Friday, 14 November 2008

Time we got unhooked

BAGGY jumper, tatty trousers, loosely knotted scarf, wispy hair, cheeky grin – Oliver James looks as if he dresses at Oxfam. It's probably deliberate and he probably does. But right now I’d say he’s got closer to a useful analysis of what’s happened in the British and global economy than most of the other so-called experts.
A lot of it was predicted in his book Affluenza, the very title of which illustrates his outlook.
He explains: "The past 30 years have been a shop-till-you-drop, credit-fuelled consumer binge. Almost all of us caught the affluenza virus – placing too high a value on money, possessions, appearances and fame. This virus is very bad for mental health. People with the virus are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and substance abuse (booze and drugs)."
That seems a fair assessment. It will surely strike a chord with a great many people if they are honest with themselves.
Only in one essential do I really disagree with his analysis.
James appears to think all this sickness is capitalism gone wrong. Whereas in fact greed and selfishness are what capitalism is all about – they are what fuels the economic engine.
Still, he’s right on most points. Like the way we have all been taught to confuse our wants (stimulated, even created, by advertising) for needs. And the way our obsessions have driven us into a cycle of over-work, placing 'having' above 'being'.
Actually, I think it's slightly unhelpful to put this collective madness down to a virus. It's much more like a drug.
Living on credit, spending more and more of the money you don't have on things you don't need, is an addiction like heroin. And for society and the world overall, every bit as dangerous.
Right now, though, while the bankers, businessmen and economists see doom and gloom everywhere, James is feeling pretty chipper.
Recession is going to hurt. Some of us more than others. Those it will hurt most are those who have been most addicted.
Look at it as cold turkey. Yes, it'll be hell for a while. But we'll all feel so much better and brighter for it afterwards.
And those wailing bankers and salesmen? They even call themselves dealers…


TWO wars they shouldn't have got into and will struggle to get out of. An economy massively in debt and in its worst shape since the 1930s. Crises in industry, energy and health. Barack Obama is certainly taking over at a tough time. Which presents a huge challenge – but also a huge opportunity.
Time to start again and build things properly, from the ground up.
He's already made a great start on one of the big issues – mending America's reputation abroad. In other ways too he needs to think big.
After the Great Depression, it was war production that really got America's economy going again. With a similar spirit – and arguably even greater need – Obama can dig it out of the present hole by pumping resources into energy-efficient, climate-friendly infrastructure.
Not Texan and Alaskan oil and gas, but wind-turbines on the prairies, solar panels in the desert. Not wide asphalt highways but up-to-date high-speed railways.
hIs friendly meeting with George W Bush in the White House may have been good diplomacy. It makes sense to ensure the smoothest possible takeover.
But once in the chair, he should waste no time undoing some of Bush's worst excesses. Like the loosening of control on mining, drilling and other favoured – and damaging – industries.
He must put an end to timber lobbyists running the Forest Service and oil lobbyists editing climate reports. End the agriculture policies that subsidise the most wasteful producers of the least healthy crops.
While he's at it, the use of torture and "extraordinary rendition" should be stopped at once. As should the issuing of "threat levels" that serve no function other than to keep people anxious and willing to accept infringements of their rights and privacy.
And of course there's the small matter of a humane withdrawal from Iraq to consider.
It's a lot. But what a lot there is to be gained too.

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