Book review: Curing Affluenza by Richard Denniss

Curing Affluenza: How to buy less stuff and save the worldCuring Affluenza: How to buy less stuff and save the world by Richard Denniss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”*

Richard Denniss’ Curing Affluenza seeks to define the problems our current consumerist society has and how to address it. He posits that we need to abandon consumerism and opt instead for materialism if we have any chance of changing the shape of our economy, which will, in turn, allow us to address issues like climate change and environmental degradation.

For many years now I’ve been a fan of Richard and The Australia Institute’s work. He and they manage to talk economics without making it feel like you’ve been hit with a brick made of buzzwords.** As such, this book has been on my TBR pile since its release. It has not disappointed.

Richard makes his arguments simply and clearly, in a way that make sense. Even if you disagree with him politically, you would have to agree with his points about economics and politics being about choosing a shape for the economy – the shape being what we choose to spend money on and value. You may argue that we need more spending on tanks and less on healthcare, which has a different shape than an economy where I want fewer tanks and more healthcare. This also applies to our purchases; so if I’m buying tickets to see bands play live rather than upgrading my phone every 6 months, the economy changes shape.

On the Affluenza front, Richard suggests 7 principles for tackling it:
1) First, do no harm.
Think of this as consumer boycotts and active decisions about consumer/lifestyle choices.

2) Some change is better than no change.
Baby steps. It isn’t possible to stick 100% to #1, and larger changes may take longer.

3) It’s not about sacrifice and denial; it’s about saving money and having a better life.
We’re trying to change the shape of the economy, not become monks.

4) Services are good for you.
New status symbol phone or see a live music act? Stuff doesn’t make you happy but experiences do, and they help change the economy’s shape.

5) When you are full, stop consuming.
Because there is such a thing as too many books… Wait, what?

6) Get yourself and your country into better shape.
Our saving and spending, especially when organised with others, can reshape the economy.

7) Flatter is fairer.
Equality of resources and opportunity for all. I.e. redistribution.

Whilst this was a very good book, I did have two problems with it. The first issue was that the middle chapters labour the point, so much so that it felt like needless padding. This was frustrating because as someone who has read various articles and essays from Richard before, I know he can be very concise. It also didn’t help that I was already familiar with what he was trying to argue and the examples used. Though, this may be from that familiarity, so others may appreciate these chapters more.

The second issue was that Richard was largely dismissive of options that didn’t involve capitalism. There was a big assumption that we still need/want capitalism and thus should be reforming/tinkering with it. This assumption was never examined nor justified adequately. It would have been nice to see some discussion addressing those other options, especially in a pros and cons manner.***

A very interesting read and one that ties into several other books I have read recently.
Utopia for Realists
Austerity: History of a bad idea
Winners Take All

* Quote is obviously from Fight Club and not this book. I’m almost certain that Richard is not advocating young men beat each other up and try to destroy capitalism.
** Richard appropriately calls the indecipherable economics talk Econobabble.

*** Richard responded to this point on Twitter. He felt it was outside of the scope of the book and would have muddied the message. I think that is a fair point.

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Book review: Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass MediaManufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don’t believe everything you see in the news… but which bits?

There is a narrative we hold to be true: that the news media are trying to inform us of the facts; that they search high and low for the truth; that they are honest and hardworking; and that they hold truth to power. Manufacturing Consent presents the argument that they often don’t do that at all but instead operate under the Propaganda Model of media.

Almost a decade ago, I attended a panel session about news journalism that billed itself as to how award-winning journalists hunted down and exposed the truth. I walked out about half-way through from disgust. You see, these award-winning journalists had been patting themselves on the back for having done what I regard as the bare minimum of fact-checking on a story and had managed to discover something. These were the people we relied upon for our information.

While that wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I’d run up against the failings of the media, it was the moment that has come to summarise my view of the media. I think that is why Chomsky and Herman’s thesis in the book feels familiar.* The way media act to perpetuate the status quo and the interests of power and influence is well articulated if unsurprising.

There were a few issues I had with Manufacturing Consent. The first was that the introductory chapters, including the preface written in the early 2000s, and the final chapter were excellent, but the middle case study chapters erred on the side of exhaustively labouring the point. I mean, the history of various conflicts was fascinating, but not exactly what I signed up for when I started reading.

The second issue I had was that this book feels somewhat out-of-date. The examples were from a previous generation of media. While it appears that much of the propaganda model still holds, you have to question if it isn’t far more nuanced now. Media ownership has become even more consolidated, the diversified online media landscape has made attention seeking and funded agenda pushing the norm, partisanship is leveraged for audience retention, media owners and management are more overtly pushing agendas, and lobbyists and other bad faith actors exist in all aspects of public discourse driving narratives. Power is Feeding the Chooks** now more than ever. It feels like the propaganda model and the 5 filters are still highly relevant but in need of an update to capture the new realities.

Another issue was one that was briefly touched upon in the final chapter. The propaganda model tends to assume a level of competence and diligence to journalism and the media. I often use Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. A lot of the reporting being attributed to a propaganda model may actually fall under the lazy, incompetent, and uninterested model instead. Although, that could be seen as part of the 5 filters of media selection – or to paraphrase Chomsky: if they were actually good at journalism they wouldn’t be working there.

My final issue was around solutions: what are they? There aren’t any solutions posed, both from the point of view of a media consumer trying to be well informed and from the point of view of a society wanting a reliable media. Some ideas are alluded to, such as the reports from independent groups covering an issue (e.g. Amnesty and America Watch were mentioned), which also requires an active audience who seek out information (i.e. lateral reading and fact-checking). But I feel as though this was an important set of recommendations to explicitly state.

A very interesting and insightful book that is well worth a read. Be warned that the case studies are more of a history lesson than you’d probably be expecting.

The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine

* Although, it may feel familiar because this text has been in the “mainstream” for decades, so much of it will have found its way to me without having read it directly.

** For the non-Aussies, Feeding the Chooks was a term for Press Conferences from one of Australia’s most corrupt politicians. Sir Joh would wait until journalists were desperate for information and then feed them timed propaganda that they wouldn’t question due to deadlines – hence, feeding the chooks. He was an authoritarian who rigged elections (sorry, gerrymandered…), essentially ran a police state, held the press in disdain, was generally racist and homophobic (although, kinda standard for an Aussie conservative from Queensland), and marginalised workers and unions.

Update: I’ve learned that Matt Taibbi wrote a book called Hate Inc. that was originally intended to be a modernising of Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky’s approval. It changed a bit, but addresses some of the issues I raised above.

Framing a viewpoint
Media descriptions summarised by Tom Gauld.

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Book review: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get ThereUtopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists starts with a simple premise: since we are already living in the utopia imagined by previous generations, what’s the utopia we’re aiming for now? We need big ideas to strive toward in order to keep progressing forward.

I have been meaning to read Utopia for Realists for several years now. Prior to the book’s publication, I read the sections Bregman had made available from two of his chapters on Medium. Those were my first introduction to the concept of a Universal Basic Income and how there was some fairly compelling, if limited, evidence for just giving people money to fix just about every problem. Poverty, it seems, isn’t a moral failing or a lack of work ethic, it’s a lack of cash. Since then I have watched several of his interviews and discussions (yes, including the Davos inequality panel) and still managed to gain more insights from his book.

It seems odd to note that we’ve stopped thinking about our future utopia. Outside of Star Trek*, most of our future visions are of dystopias which warn us of our mistakes, but also underline what happens when we stop thinking of a utopia to strive for. We can only see the negative futures, not the potentially great futures.

Bregman spends a lot of Utopia for Realists outlining several of our current societal problems and then introduces some of the evidence for his utopian vision of a Universal Basic Income, lower inequality, and a shorter working week as solutions. These are not new ideas – Mill, Russell, and Keynes have all written on these topics – but they are the utopia that Bregman thinks we need to be aiming for. In outlining the evidence in favour of this vision, he also shows how close we have come on several occasions to implementing some of these reforms and how easy it is for naysayers to win the day.

Utopia for Realists is very well written**, is easy to read, and not particularly long. The only reason I didn’t finish this quickly was that I kept tracking down the extensive references and surrounding literature for further reading. My own fault for being a giant nerd. One of my favourite references was this one on the value created by various professions, which suggests that we are rewarding some who are actively bad for the economy, whilst under-paying those who are good for the economy.

This book is highly recommended reading.

See also: https://tysonadams.com/2019/04/05/book-review-austerity-the-history-of-a-dangerous-idea-by-mark-blyth/
https://tysonadams.com/2019/03/19/book-review-winners-take-all-by-anand-giridharadas/

* Although, how much of a utopia is Star Trek, what with the wars, the planet of hats, and Borg collectives? Discussed further here.
** Not sure whether to credit this to Bregman or his translator – Elizabeth Manton.

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Book Review: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

The Society of the SpectacleThe Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.”

The Society of the Spectacle is an aphoristic set of polemic essays that examines the “Spectacle,” Debord’s term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity. He argues that we have become alienated from ourselves and reality in order to have us serve the economy/capitalism with the production of commodities and accumulation of wealth.

I first encountered the idea of the Spectacle from Peter Coffin (see below) and his video essays related to what he terms Cultivated Identity. This is a fascinating idea and particularly relevant today in the age of mass media, late-stage capitalism, and the commodified zeitgeist. Look at how much of our society is obsessed with or based upon edifying upward mobility, celebrity, fame, reputation, and positions of power or prestige.

This ultimately means that our media has become the thing that tells us how to think and it is essentially inescapable within our modern society. Thus, the limits of our conversations and thinking have already been defined, which then becomes a feedback loop for the media we consume. Click “Like” if you already agree.

The only drawback of this work was that it is obscurus and jingoistic. Aphorisms might be cool for ancient philosophers, but they don’t make for great enlightenment nor clear communication of ideas. I’ve actually gained more from reading and watching related overviews of The Society of the Spectacle than from Debord’s actual work.

Wikipedia
Illustrated Guide to Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle
Super Summaries

Peter Coffin’s video essays on the Spectacle:

Discussion of the Spectacle by a philosopher:

And her blog post on it: https://dweeb.blog/2018/12/21/the-society-of-the-spectacle/

Another explainer on the Spectacle:

An audiobook in Spectacle form:

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Book Review: Socialism A Very Short Introduction by Michael Newman

Socialism: A Very Short IntroductionSocialism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Newman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How will we have anyone to look down upon if we all work together to make a better and fairer society?

The “A Very Short Introduction” series explores the topic of Socialism promising exactly what the title suggests. Michael Newman seeks to give an overview of socialism; the good, the bad, the misunderstood, and the misrepresented.

In my continued effort to dig into a few of the current bogeymen of cultural discourse, I went looking for an introductory text on socialism that wouldn’t shy away from the flaws but would also be more honest than most detractors. I think Newman succeeds in this respect. Many discussions of socialism treat it as a monolith – which they ironically still manage to misrepresent – which Newman is able to dispell by discussing some of the many iterations. Socialism also tends to have many ills landed at its door without adequate context – e.g. Stalin’s totalitarianism and Lysenkoism are all treated as completely socialism’s fault whilst under other policial regimes we divorce or distance those issues (people starving under capitalism isn’t capitalisms fault… apparently). Newman discusses examples like Cuba and Sweden with enough context to show how internal and external forces impacted what we regard as socialism.

This was a handy overview of socialism and certainly one that people should be encouraged to read before espousing views on the subject.

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Book review: Austerity – The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous IdeaAusterity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You have to live within your means unless you are a bank, then you get someone else to pick up the tab.

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea is pretty much as the title implies. Mark Blyth lays out the history of austerity economics, the arguments for its use, and then counters those arguments. Job done: let’s have cake.

In general, the deployment of austerity as economic policy has been as effective in bringing us peace, prosperity, and crucially, a sustained reduction of debt, as the Mongol Golden Horde was in furthering the development of Olympic dressage.

I first became aware of Mark Blyth as one of a handful of experts who were explaining the European sovereign debt crisis and why countries like Greece were mad at the austerity measures. He and others were the only ones who managed to accurately cut through the econobabble and victim blaming. Before then, various people involved in causing the Global Financial Crisis seemed intent on pointing fingers at out-of-control government spending, or nation states who were riddled with debt and no major industry. This was, of course, a distraction.

As an Aussie, I clearly remember during the Global Financial Crisis our treasurer dusting off his copy of Keynes and stopping us from being on the list of victims of the banks. As much as I quibble with some of the details of that economic stimulus, it worked. So it has puzzled me why so many financial experts seem to want to beat the economy to death in order to save it.

This book offered the explanation. It was eye-opening and expanded upon tackling the concept of austerity for sovereign nations who were forcibly saddled with the debt of multinational banks. For such a highly supported and enacted policy you would have thought there would be some very solid economics underpinning it… Yeah, not so much. As Mark outlines, pretty much every case of its use is purely ideologically driven and has rarely worked. In fact, quite often it has been a disaster.

Well worth a read. Or you could just watch a 5-minute version of the book:

Or a 1-hour version:

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Book review: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

In Praise of IdlenessIn Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”*

In Praise of Idleness is an essay written in between the two world wars and expands upon one of the points made in his Political Ideals essay. Once again, Russell manages to argue a challenging concept in an erudite and concise manner. Even if you disagree with him on the idea of work being overrated, there is value in engaging with what he is saying.

On inequality:
“Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.”
Variations of this statement are still being made today around inequality. They tend to use far more words.

On wasted efforts:
“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessities of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war.** At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations.”
I mean, could you be any more scathing of warmongering?

While I think he does make his argument well, there are some points that are taken as a given. The example of the wasted effort of war in the quote above is one of those. There is a valid point made about how society managed to function despite being asked to drop everything and fight a war, but the point about war being a waste of time and that standards of living were still okay just has to be taken as a given.

Worth a read, even if you disagree with Russell on some or all points.

* Parkinson’s Law, coined in 1955.
** WW1
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