RDN on affluence and envy on BBC News Channel

The Observer ran a story about a pair of economists, Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran, who think they’ve proven that affluent societies are beset by a horrible envy, and I lobbed up on the BBC News Channel to opine. Here’s what I said and what I should have said.

First, I said that the data simply suggests that affluence and happiness correlate quite well, with rich societies and rich individuals within them pretty happy. Not very surprising really, granted that affluence is created by people in free, progressive societies with good education and all that.

The interviewer said sure, but the economists are making the point that affluence creates envy and status anxiety and undermines society. I said that there’s bound to be envy, but we should remember that affluent societies seem to be pretty cheerful right across the board, more or less from top to bottom. In my own lifetime, I said, I’d seen the country get to be rather nicer and more cheerful as time went by. In particular I don’t recognise much of the data or anecdotage or drift of the argument in The Spirit Level.

I should have said that the interesting thing about our modern society is that there seems to be less resentment than used to be the case. I don’t say the rich are admired, but one detects rather little resentment, and certainly less seething resentment than was the case when I was young (and socialism pure and simple was more fashionable).

What’s more, I am struck that a higher percentage of people have the kind of thing people like. I mean that more of us now have state of the art cars, TVs, computers, insulated houses, foreign holidays, fashionable clothes. You may envy the person in the Merc, but a fairly fresh Fiesta is a better place to do one’s envying from than a bike or a rust-bucket.

And another thing. For good or ill, modern people are rather less prone to think themselves inferior to others than used to be the case.  I think there’s much less inferiority complex around.

If we’d had time I’d have said that modern parents may be getting less good at saying no to their children, and in that sense kids’ materialism may be more painful for all parties than  used to be the case. But that reminds us that we need to manage affluence better – teach it better – rather than bemoan the affluence in itself.

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Publication date

14 March 2010


Mind & body