Friday 16 September 2011

Ban all advertising and get it over with

Jeffrey D. Sachs is an economist who works for something called the Earth Institute. I suspect that, like Chandran Nair, he has been sent to test me. He holds woolly, anti-capitalist views based on woolly, Spirit Level-esque evidence, is an admirer of Bhutan, wants to launch a crackdown on advertising and is an abuser of 'happiness studies' for political ends. I have written about all these topics before at some length. Here is Prof. Sachs' view...

We live in a time of high anxiety. Despite the world’s unprecedented total wealth, there is vast insecurity, unrest, and dissatisfaction. In the United States, a large majority of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track.” Pessimism has soared. The same is true in many other places.

Any source for this claim that there is "vast insecurity, unrest, and dissatisfaction"? "Pessimism has soared" compared to when? Has there ever been a time when jeremiads haven't told us that the glory days are over and we're going to hell in handcart? A large number of people always think their country is "on the wrong track", that's why we have elections. There is nothing new about this. Besides, didn't the Americans elect the Messiah a couple of years ago? What fickle fellows those yanks are.

But maybe he's only talking about very recent history. Since the economy crashed in 2008, people may indeed be feeling less secure, but that really just shows how important economic growth is. For Jeffrey D. Sachs, however, economic growth is the real problem.

Against this backdrop, the time has come to reconsider the basic sources of happiness in our economic life. The relentless pursuit of higher income is leading to unprecedented inequality and anxiety, rather than to greater happiness and life satisfaction. 

Piffle. Life satisfaction surveys in recent decades actually show an increase in happiness. And there has never been any correlation between inequality and unhappiness.

He continues...

In this respect, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has been leading the way. Forty years ago, Bhutan’s fourth king, young and newly installed, made a remarkable choice: Bhutan should pursue “gross national happiness” rather than gross national product. Since then, the country has been experimenting with an alternative, holistic approach to development that emphasizes not only economic growth, but also culture, mental health, compassion, and community.

Cripes, it's the glorious nation of Bhutan again, the Mecca of the champagne socialist. This is a country with an adult literacy rate of 53%—lower than Rwanda, Swaziland and (its neighbour) Nepal. It has a GDP of less than $5,000 per capita, making it poorer than such places as Angola, Armenia and Namibia. You can see why the dictator-monarch of Bhutan might prefer to concentrate on the fatuous measure of Gross National Happiness rather on more meaningful indicators of progress. Gross National Distraction more like.

Dozens of experts recently gathered in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, to take stock of the country’s record. I was co-host with Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley, a leader in sustainable development and a great champion of the concept of “GNH.” We assembled in the wake of a declaration in July by the United Nations General Assembly calling on countries to examine how national policies can promote happiness in their societies.

We know how the racist Kingdom of Bhutan has been promoting happiness recently—by persecuting minorities and throwing monks in jail for possessing chewing tobacco. I have seen your future, Prof. Sachs, and it doesn't work.

Here are some of the initial conclusions. First, we should not denigrate the value of economic progress. When people are hungry, deprived of basic needs such as clean water, health care, and education, and without meaningful employment, they suffer. Economic development that alleviates poverty is a vital step in boosting happiness.

But no more than that. People should be fed, housed and put to work, but that's quite enough. Once the citizen's basic needs are covered, further prosperity will only encourage that great evil of our times—consumerism. We don't want the workers getting above themselves, do we now? This is not economic progress, this is subsistence living.

Dr Sachs will now proceed to "denigrate the value of economic progress".

Second, relentless pursuit of GNP to the exclusion of other goals is also no path to happiness. 

Who, outside the mandarins of 'happiness studies', has ever espoused a life that relentlessly pursues wealth to the exclusion of all other goals? This is the great straw man built up by the anti-capitalists. It is patently untrue to say—as the growth sceptics often do—that people (or governments) are single-mindedly focused on Gross National Product. The only people who are obsessed with GNP are the left-wing intelligentsia. Everyone else sees it as a means to an end.

What is this "relentless" pursuit anyway? You start off in life on a fairly low paid job and over the course of a career hope to move up to better paid jobs. How "relentless" is this? Many people, particularly women, make the choice to sacrifice income quite early on in their careers to pursue other interests. Others take retirement or semi-retirement at ages that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. They are able to make these choices—for the first time in human history—precisely because the fruits of economic growth allow them to do so.

Furthermore, economic growth has very little to do with individuals "relentlessly pursuing" GDP and very much to do with markets becoming more efficient through technological advancement, scientific progress and globalisation. We benefit far more from the invention of the internal combustion engine, the internet, the aeroplane, the nuclear power station and pesticides than we do from our own efforts. We are deeply fortunate to be able to live in greater prosperity than our parents while working shorter hours than our parents.

In the US, GNP has risen sharply in the past 40 years, but happiness has not. 

93.7% of Americans say they are 'quite happy' or 'very happy'. Considering that some people have to endure suffering that money cannot alleviate, there is not much room for growth here. Nevertheless, there has been growth.

Instead, single-minded pursuit of GNP has led to great inequalities of wealth and power, fueled the growth of a vast underclass, trapped millions of children in poverty, and caused serious environmental degradation.

Inequalities of wealth and power have bugger all to do with the "single-minded pursuit of GNP", but if all people need is food on the table and a roof over their head, why would you worry about inequalities anyway? The "millions of children trapped in poverty" are neither trapped nor poor. Only by redefining poverty so it becomes a measure of inequality can such a claim be made. If you want to see children in real poverty you would have to get on a plane and go to somewhere like... oh, I don't know... like Bhutan.

Third, happiness is achieved through a balanced approach to life by both individuals and societies. As individuals, we are unhappy if we are denied our basic material needs, but we are also unhappy if the pursuit of higher incomes replaces our focus on family, friends, community, compassion, and maintaining internal balance. 

Yes, quite. If the pursuit of anything replaces our focus on family, friends etc. we are likely to be likely to be less happy. Excessive materialism is not to be encouraged and an internal balance certainly sounds better than an internal imbalance.

The question is who decides what the balance should be? A 25 year old single male working in central London is going to have a different set of priorities than a 45 year mother of four living in Devon. Neither of their work/life balances is wrong, they are just different. The individual must decide what the correct balance is. It will change over time. As such, the only appropriate function of government when it comes to happiness is to allow its pursuit, as the American Declaration of Independence so rightly said.

As a society, it is one thing to organize economic policies to keep living standards on the rise, but quite another to subordinate all of society’s values to the pursuit of profit.

The usual straw man. No government subordinates society's values for the pursuit of profit. On the contrary, government's are continually subordinating profit to pursue values. That's why prostitution and drugs are illegal, for example, despite the enormous tax revenues that are foregone in the process. Concerns about climate change, health, safety, equality and pollution—to name but five—consistently take precedence over commerce.

Yet politics in the US has increasingly allowed corporate profits to dominate all other aspirations: fairness, justice, trust, physical and mental health, and environmental sustainability. 

In some cases, they probably have, but things like "trust" and "fairness" are so subjective that it would be nice to have some examples. Here, as elsewhere in this article, all we are getting are bold assertions.

Corporate campaign contributions increasingly undermine the democratic process, with the blessing of the US Supreme Court.

How do you suggest political parties should be funded? General taxation?

Fourth, global capitalism presents many direct threats to happiness. It is destroying the natural environment through climate change and other kinds of pollution...

The photo below is of an urban skyline in Soviet Russia. I don't think "global capitalism" can be held entirely responsible for destroying the natural environment.

You can argue that this kind of pollution is created by industrialisation rather than communism, but socialist efforts to go the other way and get back to nature have not been a roaring success either.

The photo above comes from this site, which correctly notes that economic growth is associated with less pollution.

Many of the worst polluters were in the former Soviet Union. Fortunately, industrial emissions are being greatly reduced as nations become richer.

The years of supposed "neo-liberalism" have seen an enormous decline in urban and industrial pollution. Wealthy societies are able to utilise cleaner methods of energy generation, including nuclear and solar. Poorer nations burn kerosene, coal and dung.

...while a relentless stream of oil-industry propaganda keeps many people ignorant of this.

Everything's "relentless to this guy", isn't it? You're pretty persistent yourself, Sachs. As for "oil-industry propaganda", the amount of news coverage devoted to climate scepticism is massively outweighed by the coverage of climate catastrophism. The amount of money given to climate heretics by oil companies is a drop in the ocean compared to the funding of groups like Greenpeace.

It is weakening social trust and mental stability, with the prevalence of clinical depression apparently on the rise. 

There are major doubts about whether the rise of depression reflects a rise in incidence or a rise in diagnosis. Definitions of mental illness have changed so dramatically in the last thirty years that it is impossible to tell.  But even if they have, there is no evidence—beyond the ramblings of Oliver James—that global capitalism has anything to do with it.

The mass media have become outlets for corporate “messaging,” much of it overtly anti-scientific, and Americans suffer from an increasing range of consumer addictions.

If it's "overtly" anti-scientific, it's not going to work, is it? What you mean, perhaps, is "pseudo-scientific". I have now lost the theme of this paragraph. In a few lines, you have merged happiness, climate change, pollution, the oil industry, social capital, mental illness, corporate "messaging" and consumer addiction. This is the scattergun approach of the polemicist and it is overtly bollocks.

Consider how the fast-food industry... 

He's havin' a go at the birds now!

...uses oils, fats, sugar, and other addictive ingredients to create unhealthy dependency on foods that contribute to obesity. One-third of all Americans are now obese. The rest of the world will eventually follow unless countries restrict dangerous corporate practices, including advertising unhealthy and addictive foods to young children.

If sugar and cooking oils are 'addictive' then the word no longer has meaning. Advertising bans have never made any difference to anything. They are the first resort of the bone-headed prohibitionist.

The problem is not just foods. Mass advertising is contributing to many other consumer addictions that imply large public-health costs, including excessive TV watching, gambling, drug use, cigarette smoking, and alcoholism.

I put it to you, Dr Sachs, that you are a puritan who finds advertising itself to be morally reprehensible. How do you plead?

Fifth, to promote happiness, we must identify the many factors other than GNP that can raise or lower society’s well-being. Most countries invest to measure GNP, but spend little to identify the sources of poor health (like fast foods and excessive TV watching), declining social trust, and environmental degradation. Once we understand these factors, we can act.

Countries "spend little to identify the sources of poor health"?! Are you out of your mind? Countries spend enormous sums of money funding research into health and the environment. Never does a day go by without new reports coming out about these topics. Finding spurious health risks and lobbying for prohibition is a multi-billion dollar industry.

The mad pursuit of corporate profits is threatening us all. 

Yes, yes. So you keep saying.

To be sure, we should support economic growth and development...

Do I see the word 'but' drifting into this sentence very soon?

...but only in a broader context...

Uh-huh. that promotes environmental sustainability and the values of compassion and honesty that are required for social trust. 

Yes, but what does that mean? What does any of this mean in practical terms? Everyone is in favour of compassion and honesty. What is to be done, man? What's the plan? I've read your article. I've read every word of the bloody thing and you end with some waffle about "environmental sustainability". I understand that you think that capitalism is "relentless". I can see that you don't want the plebs to eat fast food, or gamble, or drink, or smoke. But all you have to offer is a call for more research to be done and a ban on fast-food advertising. Frankly, I feel a little cheated.

It's the chasm between perceived problem and perceived solution that gets me about these people. Having portrayed a world of unhappiness, anxiety, misery and environmental catastrophe, what solution does he come up with? A ban on advertising Happy Meals to children. It's risible. Give me a revolutionary Marxist over a wealthy academic trying to deal with his middle-life crisis any day.

There's been a lot of this around recently. On Wednesday, a rather silly report from UNICEF resulted in calls to ban all advertising of children's products.

But this was being denounced as not draconian enough even before it had been announced.

A Government proposal for a total ban on advertising aimed at children would fail to end the cycle of "compulsive consumerism" in which parents are trapped, the Government's adviser on young people has warned.

Trapped in compulsive consumerism. God, we'll all so oppressed aren't we? This is the pathetic notion of "pester power". Heaven forbid that parents should have to say no to their own children.

The left-wing think tank Compass, which is run by Neal Lawson—a man for whom the term champagne socialist could have been invented—wants all advertising banned in outdoor spaces. Why only outdoors? Who knows. Presumably it would be a good 'first step'.

The temperance lobby, of course, wants all drink advertising banned (as does this gloriously unpopular e-petition) and the anti-smokers have eliminated cigarette advertising so comprehensively that they now resort to pretending that packaging is advertising. The French have banned mobile phone advertising which is "aimed" at children. George Monbiot wants to ban adverts for cars.

And why not? The precedent was set with tobacco and now every single-issue obsessive can climb aboard. This was predicted by Deborah Orr in The Independent back in 1999 when tobacco advertising was banned. I recommend you read the whole thing, but these are some of the more prescient points.

Banning tobacco advertising cannot be described as a dangerous precedent, but it is certainly a precedent of some kind. If in principle it is considered morally good to protect the consumer from products that are damaging to human and environmental health, then the bandwagon has started rolling.

I'm not against the banning of tobacco advertising. Far from it. Instead, I'm in favour of extending the logic which suggests that tobacco advertising is morally unsustainable, and applying it to other products. What would happen if the ban on the tobacco industry were considered as a blueprint for deciding more broadly what can and can't be advertised? Let's take a slide down the slippery slope of social control, and see what kind of a tangled heap we end up in at the bottom.

First, alcohol. It damages the body and the mind, plays a leading role in violence of all kinds and, like smoking, is seductive to impressionable young people, who are experimenting with booze in record numbers. Clearly, under the tobacco rule, it has to go. Bud would be wiser if he laid off the lager.

It's on its way.

Second, motor vehicles. Not only do they kill and maim people, they also foster aggressive behaviour to the extent that three-quarters of all motorists experience verbal or physical violence from other drivers on the road.

I refer you to the aforementioned George Monbiot and other cranks.

Next, sugary food and drinks. Promoting rampant tooth decay and gum disease among children, they also spoil kids' appetites, ruin their concentration, prime them for a lifetime of unsavoury eating habits and sluggish intellectual activity, and contribute to a raft of related health problems. Like cigarettes, they're pointless and damaging, and serve no positive purpose. You don't have to see a big orange man to know when you've been Tangoed.

Already banned before 9pm. A total ban cannot be far off.

In fact, let's just ban all advertising aimed at children. They're too young to make informed consumer choices, and anyway they don't have incomes. Let's surprise the kinder by treating them less like mini-adults and see if that has any effect on protecting their innocence for a little longer.

As demanded this week by various crusaders.

While we're at it, let's protect them from being surrounded by images of adult sexuality in advertising. How about banning huge pictures of scantily clad women from the billboards of the nation?

Already in place in the freedom-loving nation of China and applied piece-meal in Britain.

Now, since the article in question is from The Independent, I cannot be 100% sure if it's serious or satirical. Either way, it perfectly charts how far down the slippery slope we have slid in the last twelve years. The headline was 'Why not ban all advertising?'. Why not indeed? It would be much quicker than the current salami slice tactics.


Sturt said...


The simpler challenge for Prof Sachs is this: having set up such a comprehensive denunciation of contemporary life in the developed world, would he submit to the challenge of an experiment? Take one of his remaining 30 or so years, and spend it living the life of an ordinary Bhutanese? Having access only to those facilities - medical, electrical, telecommunications - food and shelter that a median Bhutanese citizen has, and create his income and subsist off it in the way an ordinary Bhutanese would? Would he submit to it in order to make his life happier? If not, why not?

smokervoter said...

They call economics the dismal science and Dr. Sachs is living proof of this. What a bitter man he is. He's got a lot of gall to accuse the world outside of his personal misery bubble of suffering from depression. I've long felt that what drives Puritans more than anything else is a desire to transfer their fearfulness and incapacity of joy outwards so as to lessen their own social isolation.

When he's through inverting things with his reformulated definition of happiness, 93.7% will despise their lives. I suspect that relentlessly bicycling through the Bhutan-esque countryside (with crash helmet and bright-yellow vest safely secured) while enjoying the smoke-free, fat-free, non-alcoholic world about them isn't exactly everybody's idea of a good time. It is more to the tune of 6.3% that relish that kind of perpetual 'We Are The World' singsong existence.

You especially encapsulated it with 'a wealthy academic trying to deal with his middle-life crisis'. Excellent, excellent surgical dissection there Mr. Snowdon.

Ian B said...

Another blindingly good post, Christopher!

On the Orr article, it seems pretty clear to me that she's serious.