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.”