Can Capitalism Buy Happiness?

smiley face

Over two years ago, the first blog post in this series asked, “Can money buy happiness?” Today’s question looks past the medium of economic exchange to the more foundational sociological and psychological implications of contemporary hyper-competitive capitalism — a good example of which is the “meritocracy trap” we looked at last time, which clearly is not making capitalism’s elite happy, but instead is driving maladaptive behavior like the college admissions scandal.

The scandal evokes the kind of horrified fascination you get from reading the National Enquirer headlines in the checkout line:

“A teenage girl who did not play soccer magically became a star soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million.

“A high school boy eager to enroll at the University of Southern California was falsely deemed to have a learning disability so he could take his standardized test with a complicit proctor who would make sure he got the right score. Cost to his parents: at least $50,000.

“A student with no experience rowing won a spot on the U.S.C. crew team after a photograph of another person in a boat was submitted as evidence of her prowess. Her parents wired $200,000 into a special account.”

Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud, New York Times (March 12, 2019)

What the…?

The parents who wrote those big checks now face a stiff legal price, but why did they do it in the first place? An ongoing discussion over the past several years[i] suggests an answer:  they did it because of the “meritocracy trap” as evident in higher education, — an economic necessity for more than just the elite — where the current dynamics of of how capitalism is practiced are a significant contributor to mental ill health.

A long article on that topic came out last weekend:  The Way Universities Are Run Is Making Us Ill’: Inside The Student Mental Health Crisis. The Guardian (Sept. 27, 2019). The subhead reads “A surge in anxiety and stress is sweeping UK campuses. What is troubling students, and is it the universities’ job to fix it?” The article’s U.K. examples mirror those that prompted the USA’s college admission scandal,. Predominant mental health issues on both sides of the Atlantic include general anxiety disorder, depression, and “an alarming number of suicides.” What’s behind all this? Consider these quotes from the article:

“In the drive to make universities profitable, there is a fundamental confusion about what they are for. As a result, there has been a shift from prizing learning as an end in itself to equipping graduates for the job market, in what for some can be a joyless environment.

“Studies have looked at the impact of social media, or lack of sleep caused by electronic devices, as well as the effects of an uncertain job market, personal debt and constricted public services.

“In his book Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris … identifies the pressures of the labour market, rising student debt and a target-driven culture as contributing to steep increases in anxiety and depression among young people.

“Driving our universities to act like businesses doesn’t just cannibalise the joy of learning and the social utility of research and teaching; it also makes us ill,’ wrote Mark Crawford, then a postgraduate student union officer at UCL, in a 2018 piece for Red Pepper magazine… ‘It’s self-worth being reduced to academic outcomes, support services being cut, the massive cost of housing,’ he says.

“[Mental health authorities] have noticed a fall in participation. It’s getting harder to fill up events, most likely a symptom of the sharp increase in students living far away from campus to save money… Others have limited time as they juggle studies with paid work.

“For [Sean Cullen, a student featured in the article], money worries have been a grinding and ever-present aspect of his university experience. In his first year, he socialised more than he does now. But given that a single night out costs as much as a weekly food shop, he soon began to think twice about going out with friends. To complicate matters, the amount he receives from Student Finance England, the body responsible for student loans, changed year by year, with unpredictable amounts and repayment terms. “The financial aid is getting worse and worse, even though the cost of living is going up,” he says.

“In 2017, Cullen was elected as the student union’s disability officer… He heard accounts of mental health problems from hundreds of other students, many of whose experiences chimed with his own. ‘I’ve not yet met a student that hasn’t experienced high levels of stress while studying, whether it’s because of deadlines, balancing paid work, or problems with housing,’ he says.

“While many students survive more or less on their overdrafts, …many have mental health problems in their final year. ‘Nowadays, getting a degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a job, or not a better job than without one,’ he says.

“[The need to work many hours per week] has an impact not only on academic performance but on students’ ability to fully participate in university life.

“Students exhausted from working while studying full time, and still struggling to cover their basic living costs, are bound to be more anxious about deadlines and exams. ‘It’s all the environmental stuff that makes it more stressful… If you’re tired, you haven’t had time to study, you have to make a long journey to university, it’s all cumulative.’”

Cuts in social services, educational and housing costs, social isolation, student loans, constricted access to upward mobility, a stingy job market, precarious prospects for sustainable income, a struggle to find meaning and purpose at work… these are economic issues, not education issues. This series has looked at all of them. Next time we’ll look further into what’s behind them..

[1] See, for example, this NCBI study:  “Anxious? Depressed? You might be suffering from capitalism: Contradictory class locations and the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the United States.”

The Zero-Sum Economy [2]  Meet the Winners

The House Always Wins

We met the zero-sum economy losers last time. Let’s meet the winners this week.

The winners are the best of the best and have the best of the best in cultural, logistical, financial, and other kinds of support. They were tapped for economic competition before preschool. They’ve been groomed for it all their lives. But they pay a ridiculous price — the stress of training and competing is unreal. And when it’s time for college and beyond, only a handful stand on the podium. No wonder their ascent has been tainted with scandal

They’re the children of the new Meritocrats — the economic top 1%. They complete in the X Games of economic competition, and it’s killing them. That description is from Yale law professor Daniel Markovits — a Meritocrat himself, and the author of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (just out, on Sept. 10, 2019).  Prof. Markovits previewed his book in a recent article that begins as follows:

“Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.

“Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Legacy preferences, nepotism, and outright fraud continue to give rich applicants corrupt advantages. But the dominant causes of this skew toward wealth can be traced to meritocracy. On average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000. Only about one in 200 children from the poorest third of households achieves SAT scores at Yale’s median. Meanwhile, the top banks and law firms, along with other high-paying employers, recruit almost exclusively from a few elite colleges.

“Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity. According to one study, only one out of every 100 children born into the poorest fifth of households, and fewer than one out of every 50 children born into the middle fifth, will join the top 5 percent. Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor. Meritocracy frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.

“Public anger over economic inequality frequently targets meritocratic institutions. Nearly three-fifths of Republicans believe that colleges and universities are bad for America, according to the Pew Research Center. The intense and widespread fury generated by the college-admissions scandal early this year tapped into a deep and broad well of resentment. This anger is warranted but also distorting. Outrage at nepotism and other disgraceful forms of elite advantage-taking implicitly valorizes meritocratic ideals. Yet meritocracy itself is the bigger problem, and it is crippling the American dream. Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.

“But what, exactly, have the rich won? Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.

“No one should weep for the wealthy. But the harms that meritocracy imposes on them are both real and important. Diagnosing how meritocracy hurts elites kindles hope for a cure. We are accustomed to thinking that reducing inequality requires burdening the rich. But because meritocratic inequality does not in fact serve anyone well, escaping meritocracy’s trap would benefit virtually everyone.”

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition:  Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out (The Atlantic, Sept. 2019).

The rest of the article details the lives of the winners, and is well worth reading. (For a long and thoughtful critique of the book, see this NewYorker article.)

Next time, we’ll look further into “escaping the meritocracy trap.”