Affluenza, Black Swan, and F*** You Money

After reading the book, The Hot Topic (check out my review here),
I was encouraged to read more books from a European perspective (I’m
still here in Ireland as of this writing). So me and ~myDakini stopped
by Eason bookstore yesterday so I could check out new books to read.

“You’re addicted to books,” ~myDakini said as we passed by the counter.

“Yeah, I am,” I said with a proud smirk. “But be thankful I’m addicted to books, and not with booze, drugs, or women!”

“Fine. But you’re still addicted to books.” She’s right.

I
went to the new and best sellers section to scout for more books that
would peak my curiosity. Most books in front of the store are fiction,
celebrity biographies, and cheesy feel-good stories. Europeans (at
least here in Ireland) are obsessed with celebrities and stories
(judging by the placement of celebrity magazines, biographies, and
fiction in bookstores.) I like stories and fiction, but I groove with
nonfiction the best. If I want a good story I go to the movies. When I
read books I want ideas not stories. Scanning the book section two
books grabbed my attention.

The first was Affluenza, by British psychologist Oliver James. This book tackles the “global” social epidemic called, affluenza,
which is “a painful, contagious socially transmitted condition of
overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of
more.” The other book was The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. All I knew about this book was that it’s about the Black swan theory (i.e. uncertainty and unpredictability) and that it’s popular among LongNow and Edge
thinkers. So I picked up the books and paid for it by credit card. Expensive. I wish I were in Seattle right now ordering from Amazon.com instead.

On the way home I felt like I was coming down with a flu. The weather here is still very cold and my body is not good at coping. By the time we got home I already had a runny nose and a slight fever. In the meantime, ~myDakini boiled hot water for my Lemsip medication. Great. This flu is a perfect excuse to stay in bed all day and read my books! I know. Very sleazy. But hey, it works!

So I did nothing but read my books the whole day until past midnight. At first I thought the two books were completely unrelated,
but upon reading them in parallel I caught a of glimpse of
serendipitous connection. (Note: I often read multiple books in
parallel; a few chapters from one book and a few from another. The more
engaging the book, the sooner I finish it.)

Here’s the serendipitous connection.

So
far I have only read the first few chapters of Affluenza, but it is
quite clear that James had already made up his conclusion in
the Prologue. For James, Selfish Capitalism is the root cause
of the Affluenza Virus. James wrote,

“The Affluenza Virus is
a set of values which increase our vulnerability to emotional distress.
It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions,
looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous.” ….

“…my new theory is that the nasty form of political economy that I call Selfish Capitalism caused an epidemic of the Affluenza Virus, accounting for much of the increase in the distress since the 1970s.

“By
Selfish Capitalism I mean four basic things. The first is that the
success of business is judged almost exclusively by their current share
price. The second is a strong drive to privatise public utilities, such
as water, gas and electricity, or in the case of America, to keep them
in private hands. The third is that there should be as little
regulation of business as possible, with taxation for the rich and very
rich so limited that whether to contribute becomes almost a matter of
choice. The fourth is the conviction that consumption and market forces
can meet human needs of almost every kind. America is that apotheosis
of Selfish Capitalism, Denmark the nearest thing to its Unselfish
opposite.”

(I told you it’s interesting to read contemporary books from European perspective. Americans should do this from time to time ;))

In the very beginning of the book (before the Prologue) there is a self test — “Have you contracted the Affluenza Virus?”
– in which, “If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the questions, then you
have, like most people in the English-speaking world, contracted the
Virus. The more you answered ‘yes’, the more infected you are and the
greater your likelihood of becoming emotionally distressed.”

I
answered ‘yes’ on the very first statement which is, “I would like to
be a very wealthy person.” I think this question is very vague and misleading
because “very wealthy” is a relative term. For example, for me (who grew up in a developing nation), people who make $200,000 a year, own a car, and a decent house are very wealthy. Multi-millionaires are appallingly wealthy. Billionaires are mindblowingly, appallingly wealthy (with the exception — on the appallingly — of Warren Buffett as my ultimate role model of uber-compassionate-wealthiness). Nonetheless, I answered
‘yes’ and then I answered ‘no’ on all the remaining questions. This means
that by James’ definition, I’m mildly infected with the Affluenza Virus. Fine. So be it.

After
reading a few engaging chapters of what James called, “mind tour” — he
went around the (industrialized) world interviewing appallingly
rich, middle-class, and low-income people, with focus on those who are
afflicted by the said Virus — I switched to The Black Swan. The
Prologue of the book is very engaging. I’ve always been fascinated with
uncertainty, chaos (hence my pseudonym), impermanence, and
serendipity. In short, the Black swan theory is very appealing to me.

The
first chapter of the book is a very short autobiography of the author which
put in context his being a “skeptical empiricist.” But what I connected
with best with the author is his attitude on learning and money. Based
on his own account, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is not infected with the
Affluenza Virus. Here’s how he described what he calls “f*** you money”. (emphasis by the author)

“It
was hard to tell my friends, all hurt in some manner by the
[stockmarket] crash, about this feeling of vindication. Bonuses at the
time were a fraction of what they are today, but if my employer, First
Boston, and the financial system survived until year-end, I would get
the equivalent of a fellowship. This is sometimes called “f*** you
money,” which in spite of its coarseness, means that it allows you to
act like Victorian gentleman, free from slavery. It is a psychological
buffer: the capital is not so large as to make you spoiled-rich, but
large enough to give you the freedom to choose a new occupation without
excessive consideration of the financial rewards. It shields you from
prostituting your mind and frees you from outside authority–any
outside authority. (Independence is person-specific: I have always been
taken aback at they high number of people in whom an astonishingly high
income led to additional sycophancy as they became more dependent on
their clients and employers and more addicted to making even more
money.) While not substantial by some standards, it literally cured me
of all financial ambition–it made me feel ashamed whenever I diverted
time away from study for the pursuit of material wealth. Note that the
designation f*** you corresponds to the exhilarating ability to pronounce that compact phrase before hanging up the phone.”

In one paragraph, Taleb eloquently summarized my own attitude towards money. For instance, I’m not too crazy about getting very wealthy. What I actually want is to have f*** you money
so that I could provide the needs of my loved ones, spend time with
them, while pursuing my interests without fear of financial
repercussions. From this perspective, I’d like to think that I’m *not*
afflicted with the Affluenza Virus. Then again, I’ll revisit this
self-assessment after I’ve read both of these books.

In
the meantime, check out these books if you haven’t read them yet. I’ll
post my review as soon as I’m done reading them. I think
that it would be interesting to riff on important and polarizing
issues, such as health care in America, using the Selfish Capitalism
perspective, as well as look at Global Warming using the lens of the
Black Swan theory.

Affluenza The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

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Comments (3)

  1. Seán wrote::

    Dear Coolmel

    Since you admit to being addicted to books and since you’re in Ireland (and on the west coast, too, I see) you really need to make a pilgrimage to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, if you haven’t already: http://www.charliebyrne.com/.

    It’s this book addicts first port of call whenever he’s in Galway.

    Happy reading!

    - Sean

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 2:09 am #
  2. ~C4Chaos wrote::

    Sean, haha. thanks. but as much as i love to check out more books, i’m afraid that i’m already over my (baggage) weight limit upon my return to the U.S. gah.

    thanks for the heads up on Charlie Byrne. will check it out if and when i pass by Galway ;)

    ~C

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 2:45 am #
  3. Obi wrote::

    I’ve got The Black Swan. I bought it last year in San Francisco during an intense reading period. Never got around to actually reading it though. I think I was more mesmerized with the idea of buying such a book than the actual contents within it. But after reading about f*** off money, I may have to pull it from it’s dusty confines.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 11:54 pm #