WASHINGTON — For the past year and a half, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have been ringing the alarm about rising mortality among middle-aged white Americans.
The pair have attracted a bit of controversy for pointing out these facts. Recently, Pacific Standard's Malcolm Harris suggested that their research, and the way it was presented, put too much emphasis on white mortality - when black mortality has always been worse. "American white privilege is still very much in effect, and no statistical tomfoolery can change that," he wrote.
Sam Fulwood III, a fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, worried that Case and Deaton's work would further amplify a growing narrative about white working class woes, to the exclusion of the African American experience. "I worry about how political people will manipulate Case and Deaton's findings to argue for more aid for white people, but ignore the same, long-standing concerns of people of color," he wrote last week.
Case and Deaton point out that the trend of increasing white American mortality - higher death rates in middle age - is noteworthy because those death rates have been going down for nearly everyone else: for African Americans, Latino Americans, for people in the U.K. and Germany and France. When we're used to life getting better, so it's unusual to see life getting worse.
"It's not as much news if people's mortality rates are falling the way you would hope they are falling," Case said in an interview Monday. "What seems like news is when mortality has stopped falling, and no one has noticed that it has stopped." That's what happened in the case of white Americans, she said.
But the critics on the left do have a point, which is that the statistics about black mortality may have not gotten enough attention in the media. So it's worth straightening that out right now: Black Americans have long been dying faster than white Americans. They've long been less happy than white Americans.
Now, though, the two groups are starting to look more and more alike. Particularly among those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, class rather than race has become an equal - if not more important - predictor of physical and emotional health.
According to Case and Deaton, back in 1995, black Americans with a high school education or less were dying at more than twice the rate of similar white Americans. Since then, black mortality has been declining, while white mortality has been climbing. In recent years, the two groups have more or less met in the middle.
Case and Deaton have blamed some of the increases in white mortality on "deaths of despair" resulting from suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses. Public opinion surveys support the theory that white ennui somehow factors into these mortality trends. Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have found that over the years, white Americans - particularly those on the bottom of the economic ladder - have been getting relatively less happy.
But then again, black Americans have always been less happy than white Americans. And it's not just a matter of white Americans being paid more on average. As data from Stevenson and Wolfers show, even when you compare people making similar amounts of money, white Americans have been happier than black Americans since at least the 1970s.
The racial happiness gap, much like the racial mortality gap, has been closing in recent decades, particularly among lower-income Americans. Stevenson and Wolfers' original analysis ended in 2008, but using their code and the latest public opinion data from the General Social Survey, I updated their work through 2016.
Another death in the family in Chicago — Photo: Will Letcher
It now seems that since 2010, lower income white and black Americans have become more or less indistinguishable in terms of how happy they are. Among families earning less than $16,000 a year, Americans of both races seem equally unhappy. But this is only a recent development, and it doesn't erase the fact that for decades, lower income African Americans were significantly less happy than their white counterparts.
The problems of black America aren't due to any unique pathology of black culture
In their latest paper, Case and Deaton highlight a host of "social dysfunctions' that are on the rise in white communities, including "the decline of marriage, social isolation, and detachment from the labor force." They believe that all of these problems may share an underlying cause: The economic forces which made life much harder for those without a college degree in recent decades.
It's an insight that applies to all Americans. The argument would have been well heeded during Johnson's War on Poverty, when the breakup of black families was blamed on broken values instead of a broken economic system for black Americans. But now that white and black Americans are starting to look more and more similar, both in terms of their chances of dying early and their happiness levels, the mainstream also seems to be converging on the idea that social problems can be triggered by a lack of economic opportunity.
This may be the enduring impact of Case and Deaton's work. As economist and columnist Noah Smith writes, "I'd think results like Case & Deaton's would help convince white Americans that the problems of black America aren't due to any unique pathology of black culture, and that white and black Americans are in the same boat together."
Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.
BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.
TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.
For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.
No Western equivalent to WeChat
The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.
The flow of innovation is now changing direction.
The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."
Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."
This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.
10,000 new startups per day
There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."
In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.
The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.
Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."
China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.
China's super-app WeChat
The whole market runs on tech
Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."
As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.
Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.
Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.
The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.
Still lagging in some key sectors
There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.
China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.
Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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