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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Economics of medicine

Recently I was reading an article in Aeon Magazine about the challenges faced by the medicine industry – commonly referred to as Big Pharma or Big Pharma written in one of those fonts with blood dripping from it and a syringe being stabbed into a baby. One of the big changes in medicine development discussed was the patent period that allowed monopolies on new drugs, which in turn saw orphan drugs – not drugs for Oliver “please sir, can I have some more” Twist, but drugs for rarer conditions and illnesses – become more popular/profitable to develop.

It’s an interesting issue and the article is worth reading. But it got me to thinking about something a little tangential. No, not whether Oliver Twist needs a remake set in south-east Asian sweatshops. I wondered how much money is actually spent on things.

Take for example this:

screen-shot-2015-02-11-at-9-03-17-am
Source.

Drug development appears to take a backseat to marketing. But this depends on what section of the market, how big the company is, and other factors. Clearly, medicine development is still a big expense, but how much is spent on research and development overall?

Worldwide pharma R&D $
Total global pharmaceutical research and development spending from 2008 to 2022 (in billions of U.S. dollars) Source.

That global pharmaceutical research spending is quite large at $165 billion. Or is it?

Rank Country Spending
($ Bn.)
% of GDP % of World share
World total 1,739 2.2
1 United States United States 610.0 3.1 35.0
2 China People’s Republic of China 228.0 1.9 13.0
3 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 69.4 10 4.0
4 Russia Russia 66.3 4.3 3.8
5 India India 63.9 2.5 3.7
6 France France 57.8 2.3 3.3
7 United Kingdom United Kingdom 47.2 1.8 2.7
8 Japan Japan 45.4 0.9 2.6
9 Germany Germany 44.3 1.2 2.5
10 South Korea South Korea 39.2 2.6 2.3
11 Brazil Brazil 29.3 1.4 1.7
12 Italy Italy 29.2 1.7 1.7
13 Australia Australia 27.5 2.0 1.6
14 Canada Canada 20.6 1.3 1.2
15 Turkey Turkey 18.2 2.2 1.0  sourceoriginal

Suddenly the amount spent on medicine research and development seems rather small. The USA government alone could easily cover the expense of medicine research if it decided to change priorities, since it spends 3.7 times that much on defence.*

Would it be a good idea for governments to have a Department of Pharmaceuticals that researched, developed, and sold medicines? Would that be money better spent than stockpiling tanks in a desert? Certainly, it would address several of the issues raised in the Aeon Magazine article around how the profitability of drugs, rather than the consumer needs, drives research and development.

This sort of thinking could be applied to many industries. The reality is that there isn’t actually a shortage of money but a lack of incentive to invest money in some areas in favour of others. The solution doesn’t have to be the government taking over, nor does it have to be about private companies not being profitable. But maybe it does have to be about rethinking what we spend money on.

Richard Denniss made similar arguments in his Quarterly Essay Dead Right about the Australian economy.

So maybe it is time to stop accepting the argument “we can’t afford X” and start having the discussion about how we spend for the most good. Or not, I’m not your boss.

*To be clear, I’m not suggesting we stop all spending on something like defense, or that there aren’t reasons for spending money on things like tanks. But as Richard’s video suggests, we are making value judgments and assumptions without really questioning them.