Can Capitalism Buy Happiness? [2]

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We’ve been looking at the zero-sum economy’s winners and losers — the new “meritocracy” vs. the “precariat” and the Millennials.

We’ve also seen that winners and losers find common ground in higher education, where students of all stripes are increasingly stressed to the point of mental ill-health  — not by the demands of higher learning, but by the enveloping culture of hyper-competitive capitalism.

One predictable response has been for the established, older, prosperous, and powerful to wag the shame finger and tell the kids to quit whining and buck up:

“Student protests and demands for better mental health services are frequently dismissed in the press. ‘We just can’t cope with essay deadlines, and tests stress us out, moan snowflake students,’ read a headline in the Daily Mail in November 2017. In September 2018, the Times described today’s students as ‘Generation Snowflake’ and suggested that ‘helicopter parents’ had ‘coddled the minds’ of young people.”

The way universities are run is making us ill: inside the student mental health crisis. The Guardian (Sept. 27, 2019).

Truth is, we just don’t like to talk about mental illness, and if we regard it at all, tend to shoo it away as a personal problem or character flaw. Plus, there are enduring cultural myths that capitalism and its marketplace are “free,” and that anyone can make it with enough gumption. Together, these attitudes foster the “snowflake” judgment.

Mental illness is ultimately about a clash between the “reality” of the individual deemed to be mentally ill and the “reality” of the prevailing culture.[i] Conventional thinking sides with the culture, and uses pharmaceutical and other therapeutic interventions to realign the individual. As a result, the list of economic stressors is accepted as part of the culture’s normal life to which individuals are expected to conform,

Meanwhile, viewed on its own terms — outside of its cultural context — the list itself is long and dismaying. For example:

  • There has been a forty-year drought in middle class real income growth, with most households drifting downward while an economic elite soars at the top.
  • The percentage of Americans who are considered to be poor by Federal standards is approaching 50% — meaning they have no or limited access to what were historically considered “public goods” such as shelter and sustenance, education and healthcare, etc.
  • Public support safety nets have been replaced by the privatization of essential services. The social services that remain are expensive for the government to administer and are demeaning and counter-productive for recipients;
  • Soaring educational costs mean soaring and strangling student loans.
  • Runaway housing costs have made conventional home ownership unaffordable for the lower economic classes.
  • Due to the rise of the “rentier” economy, the general public must increasingly pay capital holders for the use and enjoyment of essential resources and intellectual property.
  • Upward mobility for the lower 90% is now a thing of the past (the “glass ceiling”). Meanwhile the top 10% is protected against drifting downward (the “glass floor”).
  • Touted “job creation” is mostly “gig economy” contract work, with no assurances of sustainability and no benefits such as healthcare, retirement, etc.
  • Prospects for sustainable income are bleak, and the new job market requires the “hustle” and the “grind” and the monetization of everything in a state of “total work.”
  • Meanwhile, GDP “growth” is largely due to production increasingly shifted not just off-shore, but to intelligent machines. Benefits accrue to capital holders, not wage-earners.
  • These job trends have increasingly resulted in social isolation and an unfulfilled struggle to find meaning and purpose at work.
  • Meanwhile a new generation of huge and powerful “corporate nation-states” now challenge conventional notions of national sovereignty, democracy, and policy-making.
  • The same is true of “philanthrocapitalism” and “social entrepreneurship.”

And there’s more.

While “snowflake” judgments turn a blind eye, for the past several years there has been a counter commentary that looks at the list systemically:  it examines how the capitalistic over-culture creates social mental ill health which is then transmitted to the individual. I.e., it asks if the culture’s assimilation of contemporary capitalistic belief and practice has become toxic to the point that it is making both society and its individual members sick. This is a huge shift in perspective, which we’ll explore further.

[1] For more on how cultural beliefs create collective reality, you might take a look at this article, which evaluates mental health diagnosis and treatment in light of the Cartesian worldview that still dominates the western world:  i.e.,the dualistic thinking that separates the natural world, which can be known scientifically, from the realm of soul or spirit, which can’t. I have talked about how cultural beliefs created social reality in prior blog series in this forum. I also address it in my other blog.

Can Capitalism Buy Happiness?

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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.”

Burnout at the Top:  Trust in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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The late Paul Rawlinson, former Global Chair of Baker McKenzie, left a multifaceted  career legacy:

“Rawlinson, an intellectual property lawyer, achieved a number of triumphs in his professional career, including becoming the first British person to lead the global firm as chairman and overseeing a run of outstanding financial growth during his tenure.

“But a key part of Rawlinson’s legacy is also his public decision to step down from the chairman’s role in October, citing “medical issues caused by exhaustion.” He and his firm’s relative openness about the reasons for taking leave helped stimulate a wider discussion about the mental and physical stresses of the profession.”

Baker McKenzie Chairman Helped Erode Taboos About Attorney HealthThe American Lawyer (April 15, 2019)

Inspired by Rawlinson’s decision to step down, several other similarly-situated leaders went public with their own struggles.[1] Among their stressors was the challenge of how to lead their firms to meet the commercial demands of an era when artificial intelligence has already established its superiority over human efforts in legal research, due diligence, and discovery.[2] It’s not just about efficiency, it’s about the erosion of a key aspect of the attorney-client relationship:  trust. As Rawlinson wrote last year:

‘‘‘The robots are coming’. It’s fast becoming the mantra of our age. And it comes with more than a hint of threat. I’ve noticed especially in the last year or so the phrase has become the go-to headline in the legal news pages when they report on technology in our industry.

“For our profession – where for thousands of years, trust, diligence and ‘good judgement’ have been watchwords – the idea of Artificial Intelligence ‘replacing’ lawyers continues to be controversial. From law school and all through our careers we are taught that the Trusted Advisor is what all good lawyers aspire to become.

“The fundamental issue is trust. Our human instinct is to want to speak to a human. I don’t think that will change. Trust is what we crave, it’s what separates us from machines; empathy, human instinct, an ability to read nuances, shake hands, and build collaborative relationships.”

Will Lawyers Become Extinct In The Age Of Automation? World Economic Forum (Mar. 29, 2018)

Rawlinson acknowledged that clients are often more concerned with efficiency than preserving the legal profession’s historical trust-building process, demanding instead that “lawyers harness AI to make sure we can do more with less… Put simply, innovation isn’t about the business of law, it’s about the business of business.” As a result, Rawlinson’s goal was to find ways his firm could “use AI to augment, not replace, judgement and empathy.”

Speaking from the client point of view, tech entrepreneur and consultant William H. Saito also weighed in on the issue of trust in an AI world.

“As homo sapiens (wise man), we are ‘wise’ compared to all other organisms, including whales and chimpanzees, in that we can centralize control and make a large number of people believe in abstract concepts, be they religion, government, money or business. .. This skill of organizing people around a common belief generated mutual trust that others would adhere to the belief and its goals.”

“Looking back at our progress as a species, we can distinguish several kinds of trust that have evolved over time.

“There is the ability to work together and believe in others, which differentiates us from other animals, and which took thousands of years to develop;

“trust associated with money, governments, religion and business, which took hundreds of years;

“trust associated with creating the “bucket brigade” of passing packets of data between unfamiliar hosts that is the internet, which took decades; and

“network trust that has enabled new business models over the past few years.

“Not only is this rate of change accelerating by an order of magnitude, but the paradigm shifts have completely disrupted the prior modes of trust.”

This Is What Will Keep Us Human In The Age Of AI, World Economic Forum (Aug. 4, 2017)

Rawlinson asked, “will lawyers become extinct?” Saito asked, “Are we humans becoming obsolete?” Both men wrote from a globalized perspective on big policy issues, and the stress of facing them took its toll. Rawlinson’s case of burnout was ultimately terminal. As for Saito, a fter writing his article on trust, he was discredited for falsifying his resume — something he clearly didn’t need to do, given his remarkable credentials. That he would do so seems appropriate to his message, which was that trust in the AI age is not about human dependability, instead it’s about cybersecurity. I.e., in the absence of human judgment and collaboration, your technology had better be impeccable.

Most of us don’t live at the rarified level of those two men. We live where trust still means “empathy, human instinct, an ability to read nuances, shake hands, and build collaborative relationships.”

Or, as my daughter summed it up when I told her about this article, “Buy local, trust local.”

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash.

[1] On May 12, 2019, The American Lawyer introduced a year-long initiative Minds Over Matters: A Yearlong Examination of Mental Health in the Legal Profession “to more deeply cover stress, depression, addiction and other mental health issues affecting the legal profession.”

[2] It’s also changing appellate practice, which makes it easy to predict we’ll soon see AI court opinions.