The Price of Privilege?

In a popular story for the Atlantic this month, Hanna Rosin investigates a culture of hyper-achievement and its connection to a string of teenage suicides in Silicon Valley. There seems to be a large market for this type of story. For instance, the relatively unknown San Francisco Magazine got over fifty thousand shares for an article on the same topic, and a Times Magazine piece about a girl who committed suicide her first year at the University of Pennsylvania also got a lot of attention.

The overburdened, over-programmed overstressed teenager has been a long running cliche, perhaps originating with David Brooks’ The Organization Kid written way back in 2001. While there is merit to addressing the downsides of hypercompetitiveness at elite high schools, it’s a slippery slope that easily gets overstated. In particular, Hanna Rosin seems to love addressing plight of ordinary privileged groups. (Before elite high schoolers it was “the end of men“) These type of stories beg for broader context.

For one, the link between teenage suicide and academic stress is tenuous. While Rosin frames her whole piece around suicide and academic related stress,  she concludes that “the link between teenage alienation and the decision to die never much clarified.” She notes that adolescent suicide is down dramatically since the 90s. I’d add that thoughts of suicide among high schoolers have also halved since 1990.

While teenage suicide is unacceptable at any level, it has only gone down as “hypercompetitiveness” has gone up. Kids overstressed by school is a problem, but not because it’s leading to a rash of suicides.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that almost all of the problems of hypercompetitiveness are self imposed. While helicopter parents can pressure their children, in my experience it seems that most of the pressure comes from kids themselves. Either way, it’s not a structural problem for public policy, it’s more of a problem of culture.

Finally, the problems of hypercompetitive kids in elite high schools pale in comparison to the kids that are less fortunate, whose problems are structural rather that self imposed. These kids that often attend schools where the competition is a race to the bottom, and must live with the consequences of an inadequate education are for life. While hypercompetitive kids in elite high schools may result in less happy childhoods, they’re still getting excellent educations and end up at excellent colleges. Long-term adverse effects of working too hard in highschool are basically nonexistent. The effect of going to a bad high school and then not going to college is a handicap for life.


The Axis of Conservatism

You may have heard of all the ways that liberals are destroying America, including our runaway Supreme Court, socialist president, and such blatantly liberal media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times. But when one steps back and looks at the United States from a global perspective, its policies look like that of a backwater, backwards nation. Compared to many other western industrialized nations, the U.S. lacks a significant welfare state, universal health care, paid parental leave, abortion rights, gun control, and union strength. The poor in the U.S. are comparatively poorer than the underclasses of our peers. Western European nations such as Spain, France, Portugal, Norway, and Sweden, as well as Canada all legalized gay marriage years before the U.S. did. It’s clear that in terms of policy, generally speaking the U.S. is more towards the right when compared to other western nations. The Democratic Party, considered the “liberal” party in America, is much more conservative when compared to liberal parties in other countries such as the British Labour Party or the Greek Syriza Party. The Republican Party is absurdly draconian in comparison to the British Conservative party.

The public sphere just isn’t as substantial in the U.S, such as transportation, roads, schools, and unemployment insurance. The only public good that the U.S. is exceptionally strong in is the military. In America, it’s all about privatizing, or having people pay for things directly rather than be taxed. For example, in England, the price of every university is capped at £9,000 per year, which translates into $13,662. The average tuition is approximately $9,108 per year in England. Compare this to the U.S. where the average public 4-year college as an in-state student costs $18,943, out of state costs $32,762, and 4-year private colleges cost $42,419. Not to mention the fact that it is not uncommon for the tuition of American private universities to reach $65,000. To pay for these policies, Western European countries employ comparatively higher income tax rates to pay for the welfare of all, and taxes make up a higher percentage of GDP in these countries. In the U.S., the burden rests on the individual, not the society.Read less

These policies don’t just come out of the blue, however. They reflect a more conservative electorate. According to a series of surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans are much more likely than citizens of Western European countries to think it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral, to believe that homosexuality should be rejected, that success in life is self-determined, and that it’s not important to have nobody in need. These survey results all reflect an American sense of individualism that can be traced back to before the founding, but has continued to be bolstered throughout the centuries.

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