The Pathfinders column from the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
In today's science lesson, boys and girls, we are going to discover that if you put a Mentos mint into a large plastic bottle of cola, you get a huge explosion that sends a geyser rocketing into the sky. Then, when you have wiped fizzy rain off your school blazers, we're going to debate whether the Mentos mint company are using this curious fact in their school programme, Put the Fizz Back into Science, in order to advance scientific interest among you little ones because none of you like science anymore (New Scientist, Dec 1) or whether they are shamelessly marketing their sugary sweets through the school back-door, under the disguise of education (The commercialisation of our classrooms, BBC Online, Dec 9). And don't you listen to silly old NUT teachers who got the government to ban junk food ads on children's hour TV last year. We don't want to spoil all your fun, that's why we left in a 'spike' of alcohol ads between 4pm and 6pm instead, because we know that one in five of you little darlings under 15 regularly gets drunk.
Our science head believes in telling you the facts of life, which are that advertisers spend 300 million pounds a year targeting the classroom, because they know you clever little boys and girls will recognize 400 brands before you are 10, and that brand loyalty starts young (Adverts impact on children, BBC Online, Dec 9). In fact, you young 'uns are so foxy and grown-up that ASDA have been naughtily selling black and pink lace lingerie for children and Tesco have been saucily selling pole-dancing kits in their toy section (BBC Online, April 6).
But it's not all pants, poles and paedophilia, children. Next we're going to show you some serious programmes from the BBC Learning Zone which tell you all about how wonderful and safe nuclear power is and how much money you can earn if you work for the industry when you grow up. Don't pay any attention to grumpy old independent nuclear consultant John Large when he says "It's a blatant piece of propaganda, that's not an educational tool." What does he know? And don't worry if the BBC say it was a mistake and they didn't mean to do it. Well honestly, they put the programme out twice, didn't they?! (BBC Online, Dec 9).
Oh look, and now poor Ann-Marie is crying big wet tears because she just failed her SATS, the little loser. Well, children, science can do anything now. So let's have some fun and measure how sad she is!
If you want to see a picture of the world of tomorrow, look at a child of today, and you're looking at an ideological war zone. Leave aside all that has been written about child poverty across the globe, and the UNICEF estimate that 9.7 million children under 5 die every year because of completely preventable causes, half of them related to hunger (http://www.unicef.org/why/why_preventable_causes.html). Leave aside armed children in wars, and child prostitution, and child slavery. Leave aside child abuse and torture. Leave aside even underperforming poor black children in richer countries. Just how happy is the modern, 'western', well-adjusted child of an advanced capitalist country, the focus of all well-meaning social endeavour, of state laws of protection, of cultural and social sanctity, and increasingly, the target of ruthless commercialism, of Christian or Islamist fundamentalist brainwashing, and of pressurised vocational harassment? And while you're asking that, is it possible to measure it scientifically?
A hint of an answer to the first of these questions can be glimpsed from a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research in Nov 2006, which stated that the UK, one of five countries in western Europe with a trillion dollar economy, hosts the worst-behaved youth in Europe, and concludes: "Commentators fear that British youth is on the verge of mental breakdown, at risk from anti-social behaviour, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse" (BBC Online, Nov 2, 2006).
"The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born." With these words, UNICEF prefaces its new report entitled Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries 2007 (http://...com/3yvz8b). It is a statistical survey, an approach explained in the introduction: 'To improve something, first measure it.' 40 indicators are spread across six categories, namely: material well-being, family and peer relationships, health and safety, behaviour and risks, and children's own sense of well-being (educational and subjective). Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the UK finds itself overall bottom of the league, at number 21 out of 21 countries. The UK and the USA find themselves in the bottom third of the rankings for five out of the six categories.
UNICEF concludes: 'There is no obvious relationship between levels of child well-being and GDP per capita' (p.5)' And indeed, looking at the figures, no such relationship stands out. Moreover, taking into account surveys of children themselves, contained in the report, one might think material conditions had nothing to do with it: "Material goods and leisure activities were not, in general, seen as top priority by children. Relationships with family were seen as the most important determinant of well-being, followed by friends, school and pets" although children's understandable lack of grasp of certain hard realities was indicated in the next phrase: "the fact that 'health and safety' did not feature highly in children's priorities shows that there is still a place for adult input in the selection of indicators." (P.43)
The theme emerging from the UNICEF report is that, essentially, money can't buy your child happiness. Interestingly, this rather anti-materialist theme has been echoed by various other statistical studies based around the new 'science' of measuring happiness. For example, the 178-nation 'Happy Planet Index' lists the south Pacific island of Vanuatu as the happiest nation on the planet, while the UK is ranked 108th. This survey, compiled by think-tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF), notes that Vanuatu is ranked 207th out of 233 economies when measured against Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and suggests that 'people can live long, happy lives without consuming large amounts of the Earth's resources' (BBC Online, July 12, 2006). Scientifically speaking, the NEF survey is probably worthless, given that Vanuatu has a population of just 209,000, which means that to get an equivalent rating the UK has to produce 300 happy Brits to every one happy Vanuatuan, a statistically unlikely achievement. If Vanuatu had a king, for example, Britain would have to find 300 kings.
Scientifically speaking, in fact, these surveys aren't very scientific at all. They involve the following in-depth analytical procedure: "It may sound silly but we ask people 'How happy are you?'" And in case this doesn't sound very clever, Ed Diener, Professor of Psychology at Illinois University, defends the approach thus: "The measures are not perfect yet I think they are in many ways as good as the measures economists use" (http://...com/ftkaw). To socialists, this is no recommendation at all, given that capitalist economics has roughly the same predictive power as astrology.
What further undermines the effort to make a science out of the pleasure principle is the fact that there is no agreement over categories or parameters, so that numerous surveys come up with different and sometimes contradictory results. The World Values Survey of 2005 cites Iceland as happiest country, at 94 percent happy, followed by most of Northern Europe, deteriorating the further south or east one goes, ending with Bulgaria at 'minus 24 percent happy' (http://...com/39awdb). If one feels minus a percent or two happy about this result, one could perhaps turn to the survey by the University of Leicester in 2006, in which Denmark emerges as happiest country despite having the second worst suicide rate in Europe (Independent, Aug 1, 2006).
Obviously nobody is suggesting that if wealth doesn't make you happy, try poverty. But the correlation of wealth and well-being ceases beyond a certain point. As Professor Daniel Kahneman of the University of Princeton puts it: "Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all, and in some cases has diminished slightly. There is a lot of evidence that being richer... isn't making us happier."
Yet another survey in the UK found that 81% of the UK population agreed that the Government's primary objective should be the creation of happiness rather than wealth, although this looks suspiciously like a weighted response to a loaded question. Other studies have shown that the most reliable happiness indicators are friendship, marriage, life-meaning, and life-goals. But so as not to drift too close to common sense, pseudo-science must interject again. One economist, Professor Oswald at Warwick University, worked out a formula to calculate how much extra cash someone would need to compensate for not having friends. The answer was, apparently, 50,000 pounds (http://...com/2tafc9). The money would be tempting. Friends aside, most workers have to sell themselves for much less.
Children and adults are not all that different. As the various surveys show, extreme deprivation aside, they all want the same kinds of 'soft' reinforcements, not the 'hard' currencies of materialism. But capitalist culture inflicts a ruthless and reckless propaganda war on its people, aiming its sharpest spears at the young and defenceless. Then, in an effort to show that it cares, it invokes a parody of science, counting tears, measuring trauma, like a psychoanalyst with a pocket calculator. Governments don't mind if you cry, so long as you buy. If one hundred percent of children, and adults, reported being one hundred percent 'minus happy' with capitalism, it would not change anything. What will change things is when those people stop being statistics, and start being statistically significant, by showing one hundred percent minus cooperation with their tormentors.