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What I’ve been reading

June 12th, 2005

Quite a few different things this week, no doubt reflecting the fact that I am spending the week assessing ARC Grant Applications, and am therefore engaged in displacement activity on a massive scale. It’s a job I find very hard going, as there are far more worthwhile applications than can be funded. Assessors don’t actually have to approve or reject, thankfully, but we have to give numerical grades, and only the topscorers get supported. So, rather than do the job in one big hit, I tend to spin it out and find lots of excuses for procrastination.

I’ve read the new Richard Florida book, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent, of which I’ll write more soon I expect. Also, rereading “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” (Richard P. Feynman) which is particularly good when you’re feeling bamboozled by postmodern invocations of Heisenberg. For light reading“Roma Eterna” (Robert Silverberg), a mildly entertaining alternate history, in which Christianity doesn’t arise. I bought this because I’m also rereading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which I have in a lovely Folio Society Edition. Thanks to the marvels of public domain[1], you can read the whole thing here

Finally, I’ve just read Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Most of the main themes of this book have been debated here at length, and, for that matter ever since Rousseau won that essay competition with his paean to the Noble Savage. Given the length of the debate, I think it’s clear that both sides have some strong appeal, and I don’t propose to attempt a settlement.

What’s more interesting to me is the cyclical nature of the issue, both in terms of the extent to which consumption motives dominate behavior and in terms of the salience of anti-consumerist critiques like this one. Looking at the last twenty-five years or so, it’s hard to deny the claim that desire for consumer goods (particularly houses and household goods) has become much more prominent. For the last ten years or so, it seems clear that low interest rates and easy credit are playing an important role. For the period as a whole, the striking development is the reversal of the decades-long trend towards shorter working hours, more holidays and so on. So far at least, this development has been confined to the English-speaking countries. Moreover, as we’ve noted here in the past, the increase in full-time working hours in Australia reached its peak in the late 1990s (coinciding with the end of the ‘productivity miracle’), then flattened out. Over the last few years, workers seem to have clawed back some home-life balance.

The most notable trend of this kind discussed in Affluenza is ‘downshifting’, defined as a conscious decision to accept a lower income and a lower level of consumption in order to pursue other life goals. Actually, on this definition, I’ve downshifted a couple of times, but such are the times that I’ve ended up working harder and making more money than ever before[2]. I find more generally, that it’s very hard to escape the Zeitgeist on this sort of thing. I suspect that in twenty years, we’ll all look back on the present consumption binge and find it totally crazy. And, perhaps, twenty years after that, our grandchildren will be binging again.

fn1. Get in quick, before some corporation finds a way to claim that this is part of its intellectual property

fn2. I’m reminded of Gibbon who wrote that he

‘had somewhere heard or read the frank confession of a Benedictine Abbot: “my vow of poverty has given me a hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince”. I forgot what were the consequences of his vow of chastity’.

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  1. June 12th, 2005 at 18:26 | #1

    On that monk bit, somewhere Gibbon points out that the Circassian nobility were not so proud as to withhold their endeavours from the productive processes of their main export commodity – Circassian concubines.

    See also his observation on what Henry II’s father did to some monks who elected the “wrong” abbot. It puts Henry VIII’s views on the relationship of Church and State into the shade, let alone Henry II’s views.

    I was also struck by how Gibbon’s structure informs us about his own era and its intellectual development. He wrote his chapters as a series of thematically coherent essays, placed in roughly chronological order but overlapping like tiles, and each introduced with some comparative stuff from his own time to help his immediate readership get up to speed.

    It is this prefatory material that is so instructive; while the rest is secondary material on the Roman Empire, this is primary material on the 18th century. As such it shows us the gaps in enlightenment thinking, the sort of thing people are too ready to take at face value in relation to the late American rebellion – and, indeed, to the idle musings of today’s republicans (see the openings of chapters 3 and 7, reflecting all the while on more recent demonstrations of the soundness of Gibbon’s observations).

    I have also found this technique useful in reading Thomas More’s Utopia; it tells us about the state of England before the dissolution of the monasteries. In particular it shows that enclosures were under way and causing harm well before many moderns suppose, and that the fate of the monasteries may well have been tied up with the presence of untapped privatisation opportunities – in other words, some abbots were just not venal enough even though many were and had realised gains that could also be seized (you just can’t win).

    Sadly, I only have the Low abridgement of Gibbon – but even that has been highly instructive.

  2. Don
    June 12th, 2005 at 18:37 | #2

    John, reading Affluenza made me think about a post you wrote in 2003 about the Baumol Effect:

    http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2003/11/12/relative-prices-the-baumol-effect-and-myths-of-rich-and-poor/

    I can’t help thinking that we’re all buying more stuff (goods) because stuff is cheaper than it used to be, and many of us are getting paid more. I don’t see why it has to be the result of an increase in desire.

    So when you say “it’s hard to deny the claim that desire for consumer goods (particularly houses and household goods) has become much more prominent. For the last ten years or so, it seems clear that low interest rates and easy credit are playing an important role” I wonder whether our desires have stayed pretty much the same but that all this cheap money makes it easier to indulge them.

    If people’s desire for things like a house within cycling distance of the CBD and goods which signal status (luxury cars) remained static, then increases in GDP would drive up the prices of well-located houses and the luxuriousness of status goods like cars.

    It seems to me that the way to recognize the truly affluent is to look at their consumption of services rather than their consumption of goods (with the exeption of houses). If you’ve got an architect, a psychiatrist, and orthodontist for the kids, a personal trainer, an accountant, and a lawyer, then you’re probably affluent.

  3. Elizabeth
    June 12th, 2005 at 19:05 | #3

    Don, from experience, architects are not (as a profession) affluent.

  4. June 12th, 2005 at 19:41 | #4

    On the light reading front, Jane Fonda’s nicely themed autobio was entertaining fare.

    This post made me think of Ted Turner, who is hilariously portrayed in the only really funny part of the story. Turner is the most compulsive consumer of America, literally owning more of it geographically than anyone else on earth. What began as charming soon drove Fonda nuts, as Ted can barely stand to be in any one of his dozens of ranches and houses for as long as four days, sometimes only for a morning. The ultimate consumer can never stand still, never be alone, and amounts to an endearing man-boy, not without his redeeming skills. When Ted donated a billion to the UN, much of which went toward the cause of preventing female genital mutilation, Jane drily notes that “you can’t say he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is”.

  5. Ian Gould
    June 13th, 2005 at 08:12 | #5

    “I was also struck by how Gibbon’s structure informs us about his own era and its intellectual development. ”

    The final chapter, in which Gibbons discusses the possibility that 18th century Europe coudl succumb to barbarian invasion as did Rome is partciularly interesting in this regard.

  6. June 13th, 2005 at 16:54 | #6

    IG, that’s selective quoting. Gibbon comes down in favour of its not happening, mainly for two reasons neither of which apply any more:-

    – decentralised structures and a wider spread of living resources meant that 18th century Europe wasn’t near a tipping point; and

    – the Europeans had all those other places to which they could conduct a strategic retreat if they had to, like North America.

    That passage stands comparison with one of Macaulay’s a generation or so later, about some future New Zealander perhaps beholding the remains of civilisation on the Thames (remember, when Macaulay was writing, there was no European colonisation of New Zealand, just commercial visits).

  7. June 18th, 2005 at 11:02 | #7

    QED looks really good.

  8. Ian Gould
    June 18th, 2005 at 18:48 | #8

    PM, on first reading gibbons at about the age of 15 that passage plunged me into a brief fit of terror as I contemplated the possibility that out 20th century world could face such a fate.

    Yes I know that Gibbons concluded that it couldn’t happen. I find it an interesting argument for decentralisation of power.

  9. June 18th, 2005 at 23:39 | #9

    IG, I don’t think Gibbon was thinking of decentralised power so much as decentralised means of subsistence. But we now have a far more integrated and thus fragile agricultural sector.

    Think of the rationale behind why blitzkrieg worked on the western front but not on the eastern; there was no “head” to be chopped off in the same sense. Yet the political structure was not as decentralised as the agricultural/military/industrial complex, even after all Stalin’s efforts against the former (he had deliberately moved a lot of the rest further east – the Germans almost reached the tank factories, but didn’t quite).

  10. Ian Gould
    June 19th, 2005 at 08:16 | #10

    Actually, he quite specifically discusses the idea that because modern Europe is divided into several different states its unlikely they’ll all have lousy rulers at the same time.

    I THINK the analogy he uses is Caligula ruling France while Augustus rules Sweden.

  11. June 19th, 2005 at 20:50 | #11

    Ah – we’re now looking at proximate and ultimate causes. Yet the logic of globalisation has forced all the independent economies into a sort of resonance with similar behaviour…

  12. joe2
    June 20th, 2005 at 19:30 | #12

    Listened to National Interest on R.N. with T.Lane, last Sunday, 19th of June. Audio available for interview with John Perkins, author of a book called ” The Confessions of economic hitman”.(Woodslane,publisher)

    Has anyone read it? He sounded pretty interesting/convincing. Should i spend the dollar or save it for a rainy day? Supposed to be a number one best seller. That always scares me.

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