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April 21, 2006

If it were paint, Avner Offer's The Challenge of Affluence would be accused of not living up to its tin: The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950 - Avner Offer

Posted by Richard D. North

The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950
by Avner Offer
Pp. 454. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, 30

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - reviews Avner Offer's The Challenge of Affluence.

This is not a huge book, but it feels as though it is. What's worse, it has a high opportunity cost. To read it, I have had to put down a novel by Rosamond Lehmann, who really can teach one something about money, morals and mores, writing Weather In the Streets as she did in 1936, a time when people were imagining that being well-off and liberated might become normal, and the sooner the better.

What has happened since? What enfeeblement means we appear not to enjoy the way of life dreamed of for millennia? Professor Offer's premise is that:

affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being.
Saying that he is repeating his premise, he amplifies it thus:
Affluence is a challenge because choice is fallible.
Very like life, then, one muttered, but these were opening pages and one recalled that patience the book's ostensible subject - is a virtue, and my share of affluence hasn't robbed me of the guilt which attends any sign that I lack forbearance. And again:
The challenge of affluence is coping with novelty. Novelty will continue, at an ever faster pace.
But there is no thought from Professor Offer that the next bit of progress may bring very different challenges to those he frets over.

In part, we get a repetition of the standard angst-ridden stuff about affluence. We've had it before, most respectably from Professor Richard Layard of the LSE. This says that we suffer from what is sometimes called "Affluenza". The answer is usually supposed to be, and it's mentioned by Offer, what one might as well call "Enuffluence". The most important of these quite old ideas is that we have evidence that over a certain (low) level of affluence, more income doesn't bring proportionate increases in well-being. Indeed, affluence is said to make us barmy, and the Americans more so than the Europeans because they have more of it. (Offer's heart and prose burns with indignation about the silly, self-deluding Americans.)

So why do we strive for increases in income? It's an interesting question, and it doesn't take a vast understanding of human nature to answer it. The triumph of hope over experience catches some of it. So does one's innate sense of superiority: the other bloke may make a hash of being a millionaire, but I won't. And then there's the real problem for the Anxiety Industry: as Professor Offer notes, and thinks "counter-intuitive", three-quarters of people in rich societies keep on saying that they're fairly or very happy (the less well-off are the less thrilled) and they do so in spite of having lived lifetimes of rising expectations. The bar keeps getting raised, and they keep flying over it.

Granted these facts, Professor Offer is perhaps right to move beyond old anxieties. He has developed (if not invented) a new one. This is captured in his proposition:

If the affluent are likely to be more prudent, it does not follow that prudence increases with affluence.
Indeed, he asserts that quite often, affluence diminishes prudence. So: if the old proposition (which he doesn't disdain) is that affluence doesn't make us happy Avner Offer gives us the relatively fresh one that affluence may be all very well now, but we'll suffer for it later. This thought comes bundled with oceans of stuff about "discounting" the future, but the Big Idea is that affluence increases "myopia": it makes the present very present and disappears or distances the future.

The problem with this is that we only have the past and the present to go on. In short: we simply don't know whether people in 2006 are storing up problems for 2056. It certainly hasn't become hugely obvious that the newly-affluent of 1956 (let alone 1936) and ever since have stored up problems for us. (We can leave aside global warming: that's not the kind of affluence problem being discussed.)

Too late for us to care much, Offer says he has a diagnosis but not much of a cure. He cites with approval Lord Layard's prescription: increased taxes. Offer might be tickled by some interesting work on "Soft Paternalism", discussed in a recent Economist (6th April 2006). This suggests that there may be ruses by which people are tempted to bind themselves to self-denying ordinances for the future, along the lines of alcoholics swallowing "Antabuse" tablets. (They can be taken when the weak are strongish and provide violent emetic insurance against vulnerability.)

There is a mass of material in this book, and some of it is interesting. But the fascinating footnotes, quotes and references wholly fail to deliver its message. If it were paint, it would be accused of not living up to its tin. Offer does say some interesting things on his own account. But not often, and even then hardly ever to his point.

So he is reasonable at times. He can, quite suddenly, be rather brisk with some of the obvious anxieties about present behaviour. Where you might expect a jeremiad, he is calm. For instance, like many commentators, he seems to accept that the relatively low amount of personal savings in the Anglosphere (compared with Asia or continental Europe) may not be an impending disaster. (Not for the first time, you scribble, "So where's the beef?" in the margin, and move on, leaving a thickening palimpsest behind, like a summer snail.)

He tries to persuade us that advertising is pretty well defined as a cultural and economic activity which uses up a stock of trustingness in consumers. But surely it merely produces a certain rather constant - level of a healthy scepticism within which we accept that makers of chocolate are more likely to deliver the satisfactions they advertise than are cosmetic firms likely to deliver their promised eternal youth? One might add sourly that university professors and their blurb writers over-egg things more than advertising agencies. Anyway, sensible people heed the financial advice on the Jeremy Vine Show or Money Box and sup Carol Vorderman's televised blandishments about debt with a longish spoon. But constant exposure to ads doesn't erode trust successively or cumulatively, as though in a Chinese torture.

Trust is quite a big deal for Avner Offer. So is the "Me-first" element in modern culture. One can overstate the problem in both cases, and mis-state them. What's odd is that the more one pokes away at the idea that it might be affluence which has produced cynical selfishness, the more one sees that "Flower Power" and "New Age" thinking and the rightsism of the welfare state are as much to blame as the capitalistic, individualistic affluence which the 60s social revolution was a reaction to. And what of the modern age's rampant infantilism, in which adulthood has been banished? It's probably serious and can't obviously be related to a rising GNP. (The older generation blame it all on the telly, of which they actually consume a huge amount.) All kinds of things make modern life complex, including having the leisure and licence to introspect. But this increase in self-examination, teetering as it does on self-obsession, is not really the short-termism which Offer says is afflicting the West. It is, in any case, the result of an increase in what might be called spirituality, not the materialism which troubles our professor.

There are long sections on the way household appliances used to deliver time (by saving it) and now consume it (by entertaining us). Quite why occupying an hour is anything like stealing it, I don't know. Besides, Offer takes no account whatever of the patchily improving standard of the media: television's offerings are far more sophisticated (he might admit they were more cunning) than they used to be. There is better, more accessible, commentary on the arts on television now than ever: why shouldn't it "consume" our time?

There is a bulky dissertation on inequality: how it is large, getting larger, and crushing us. But in a fairly typical Offer-moment he notes that more people have high-status jobs than ever before, and know it, and like it. The moment is typical because whilst the data is popped onto the page, and its power not at all dismissed, its not being well-related to the book's argument, or being contradictory to it, is glided-over.

Perhaps the oddest discussion is about mating and marriage and the work-life balance. Naturally, our professor at times treats human relations as an economic (a monetary) transaction. These passages are (like much of his material) close to "Freakonomics": a sort of econometric anthropology. He does also, and disarmingly, drop in perfectly decent observations derived from life and art. He notes and it is interesting the amount of airtime taken up with the 30-something woman's "frustrating quest for commitment" after the serial monogamy of her twenties. His difficulty is that he has good data that people have for a decade or so been correcting what they (and presumably Offer) perceive to have been the excesses in random coupling of the period of, say, 1960-1980. In short, the affluent have been caring more about their family lives, and the more affluent more so than the less. Why wouldn't people grow into their affluence and learn how to deal with it?

Avner Offer seems too much the professor to be much use to us in talking about real events: the man in the saloon bar seems more likely to be interesting. Where better to hold one's nose about the vulgarities of life than in the groves of academe? Besides, his professional expertise his economics is not well-geared to grapple with the issues at hand. He does discuss and perhaps mourns the way economics assumes people are rational and selfish, but he doesn't seem to grasp the import of his own observation that they are and for good or ill quite often neither.

Nor does he seem much interested in the behavioural economists' approach to making sense of the apparently or the actually irrational. He also assumes that economics is an analytical tool of the right, when surely its history is as much one of capture by the left? Actually, our predicament is worse than that. We are not only in the hands of an academic who operates within a clunky discipline. He is a professor of economic history, but doesn't have the historians' skill of helping us discuss how the present morphed out of the past, or will morph into the future.

He worries, for instance, that we face an epidemic of obesity. But people's over-eating is surely a function of the suddenness of affluence amongst people not used to being disciplined about their food? The ex-poor are suddenly able to stuff themselves. So what? They will presumably become more middle class in their behaviour as time goes on. Over-eating like gas-guzzling may well go the way of smoking. That's to say: out of fashion. Affluence will solve the problems it has created. Offer gives us the very material which suggests time will cure these problems. His own data is the vast cheerful cuckoo in his warbler's nest of anxiety.

Of course, one problem with economists and perhaps with Oxford professors is that they value prudence very highly. This book declares itself as a discussion about how affluence has trashed it. One of the many things which divides the right within itself is the problem of how much to admire Puritan as opposed to Cavalier values. I admire the former, but like the latter.

Prudence is often cowardice and it is certainly bolstered by fear. It is certainly first cousin to timidity. Mind you, and contrariwise, poverty seems to produce more short-termism than affluence. All that stuff about people eating the seed-corn. And why won't the poor buy in bulk, as Mrs Thatcher used to wonder? The poor gamble with the little they have. It is certainly possible that, in an affluent society, people would be less fearful. But even Offer doesn't seem to think this is so: he repeats the old argument that we are more anxious. How to square that? Surely, one of the few benefits of myopia is that it shelters people from the problems ahead (they can't see them, after all)? And yet modern people go about with long faces or this book says they do, and they might if they read it at face value.

It wouldn't be at all surprising if affluence made people cocky (I'm inclined to mourn the way it does). But Offer's book gives us much more cheerful data. In his pages we see people becoming more thoughtful and prudential - less suicidal even - the richer they become. Don't we also see them fairly cheerfully paying their (rather high) taxes?

Avner Offner is a very grand academic (Oxford's Chichele Professor of Economic History and much else). It wasn't likely that he would produce a bone-headed book, but this is one. It provides the material which substantiates the idea that affluence is associated with some very paradoxical effects, many of them positive. But it doesn't bother to discuss the tensions it exposes. It seems blinded by its decency, its determination that things are horrid even when most of us insist they're sort of OK.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

To read Prof. Christie Davies's take on Avner Offer's The Challenge of Affluence, see: Avner Offer is wrong about the causes of our lack of self-control, argues Christie Davies.

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"Why wouldn't people grow into their affluence and learn how to deal with it?" asks Mr North. Why didn't the Romans, or any of dozens of societies that collapsed, either due to or alongside of, Lucullan excess? Dr Offer may be highly speculative, but Mr. North is the man playing the game of "what if."

On an related matter, another social scientist argues (albeit without satisfying metrics) that desire is proportional to subsequent dissatisfaction. He tended to go under the title of Buddha, but he has not answered his email for 2.5 millenia.

Posted by: s masty at April 21, 2006 03:08 PM

Offer's book is very good. Mr. North lives in neo-prog cloud-cuckoo land, and it is Offer whose ideas more precisely represent the reality of our rapidly degenerating hyper-consumerist world. The Right no longer have anything to say, if they ever had, and it's time for them to go.

Posted by: Steve Hall at May 2, 2006 10:40 AM

Don't imagine there's ever been a society where the majority of people said they weren't happy. Gallup weren't around during the Black Death or the antebellum south, but most people just don't like to grumble do they? At least about themselves. And especially to strangers.

Does that make Offer's book worthless? Not all. But it kicks an almighty prop away from Richard North's teetering - and tautological - edifice.

Posted by: Henry Dubb at May 19, 2006 03:00 PM
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