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Notes (referenced) on the misuse of poll data which underpins Oliver James's Affluenza. (And more generally, the Happiness Debate guff.)

(See also: RDN on Richard Layard and Oliver James at Social Affairs Unit.)

(See also: RDN's Rich Is Beautiful: A very personal defence of Mass Affluence, SAU, 2005.)

A note written 17 July, 2007

Lord Layard, the guru of the Happiness debate, argues that £1000 on each depressive would sort most of them out. Nothing wrong in that suggestion, but it has not much do with Layard's more general assertions about the statistics of happiness, which are about as bad as James'.

There's a good deal of useful data quoted in the next section. But here is some fresh material.

The Economist 14 July, 2007, discusses two recent editions of ongoing research. "The new polls cast some doubt of that [Layardian] school of thought. They add weight to the contention that growth and income play a big part in boosting people's satisfaction with life and their attitude to the future."

(1) Gallup's WorldPoll as reported in the Economist found that "In all the rich places (America, Europe, Japan, Saudi Arabia) most pople say they are happy. In all the poor ones (mainly in Afrca) people say they are not.... In general, declared levels of happiness are correlated with wealth. The pattern also seems to hold true within countries, as well as between them. Rich Americans are happier than poor ones; rich Brazlilians happier than poorer ones."

(I would reference this data if I could find it on the Gallup World Poll site, but can't.)

(2) Ipsos looked at shapers and movers and found that the elite was more markedly optimistic than the masses in India, Russia and China and less differentiated (or even slightly more gloomy) in Europe and America.

So there are complications in this stuff and all of it needs taking with a pinch of salt.

BTW: In general the better-off bounce back more quickly than the poor from mental health crises.

A note written in early 2007, specifically on Oliver James' work

OJ argues that the Anglosphere (Britain and the US) suffers from Affluenza. He is pursuing an old line: that the Brits would do well to consider why the Continental model of France and Germany, or the Scandinavian model of Denmark and Norway, or the Mediterranean model of Italy or Greece are nicer.

Oliver James's narrative depends to some extent on data and it is worth looking at what this actually says.

OJ's thesis is that the "selfish capitalism" of some countries explains what he calls their high rates of mental distress. He uses inequality tables as a proxy for "selfish capitalism" and he uses two main sources for his evidence of countries' mental health. He doesn't factor in the degree of "socialism" of countries: the UK is unequal but quite highly-taxed, for instance. The UK ranks with the US in OJ's thesis, but they are probably not very alike as societies, and not so different from other countires (Germany, for instance) which look very different to them on OJ's ranking.

A brief look at UNDP's inequality data does not help OJ's case. Its "gini index" measures the percentage deviation from a notional totally equal distribution of national income. Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany are all in the 21-30 per cent range. France, Ireland, Canada, Australia, the UK, Israel, Portugal, New Zealand, Poland, the US and Russia are all in the 31-40 per cent range (the US only just, at 40 per cent). Hong Kong, China, Mexico, Zimbabwe and Malaysia are all in the 41-50 per cent range. It falls to Chile, Colombia, Zimbawe to exceed 50 per cent.

Put this another way. OJ's Anglosphere villain, the UK, sits perfectly well in a range of Continental examples, though at the higher end of inequality compared with them. Only the Scandinavians and Japan are likely to be 10 percent more equal. But the Scans love childcare for the very young, which OJ inveighs against.



Other measures of inequality do rank "selfish capitalism" more as OJ would like. The ratio of the wealth held by the top 10 per cent of society vs that held by the bottom 10 per cent does coral and rank the Anglosphere as OJ would like, with Australia, New Zealand, the UK all close, and the US as an upper outlyer. But if that correlated well with mental distress (which it doesn't), his book would have had to be called "Envy-flu", since it is the very few, very rich who are noted by this statistic.


OJ thinks he has identified a middle class disease, and that is arguably well charted by the inequality of the top 20 per cent vs the bottom 20 per cent. This is indeed the measure he uses. That gives the rough ranking OJ would like, with the US as something of an outlyer. But it corals and ranks some OJ heroes and villains much more closely than would really suit his case. The top 20 per cent of Brits have over 7 times the wealth of the bottom 20 per cent. The figures is 6 times for the Spanish top 20 per cent, 6.5 for the Italian, and 5.6 for the French. There may be some tipping point at a sevenfold inequality, but it doesn't seem all that plausible.

OJ explicitly dismisses "happiness" data as merely anecdotal and more indicative of cultural mores than well-being. He may take this route because the Eurobarometer and other measures of happiness don't rank countries' well-being as he would like. The UK emerges as a cheerful country from Eurobarometer.

It is true that OJ's two preferred tables in his three Appendices of countries' well-being do rank them as he states. One lists several, but not the UK, which comes from elsewhere. They round-up rather complicated data sets.

He uses another dataset to slot the UK in. It is interesting to note the UK material: it is much more reassuring than OJ implies.

I suspect all the mental health rankings here are dubious, but I am especially suspicious of the UK ranking.

The correlations he posits are conflicted. Some countries conventionally regarded as "nice" (France, Canada, Netherlands) score badly for mental health, whilst other "nice" ones (especially those with the admired mediterranean lifestyle) score well inspite of being unequal (Spain but especially Italy are posited as having both moderately high inequality and very good mental health). Subtract the dubious ranking of the UK from OJ's Appendix 2 and one is left with an even more muddled picture. OJ's own data does not demonstrate inequality equating with misery, with or without the UK's dubious position.

There are other datasets which OJ ignores and which are much more optimistic for the UK, and for "selfish capitalism". For example The State of Mental Health in the European Union (Health and Consumer Protection directorate-general, Brussels, 2004) presents a very different picture and is on all fours with OJ's purposes (that is, it is about mental illness not happiness).
Reference http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_projects/2001/monitoring/fp_monitoring_2001_frep_06_en.pdf

This study has the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany at the top of the mental health well-being table, and in that order (the UK leading the pack of wellness). Spain, Italy and France are well behind, and in that order, with France being quite the least well-off.
Figure 9. Psychological Distress in Seven EU countries

If one moves to suicide, Greeks and Portuguese kill themselves the least, with the UK about as suicidal as the Portuguese. Finns (in spite of other data suggesting they are generally very cheerful, see the Eurobarometer data) kill themselves most frequently amongst Europeans, but the French, Danes, and Italians are all much more prone to suicide than the British.
Figure 13. Total Suicide Mortality Rates Across Europe, 1997
[http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_projects/2001/monitoring/fp_monitoring_2001_frep_06_en.pdf. Figure 13 ]

OJ wants us to believe that affluence relates to mental illness. Data at the Office of Applied Statistics of the US Department of Health and Human Services has better-off males at considerably less risk of mental illness than the poorest, with middling income people in between them. US men are at least as mentally well as the Continentals OJ admires. It's true that US women are much more prone to depression than US men, but rich women only very slightly more so than poor.
Table SP78.2B http://oas.samhsa.gov/depressTabs.htm


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