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, 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. 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’.