Economics, US Election

The White Death

“With my own eyes I have seen the countless diamonds stored in Solomon’s treasure chamber behind the white Death….” – H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines.

When I was a boy, I laboured under the delusion that so long as a man’s income remained the same, it mattered little whether he was on welfare or employed. The costs of globalization and mass immigration would be easily outstripped by the benefits; those workers displaced by these economic changes could be easily supported by welfare payments, and they would be, at the least, no worse off than before. In fact, due to the widespread availability of ever-cheaper luxury consumables, their lifestyles would be somewhat improved as a result.

Over time, I grew to appreciate the errors of my ways, and just in case I hadn’t, the events of the current year arrived to reinforce the point. Nevertheless, it appears as though many still don’t quite get it. How else to explain the persistence of this exasperating meme, most notably voiced by the odious Jimmy Carr?



The cynical attitude that anyone in fear of losing their job as a result of mass immigration must be a hopeless loser is endemic to upper middle-class culture. It functions as a signal of both in-group identity and virtue, usefully separating the speaker from the slavering mass of racist lumpen proles. The vicious logic of the meme is that low-skilled natives are fungible. In the mind of the Western executive they are of no more inherent worth than his cafetiere. Like the cafetiere, the native worker is efficiently replaced, if necessary, by a new model from Eastern Europe or Mexico.

Surrounded in a social bubble of the university-educated, the typical executive easily forgets that most people were not born with IQs at least one standard deviation above the mean. Given the high heritability of intelligence, personality, and educational achievement, it makes no more sense to blame the average marginally useful worker for his lack of workplace productivity than it does to blame the cystic fibrosis sufferer for his poor lung productivity. The one is barely more at fault than the other.

The White Death is a product, in part, of this meme. Midlife mortality amongst US whites has risen from the late 90s;  it has fallen for US Hispanics and blacks. This trend seems to be driven in large part by increases in alcohol and drug poisonings, and suicides amongst the white population. Since the turn of the millennium, the CDC reports a 137% increase in the rate of drug overdose deaths, including a 200% increase in deaths by opioid poisonings (including heroin and prescription painkillers).

The decreasing value of low/medium-skilled labour may partly underlie these trends. A number of recent papers demonstrate the causal link between mortality increases and labour market shocks such as rapidly increased Chinese competition. Faced with such shocks, workers whose jobs have been outsourced often do not relocate or upgrade their skillsets. They drop out of the labour force, subsist on disability benefits or low-paid temporary work, and kill themselves one way or another.

The heroin epidemic is starting to make itself felt politically, particularly in the Republican primaries. In New Hampshire, Donald Trump sought to capitalize on the issue by linking it to his signature policy of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, which he argues would make cheap heroin more difficult to acquire. Regardless of the practical merits of such a proposal, it should not be difficult to understand its emotional appeal. Statistical analyses indicate a positive relationship between county-level mortality and Trump’s percentage of the vote share in the primaries. In desperate times marked by encroaching fear, it should be no surprise that suffering voters flock to the comfort of a populist with authoritarian tendencies, especially one who so clearly lives a life of flagrant opulence derived from consistent success.

The White Death, however, is unlikely to be explained by economics alone. Such social cancers will not metastasize in communities with a healthy ritual ecology. As Sarah Perry discusses at Ribbonfarm, cultures can and do routinely evolve safety valves for the channelling and gentle release of humanity’s more chaotic impulses. These safety valves of complex community rituals, however, are rarely robust to rapid cultural churn. The breakdown of traditional family structure, the decline of faith and greater social isolation driven by both meritocracy and diversity all contribute. Men and women of low birth but high ability, who once would have served as local community leaders, are now hived off to higher education by increasingly efficient selection procedures, and merge seamlessly into traditionally affluent upper-middle class cultures.

I hypothesize also that the White Death sits on a throne of ethnic diversity. As Robert Putnam documented in Bowling Alone, a consequence of increased diversity is often decreased social trust and lowered participation in the exact same community social networks that constitute a healthy ritual ecology. Similar results have been subsequently found in European nations. White flight may accentuate the effect, as the whites most able to depart to a new enclave are precisely those most vital to the maintenance of the old community and its support structures.

No single factor can explain the White Death in isolation. Nor do I claim to have identified correctly all those that do. The phenomenon is one that has only just come to the attention of social scientists, and its causes will no doubt be the subject of much future research work. Nevertheless I make this plea to the elites of developed nations; turn not your eyes from the sick, the dying, and the desperate. Even if they vote for Donald Trump.


Andrew Sabisky is a researcher and writer. His work has featured in the International Business Times. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewSabisky