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February 06, 2007

Where Affluenza is original it is silly and where it is sensible it is no better than any other self-help book, argues Richard D. North: Affluenza - Oliver James

Posted by Richard D. North

by Oliver James
London: Vermilion, 2007
Hardback, 17.99

I have form here. I was quite rude about one of James's books in one of mine (Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence). I thought his Britain On the Couch was a horrible mangling of the various bits of data about the well-being of humans in general and Britons in particular. This latest work rather cockily asserts that,

many American authors - and, more recently, British ones - have followed me into [this] worrying terrain.
That would presumably be Professor Lord (Richard) Layard of the LSE and Avner Offer of Oxford, respected academics both, the work of whom I have already picked lots of bones with here.

James says he has moved on from discussing "happiness". This seems to be because he wants to be a pioneer again, but it may be because citizens in both the UK and the USA insist on asserting they are pretty happy. Anyway, Affluenza is typical James: where it is original it is silly and where it is sensible it is no better than any other self-help book. If you want to get your life straight, you'd be better off with Richard & Judy or with Willie Nelson's self-help manual.

The book's macro case - the case it makes about society and economics - is that "selfish capitalism" is bad for the middle class (it makes them greedy and nasty). It insists that there is a powerful correlation between a nation's mental distress and the selfishness of its capitalism. James seeks to substantiate this case by asserting that a "definitive WHO study" and "14 national studies" rank mental ill health in just the way he'd like, and that they prove the more orientated toward affluence people are, the more miserable they are. That is: the Anglosphere is sickest and everywhere else is healthier.

It happens that even by his own data, the ordering of non-Anglosphere countries rather messes up his case. It is boring but important to note that he uses a crude measure for the "selfishness" of countries' capitalism: he ranks them by inequality. But some quite unequal countries (the UK amongst them) have strong welfare states and high taxation, and others (the US amongst them) don't. So linking the UK and US as coevals in "Selfish Capitalism" is at best odd.

It matters vastly that Oliver James has had to be rather selective to get countries' ill-being to rank as he'd like. There are plenty of assessments which have the UK as rather well off, mentally, compared with the Scandinavian, Franco-German or Mediterranean models. This is tiresome stuff, and I have written a separate note discussing various ways of looking at the data. [posted at]

The numbers feature in a few early pages and some very sketchy appendices, though this work is apparently going to be augmented later by a scientific paper. The bulk of this book is anecdotal. James has spent a lot of time trekking around the world meeting people. His purpose was to assess the nature of the Affluenza "virus" and the degree to which he could identify decent vaccines against it. He seems to want to argue that rich people are even more messed up than poor ones. Gosh.

Pride of place goes to a lonely, mega-rich and very nasty New Yorker - a man who is both an inheritor of wealth and a money-maker. So far, so Bonfire Of the Vanities.

But James is keen on finding ways to help people be both commercially successful and affluenza-free. This is to admit at the very least that affluence is not in itself the enemy. It also requires that there be rather few people who have got the knack of it (otherwise where's Oliver James's therapeutic role?). So when James meets a rich man - a New Zealander - who seems to him to be rather healthy, we are required to believe that there's something odd in his being wealthy and sorted. Bully for this successful individual, and doubtless we all have things to learn from him. But haven't we all met people who thrive on affluence and others who don't?

And then James rattles around the New York streets and comes across a Nigerian taxi-driver who comments on the way his adopted city has no social networks. Not like good old Nigeria, says James, noting that country's fabulously low affluenza count. Oh, right. And why do relaxed, funky, happy-go-lucky Nigerians flock to the nasty old USA and UK? Do the Nigerians who leave for a better life have a false consciousness? They've been conned, maybe, by Marlboro and Coke ads.

The book isn't completely silly, but it is very nearly so. Cutting James some slack, one warms to his noting that modern young people seem prone to being up their own bums. They are victims of self-obsession. Some of this indeed looks like affluenza. True, the modern middle class young do overly prize their high standard of living, if their delayed parenthood and their determination to abandon their toddlers to professional carers are anything to go by. But much of what ails them has much less to do with affluence than commentators like James suppose.

The problem with blaming affluence for everything is that it blinds us to lots of other interesting and challenging features of modern society. Moral and intellectual relativism; the decline of deference; the rise of cynicism and contempt; a failure to understand the subtleties and strengths of social life: none of these are all bad but they all pose much deeper existential challenges to our well-being than our being materially well-off. So when James discusses the idea of the authentic - the ability to examine one's life and fit it into society, and to frame goals in a rounded way - he is of course in perfectly good territory, but can't do striking work because he is too in love with his Big Idea. He could as well write a book about the ills of The Rule of the Baby Boomers.

Let's end with some further information which undermines James's case. A look at the data he says he likes shows how wilfully he's cherry-picked. For example, it's only US women who are in mental trouble. American men are about as mentally fit as James's beloved continental Europeans. The data also says that the more affluent American male is in better shape than the poorer. Other material adds that the rich bounce back from mental distress better and quicker than the poor. Lord ("the Happiness guru") Layard himself says that 1,000 per head of health expenditure would work miracles on the majority of the UK mentally distressed. Thank goodness we're so affluent we could afford this route if we chose.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence, Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world and the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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