Sunday, November 20, 2005

Book Review: Affluenza, When too much is never enough

This week's book review is Affluenza,when too much is never enough, by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Clive Hamilton is the Executive Director of the Australia Institute, a left leaning independent public policy research centre. Richard Denniss was formerly Chief of Staff of Natasha Stott-Despoja, when she was leader of the Australian Democrats.

I found the book inspiring but frustrating. As you can guess from the title, it is a book about how all of the increasing consumption of Australians is failing to make us happier. While it has a lot of good points to make, it suffers from two faults, to me.

First, it finds the most extreme example of something to make a point. For example:

"One parent reported how thrilled she was at the special service she received in shops because of her 'funky' toddler, Ponie, who was wearing 'a pink cashmere cardigan, striped Genko T-shirt and minature Vans runners from Japan'.
She added, 'She is wearing the worst shoes for her outfit, but I let her go.'"
Does this actually mean that the whole of Australia has a problem with ridiculous overdressing of babies? or just that there is one mother somewhere in an overly trendy suburb who overdresses her daughter? Another anecodote:

"A young man working in the highly competitive finance sector was called in by his bosses to discuss the progress of his work. After a few minutes he broke down in tears, confessing that he had been working so hard that he had not once seen his 10-month-old daughter awake"
Now this is very sad. But I work in the highly competitive finance sector (I do my share of mergers and acquisitions) and I have never met anyone who works hard enough to make that possible.

The book is full of anecdotes like this that you are meant to shake your head at what has come to modern Australians today. They don't show much sign of being representative or even particularly common.

There are also some real statistics (such as the size of modern houses compared with 50 years ago), but they almost seem peripheral; when the authors are trying to make a point, they wheel out the devastating anecdote.

And the suggested solutions are not particularly helpful. Their main conclusion is that we need a:
"political philosophy of wellbeing, one that focuses on those aspects of our personal lives and the social structure that do improve our welfare."
They go on to outline a political manifesto for wellbeing, which if adopted, will fix all our problems of being addicted to consumption. While this manifesto seems very worthy, it doesn't actually seem all that helpful to me. It contains things like 'provide fulfilling work', 'reclaim our time', 'discourage materialism and promote responsible advertising', 'build communities and relationships'.

The one thing that I (being an actuary) thought might be worthwhile was 'measure what matters' - build a set of national accounts that measure what they call 'national wellbeing'. Apart from the cheesy name, I'm inclined to agree with this one. It's crazy that (for example) unpaid childcare is not counted in the GDP and paid childcare is counted, and that a devastating bushfire will increase our national accounts because we have to pay to rebuild the houses.

Overall, it's a good read, if you avoid the feeling of needing to shout at the authors about the extremeness of their conspicuous consumption anecdotes. But its not an effective call to action.


At 10:50 pm, Anonymous elsewhere said...

I've found it hard to see the 'affluenza' debate in anything but extremes. On the one hand, there seem to be people crying poor who just can't meet their consumerist cravings. On the other hand, there seem to be people who are genuinely struggling in the current economic climate (esp with real estate prices being what they are & how far would $50k pa take you with three kids to support in Sydney?), so I'm a bit wary of saying it's all about wanting too much.

I'm much less consumerist in Alice than I was in Sydney without as many temptations on display(like shoe shops) tho I do spend a bit on my bikes.


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