I am going to enjoy this persistent theme of Miserabilism over the next few months, knowing how it interests the Theodore Dalrymple fans over at http://www.thescepticaldoctor.com. (see previous posts)

The Economist this month discusses progress, but do a surprising job of dismissing material progress, as laid out in a superb looking Cato Institute book that will be a treasure trove for me in this dispute.   One can anticipate the standard response: being richer does not make us happier. And status anxiety kicks in, normally a concern of the likes of Robert Frank.  The more right-leaning Economist notes:

It is good to go up in the world, but much less so if everyone around you is going up in it too. Once they have filled their bellies and put a roof over their heads, people want more of what Fred Hirsch, an economist who worked on this newspaper in the 1950s and 1960s, called “positional goods”. Only one person can be the richest tycoon. Not everyone can own a Matisse or a flat in Mayfair. As wealth grows, the competition for such status symbols only becomes more intense.

Sure.  But I am really glad that the chance of my kids dying before they are 18 is infinitessimally less than it used to be, and am happy to trade a little social disruption, envy and bad adolescent behaviour for that.

On the subject of which, what do you think has happened to teenage stabbing this year?  Here is the answer.

Finally, what do you think of 2009?  I am on David Smith’s side, not McRae’s: it was bad, but at times it looked like it would be much worse. As for 2010, I still can’t make up my mind.  The latest GDP revision suggests we are further down the road to household-rebalancing than we had thought: hence the traditional motor of UK growth may get spluttering into motion soon.   And if they fail?  As Dan Pimlott says:

The Bank of England’s efforts to pump cash into the UK economy does not seem to be working as hoped, but the UK may be set for more robust growth in the near future, according to the latest minutes from the monetary policy committee.

So if that fails, and fiscal policy starts to row against growth, what do we have left?

Merry Christmas!


5 thoughts on “Miserabilism: the Cato Institute doing my job here

  1. This is sort of on topic, but I wondered if you’d seen something the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders said:


    I quote:

    “But recent downward revisions to output in both the production industries and the service sector have led to just a 0.1 percentage point nudge up, to -0.2%.

    Not quite what the Christmas present we were after. But there is at least one piece of encouraging news in today’s release: the household savings ratio in the third quarter rose to 8.7% of income, compared to 7.6% in the previous three months.

    That’s a surprisingly high number – the highest in more than a decade. Just 18 months ago, households weren’t saving anything at all.

    This kind of retrenchment by families is what they mean when they talk about the “headwinds to growth” in the broader economy over the next year. It’s not good news for retailers if households have ratcheted up their saving.”

    Sure, in the long term, we need more saving by households, but right now this news is terrible for the country as a whole, not just “retailers”. Not a mention of the paradox of thrift.

    Once the New Year sales are over, things are gonna get interesting, that’s for sure.

  2. This is developing into a slightly odd campaign against a man who doesn’t know you exist, Giles.

    There are straw men everywhere, when I thought you were all about the evidence?

    Dalrymple is not a ‘miserablist’, he does not dismiss material progress and he has never suggested that there was some sepia-toned time when everything was better than it is now.

    He hasn’t left the UK, as though after some high-handed, Clarksonian decision to deprive us of the presence of the great man. He has a house in France – but then, his wife is French so presumably you don’t object to that? He actually lives in England. Yes, he thinks it’s an imperfect England, and has suggested we should all emigrate. But since he hasn’t and could, I think we can take it that this is a point of rhetoric!

    Re The Cato Institute book you relish getting hold of to supply ammunition in making points that your target would largely accept, try a secondhand bookshop – it was published in 2000.

    As a guide to 21st century Britain, not so much. That said, its central premise (that many – even most – things are better than they were) is one Dalrymple openly shares.

    Having spent 20 or 30 years as a hospital consultant (practising in an actual science, as opposed to a pretend one), he could scarcely have missed medical advances. He’s obviously aware of mobile phones, computers, cars, female emancipation and jet planes. He has a better diet than his grandparents did and a lot more leisure time.

    He just thinks that alongside this some things, for some people – mostly not him, you, me, Tim Leunig or his students – are worse than they could or should be.

    This is a pretty uncontroversial view, surely, and one shared by anyone with any interest in politics (or why have the interest?).

    Thus, we are either all miserablists now, or none of us is.

    It’s really just a question of which things make us miserable, I think.

    Some do affect all of us, even you, Tim and me (I’m talking UK only). We have fewer legal liberties than we once had. Youth unemployment is as high as it has ever been, I think? AGW threatens the entire planet. The economy is in pretty poor shape. We’re threatened by new forms of terrorism. There’s the possibility of the Iranian bomb. You get the picture.

    But there are also, Dalrymple would argue, other things specific to the section of society he worked with which are worse than they were or could or should be. It’s those people and those things which really concern him.

    The funny thing is, you actually seem to agree with him in your post.

    You say: ‘I am really glad that the chance of my kids dying before they are 18 is infinitesimally less than it used to be, and am happy to trade a little social disruption, envy and bad adolescent behaviour for that.’

    I can’t read that any way other than as an acceptance that there has been an increase in ‘social disruption, envy and bad adolescent behaviour’.

    So, that’s a good thing.

    Well, maybe in theory, on a blog or in the ofices of a think tank. But on the streets of Chelmsley Wood and a thousand similar estates, where just getting a good night’s sleep is a tall order, less so. The people most affected by that social disruption, envy and bad adolescent behaviour are the poor, elderly and weak – Dalrymple’s patients. Wealthy people can insulate themselves, to a degree; state pensioners, not so as you’d notice.

    I’m sure we all join you in rejoicing that your children are likely to live beyond 18, but the obvious, though salient, point is that your kids are not (I guess) growing up in a council flat in inner city Birmingham, with an alcoholic mother and a crackhead stepdad. Unfortunately, a lot of kids are – they really are, it’s not a right wing myth – and it’s these kids Dalrymple is ‘miserable’ about. That’s to his credit, for all your sneering. Try going to the Gorbals and telling them everything’s great: yes, they’re likely to get beyond 18 but statistically not past 54 (whereas Iraqi life expectancy is mid 60s).

    Anyway, what is the causal (or even coincidental) link between your children not dying at 18 and (increased) social disruption, envy and bad adolescent behaviour?

    Can we not have both a reasonable chance of getting out of our teens AND less social disruption, envy and bad adolescent behaviour?

    I appreciate the element of subjectivity to this, but actually the evidence is with Dalrymple, not you. For instance, for him the fact that many more children are now brought up with serial stepfathers than used to be the case is tragic and a symptom of a specific decline in one discrete area of life; for others it is something to celebrate, and for others just nothing to be overly concerned about. But the research on the life chances of kids raised like this does tend to back Dalrymple; and in any case this, in itself, cannot condemn him as a ‘miserablist’; he’s just someone who finds some things more troubling than other people; they, in turn, find other things more troubling than he does.

    You also ask what has happened to teenage stabbing this year, and point to the BBC story suggesting deaths are down.

    While it is self-evidently a very good thing (slight caveat – they’re down so far, on unofficial figures from BBC news reports, with no detail as to the medical care received, and so on) that 21 fewer people aged between 10 and 19 have been stabbed to death this year than last, that does still leave 51 10-to-19-year olds who lost their lives in this way in 2009.

    A good thing? People who worry about it are ‘miserablists’?

    I don’t have the figures to hand, but I’m pretty sure they would show child-on-child killings (the majority of these case, I think) in most of the years of the 20th century would have been lower than this (accepting, of course, that in lots of other ways the lot of kids in much of the 20th century was worse than for modern kids).

    For all I know, sure, such killings may have been prevalent in Victorian times – you seem to like arbitrarily selecting dates and times as comparators – but all that would show is that we came out of an era of high child-on-child killings and then went back into a new one. Can this be a matter for rejoicing? Subjectively and objectively, this must be a bad thing. It’s not ‘miserablist’ to worry about it, and it is highly illogical to suggest that female emancipation or the minimum wage or any other advances somehow make it acceptable – a price worth paying, effectively.

  3. Hi Dalrymplist, and sorry if I can’t answer at greater length – kids, Christmas eve.

    I do not mean this to be a campaign against Anthony Daniels, whom I liked personally, but merely the 10 minute oration he gave that day in October. I suspect that his actual views are far more nuanced, as our conversations before and after the event suggest.

    All I use the phrase ‘miserabilism’ in my blogs to flag up is the debate that things are worse, despite material progress. It is not a tiny minority view and has respectable intellectual followers, which is why the Cato Institute need to produce such a book, I suppose.

    On TD’s living habits, his explicit view to the audience was that they should leave the UK like he has, if they want to escape poverty.

    On the more substantive points, sorry I don’t have the time right now – perhaps after the break? Good having you here, and Merry Christmas

  4. I have snatched a moment away.

    1. You say that TD openly admits all the advantages of being born in a healthy late C20 – but this was far from obvious to his audience in October. He gave no quarter whatsover to these advantages, and went out of his way to claim that things are unequivocably worse, not just for a tiny proportion but full stop. His views were categorical,applicable to all of society, with no statement about whether he was talking of 1%, 3%, or 10%. Life is unequivocally worse. People are all totally undereducated. Everyone now has a step father. Maybe this is meant to shock. But it is not “greatest essayist of all time” stuff. It’s Richard Littlejohn.

    There are several errors that I feel are worth bringing up (yes, again and again, because they are not just TD’s, but also that of every angry right wing blogger, columnist – Heffer etc – and taxi driver). They are:

    – no recognition of what we have come from, in social terms. So no idea of what murder, lack of freedom, illiberal laws, (homosexuality, marriage, etc), frozen career structures, less travel, restricted rights to move money, and so on might have made living in, say, 1938 like.

    – plain wrong figures, like his “twice as many have tvs in their bedrooms than fathers in the house”. Rubbish – unless 150% have tvs in their bedrooms.

    – emphasizing bad trends over good trends. Both left and right do this. So if stabbings had been up 30 instead of down, it would have been front page news. When things drop – like teen pregnancy over 1995-2006 – it is scarcely noted. I will keep bringing up good news trends for this reason.

    – And no balancing of the TWO sides of the equation – the gains that greater material progress and freedom have produced, against the inevitable social changes that can be disruptive. No – we get endless emotional anecdotes, tinged with moral language, on the latter but seldom a conscious recognition of how it has gone hand in hand with the former, and is often a consequence of it. More liberal divorce laws enable less utterly miserable marriages – they also contribute to a changing family structure.

    I have no doubt that for segments of society, and in some areas, things get worse. On this subject, over the next few months I will bring up both sidees of the equation. But I think it is relevant to, and the TD I saw on October is not been made a charicature of. Finally, I think this is an important subject for liberals. The consequence of the miserabilism being true is to reject the idea that more human freedom (and we do have more) is a good thing

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