“Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans,” reported Gina Kolata on the front page of the New York Times this past November. “Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.”
Kolata’s big story was based on research by two Princeton University economists, the recent Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case, and they identified the causes of perhaps half a million preventable deaths: “an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”
Somehow, people who had once been at the heart of American culture were committing mass murder against themselves. Who were they? The data was clear. “Between 1999 and 2013,” John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker, the death rate “among whites aged forty-five to fifty-four whose educational qualifications are limited to a high-school diploma or below,” jumped by twenty percent, at the same time that American Black and Hispanics and Europeans and First World Asians of the same ages were living longer, dying more slowly.
Behind these crime of direct and indirect suicides were the usual components: motive and opportunity.
The identities of the victims suggested a motive to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: “we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.” Put less sentimentally, these were people born when Whites in America were privileged and a majority. Today, they are less advantaged and soon will be just the largest American minority group. Most of these people were born into the middle class or had risen into it, and then found themselves falling lower in a more rigidly stratified society.
They were motivated to leave this reality, by getting high, or getting out.
Then, along came a double-barreled opportunity for oblivion, pain-killing, euphoria-accessing drugs called opiates, and their cheaper chemical cousin, heroin, especially heroin in its cheapest form, Mexican black tar.
Who offered this opportunity, and literally marketed it to millions of dissatisfied people, and how they did it is the story told well by our guest today, Sam Quinones, author of DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.