, nor women, nor Indians, nor the poor, even three-fifths of a vote. In late 1890, to take another example, the superintendent of the Census was compelled to write a ferocious defense against attacks on the validity of census, fending off charges about undercounting in New York (with all its immigrants) and overcounting in the South.

A review of recurrent political issues in the census puts this year’s chaos in perspective.


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It’s been about 50 days since the networks declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential race. It will be probably a year or two before enough distance and enough research yield a trustworthy analysis of what happened. But it’s not to soon to speculate; everyone is doing it. Some preliminary conclusions and some preliminary lessons are possible.cupofjoe3

One topic of discussion is why the 2020 polls were off. They were modestly off at the presidential level, about 3.5 points, but that’s a greater error than in 2016. And the 2020 polls were off even more in many lower races. I’ll eventually write about polling in part #2 of First Takes. Here I just address the overall results, using the polls as little as possible.

Donald Trump clearly lost, sore loser tantrums notwithstanding. Otherwise, it was about a 50:50 election between the two parties. As his last hurrah (maybe), Trump mobilized enough new and irregular voters from his base to help his party do well but not well enough for him to do well. I’m certain he would have preferred the reverse.

For Democrats, disappointed by the results beyond the White House, one lesson was that they were overconfident about mobilizing “people of color”; another is the danger of cultural overreach by big-city progressives.


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Now for Something Different: Is Sex Wilting?

While we have all been distracted, some researchers have noticed another thing to worry about: Americans these days report having sex less often than Americans did a couple of decades ago. What?! Is this not supposed to be the age of hookups, Tinder swiping, the pornography web, Viagra, and all that? Yet, the drop-off in sexual activity, though modest in size, is real–for teens, for young adults, for middle-aged people. (All this even before Covid.) For some observers, this decline has become the next social problem.

What’s happening–er, not happening?



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This blog has periodically summarized some of the hundreds of studies analyzing Trump’s 2016 success and of his continuing popularity. This particular post will be, I trust, the almost-final one. (I’ll no doubt be sucked into reading the studies following up on the 2020 election.)  

My last update was about a year ago. The research then basically confirmed even earlier findings that Trump effectively combined a blatant appeal to the cultural anxieties of native-born, white Christians, together with overwhelming Republican party loyalty in this era of polarization and with the Founding Father’s kludge, the electoral college, to eke out a win. New research largely elaborates that explanation. So, after a brief review, I’ll turn to asking what this recent history might say about the forthcoming election. 


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