Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Challenge of Affluence

I said earlier that people often make mistakes in their preferences and plans for the future. And we also saw a nobel laureate in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, talk about how mainstream economics simply assumes preferences are fixed.

One very brilliant recent exploration of how people cope with change and look at the future comes from Avner Offer of Nuffield College, Oxford (near Oxford Ralway Station and the bus terminal of course. Something they didn't have to consider when they founded Merton or New College). His book, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 is a remarkable study of some of the limitations of how we cope with change and think about the future.

His most basic ides is "Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being."

The paradox of affluence and its challenge is that the flow of new rewards can undermine the capacity to enjoy them. All experiences are ultimately in the mind. They demand attention and time. Attention can be taken as the ultimate currency of well-being. At any given moment we can "consume" it, by focusing on one or more pleasant and enjoyable activities. Or we can "invest" in some activity which holds out the presence of more satisfaction in the future.

Well-being is not measured merely in the abundance of goods and services. It requires a sustainable balance between the present and the future. This requires a personal capacity for commitment. Call this capacity "prudence". Prudence is not easy.

The opposite of prudence, imprudence, is also pervasive, but nevertheless presents a puzzle to social scientists. If people know their own interests, why should they make self-defeating choices? When choices imply adverse consequences, they are called "time-inconsistent." More colloquially, I call them "myopic choice."

At any given time.. the capacity and exercise of self-control increases with social standing and wealth. But with the passage of bistorical time .. and as affluence has risen overall the capacity for commitment and for prudence has declined. Prudence has built up affluence, but affluence has undermined prudence. What accounts for this reversal is myopic choice. The strategies of self-control take time to discover, learn and teach. If these rewards arrive faster than the disciplines of prudence can form, then self-control will decline with affluence.

Among other things, Offer shows how our view of the future does not display the present value discounting assumed by economic and financial theory, but rather "hyperbolic discounting"- there is a kink in the curve which makes us undervalue the medium-term.

Also note (although Avner does not say this ) we should expect negative consequences like this from an evolutionary process. Parasites are always evolving faster than the target species. Change always presents opportunities - but also opportunities for negative forces.

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