Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 3 February 2024

 

Spiralling inflation is debasing exams, illness, even our very words

The Sunday Times

I think it was David Hume who noted that if a nation prints twice as much money, it doesn’t thereby become twice as wealthy. Instead, the value of money is halved through rising inflation — leaving everyone poorer. Even if you disagree with Hume’s analysis of inflation, I hope you’ll agree that he captures an important insight. More isn’t always more; often it is much less.

I mention this because I fear we are living through a period of rising inflation. This may sound odd with consumer prices growing at 4 per cent, hardly reminiscent of the Weimar Republic. But I’d suggest Hume’s insight doesn’t merely apply to inflation of the monetary kind, but to the other varieties that beset us if you look closely enough.

To see my point, albeit in a minor way, consider exams. Universities are handing out ever more first-class degrees. This precious grade, once the reserve of top students, is now given to a third of graduates (a recent report found that a quarter of students with three D grades at A-level left university with a first).

Superficially, this looks wonderful: more kids are getting top marks! The consequence, though, is that employers no longer value a first, making a mockery of the achievements of the brightest students. The currency of all exams has effectively been devalued.

Or take bullying. For doubtless benevolent reasons, there has been a concerted effort to extend the meaning of this term. At one time bullying referred mainly to the playground variety, but then it moved into the workplace — a sensible extension, given the prevalence of tyrannical bosses. The problem, though, is that the concept grew and grew like a semantic bubble. Things like eye-rolling were included, and then other “microaggressions”. In some workplaces today bullying can apply to an exchange in which neither party noticed anything amiss, provided a bystander felt affronted by it.

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And what has been the result of this “concept creep”, to use the evocative phrase of the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam? Has it made people at work safer? Or has it — as I’d suggest — diluted the notion of bullying to the point of meaninglessness, legitimised oversensitivity and rendered candid communication almost impossible? The South American writer Eduardo Galeano put it this way: “Less is always more … We live in a time of a terrible inflation of words, and it is worse than the inflation of money.”

But this brings me to perhaps the most troubling example of all: mental health. A headline in The Times last week suggested that one in nine children now have a disability, mostly in the form of mental illness. I have little doubt that this rise is partly down to the pandemic, and it is, of course, vital that sufferers have access to treatment. I hope we’d also agree that it is a blessing that we’ve moved on from a time when mental illness was stigmatised and people suffered in silence.

Yet it is surely possible to have profound sympathy for young people while recognising the hallmarks of an inflationary spiral: a dynamic whereby ever more emotions and feelings are classified as “illness”. Trauma, for example, was once defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — the standard handbook of classification — as an event causing severe psychological harm: something that would evoke significant distress in almost anyone, presenting the threat of death, grave injury or sexual violence. Being in a serious accident would qualify.

Then the definition started to expand. It was widened to cover not just one’s own experience of harm, but hearing of a loved one experiencing harm, or witnessing a traumatic event happening to others. Many psychiatrists insist that this expansion is legitimate according to the strictures of their profession. I’ll leave you to ponder whether they may have been influenced by large pharma companies keen to prescribe drugs to an ever growing population of “victims”.

But consider this. In 2017, three months after Donald Trump’s election, 769 American students were given the standard questionnaire to measure post-traumatic stress disorder. What happened? A quarter of the students met the threshold of trauma — not from life-threatening harm, or even vicarious suffering, but a routine election.

This kind of diagnostic inflation is pervasive in mental health. In her superb book What Mental Illness Really Is, Lucy Foulkes examines the case of depression. Until recently, the DSM instructed clinicians not to diagnose this illness if a patient presented with the relevant symptoms after a bereavement. That makes perfect sense: if you’ve just lost a soulmate, it’s natural to suffer. Indeed, how could one bond deeply with another human being and not experience an impenetrable, almost mysterious, void when they departed?

Yet this humane caveat was excised from the most recent version of the manual. The implication is shocking and revealing: if you are crying and having difficulty sleeping two weeks after a bereavement, instead of being assured this is normal and probably cathartic, you might be told (as Foulkes puts it) “that you are experiencing a mental illness, diagnosed with major depression and prescribed antidepressants”.

This is (if you’ll forgive the term) madness. Those who support this inflationary trend insist that it is compassionate to provide people who feel inner turmoil with a label on which to hang their pain. But this is Hume’s fallacy in a different form. Too much compassion for everyone in every set of circumstances is no longer compassion. Worse, it means that desperate sufferers can’t obtain treatment because the system is overflowing with those who are not truly unwell.

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When you view society through the prism of inflation, you notice that it sits behind many missteps, from giving prizes to every child, thereby devaluing all prizes, to ever-expanding concepts such as sexual harassment — mere glances can now land people in trouble.

Often the trend starts for the best of reasons: to correct a historic injustice or rectify a social imbalance. The problem is that — partly because of the magnifying effects of the internet and the trending algorithms of social media — they can often spiral out of all control or reason.

This is why I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that we are living through the early stages of a new version of the Weimar Republic, where, rather than money being systematically devalued, it is concepts, compassion and culture. It is why our most important task is to muster the collective resolve to challenge inflation wherever we find it, and to do so fearlessly. For the alternative is that we will ultimately debase our way of life.

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