Debating Oliver James on the radio

In: Uncategorized

24 Jan 2007

This morning I debated Oliver James, the author of a new book on “affluenza” on the Radio 4 Today programme (programme available on its website for the next seven days). His argument is that affluence is increasingly making us sick. Nico Macdonald has produced a summary of our debate which is available here. James has not put forward an original thesis – his book is the third with “affluenza” as a title – but two things were notable about what he said:

* His thesis takes the form of an attack on the rich. However, it is the poor who suffer as a result of attacks on affluence.

* He claimed that over the long-term working hours in America and Britain have lengthened. This is simply wrong. Long-term statistics on his this trend are tricky to interpret – for example, because of the rise of the number of women in the labour force – but there is no doubt the trend is for working hours to fall. Even apart from the working week people are spending more time in education and more time in retirement. The amount of back-breaking manual labour people have to do has fallen dramatically. Also, according to the latest figures from National Statistics, the average working week in Britain has fallen by one hour over the past 15 years. I intend to do more work on the subject of working hours in my book.

At lunchtime I had a rematch against Oliver James on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. A summary of the debate can be read here. James made much of the fact he was talking about mental illness rather than unhappiness. He did not see the bigger picture of how his arguments relate to growth scepticism.