Today, I'm going to do something almost unprecedented in the history of blogging - something so outrageous it'll exclude me from all decent society.
Yes. I'm going to speak up for Madeleine Bunting. Her main point here is reasonable - at an aggregate level, high economic activity seems to coincide with indifferent subjective well-being, as Richard Easterlin, Robert Frank and Robert E. Lane, among others, have shown.
There are many theories about why, and I don't think Maddy hits the best one - that a number of arms race-type behaviours cause us to work and spend more than we'd like, just to keep up with others; this is a red queen effect. For example:
1. If one person works long hours in order to signal his commitment to his firm, in the hope of winning promotion, others hoping for promotion work long hours too, thus diluting the signal of commitment. The result is that everyone works longer than they'd otherwise like, for little purpose.
2. If others buy big 4X4s, we do too (pdf), to avoid being killed when one of them hits us.
3. Some goods - smart suits, bling, flash cars, expensively enhanced girlfriends - are status symbols. If our comparators buy them, we have to too.
These mechanisms can lead individually rational people to work harder and spend more than they'd like. The upshot is a society which is rich in aggregate, but unhappy.
What's the solution? Here, Maddy leaps to quickly to the need for state intervention. An alternative is a campaign of persuasion, to change people's perceived costs and benefits. We could point out that becoming boss or partner is no mark of excellence, but merely of the ability to jump through hoops like a trained dog. Being boss doesn't make you much happier, but merely exchanges one set of hassles for another. The good opinion of other people just doesn't matter. And there are satisfying alternatives to the scrabble to get ahead: quiet contemplation or the pursuit of excellence (or mere competence) in music or the arts. Those of us who have downshifted are generally happier out of the rat race. And then the media could counter the pretence that mere trinkets and baubles of frivolous utility are the secret of happiness.
And herein lies the problem. The MSM is inherently incapable of doing all this, and not just because it's obvious that its profits rest upon adverts that conflate happiness with consumption. The whole culture of the media is one which prizes appearance over genuine merit, and "senior people" over the genuinely excellent.
Rather than challenge the sub-optimal equilibrium of wealth and dissatisfaction, the MSM actually helps sustain it. In this sense, Maddy is part of the problem.