A colleague has lent me a copy of Oliver James’ book “Affluenza” and, while I am not far through it yet, it is scathing in its damnation of the effects of capitalism on individuals in society. At a time when capitalism is rapidly losing it shine on a global scale, with the financial sector collapsing around us, this individual perspective is an interesting small scale counterpoint to the large scale picture we are seeing on the news each day.
The thesis of the book is that an “affluenza virus” has spread thoughout English-speaking countries. This virus leads us to be obsessively focused on shallow material pursuits. At the same time, it leaves us anxious and prone to low self-esteem, addictions and depression as there is always someone with a faster car or a bigger cigar (to quote The Beautiful South).
The engine of capitalism, or “Selfish Capitalism” as James prefers say, is a society of consumers and it must constantly encourage further consumption to survive. Not surprisingly, this leads James to a particularly hostile attitude towards marketing, the art and science of generating the wants of consumers, thereby driving consumption. Since television (for now) remains the biggest medium for advertising, James not only sees it as a particularly sinister vector for the affluenza virus, but also the primary cause of increasing obesity in affluenza-afflicted nations:
It achieves this by a combination of discouraging exercise and encouraging, through adverts, the consumption of highly calorific food. It also lowers mood, which increases the likelihood of comfort eating…often done in front of the telly (p. 46)
Since James does not provide detailed references for all of his claims, referring readers instead to his monograph “Selfish Capitalist Origins of Emotional Distress”, I saw an opportunity here. I decided to test the link between television and obesity myself, not by commencing a TV-viewing binge, but by indulging my data-mining proclivities.
Last year, the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry published the OECD Communications Outlook 2007, which includes data on the amount of television watched in a selection of 18 countries (Table 6.8). The data is patchy, so I have taken the average over the years from 2002 to 2005. For data on obesity, I turned to the World Health Organisation (WHO) which provides a range of health statistics by country. The obesity statistics are all based on Body Mass Index (BMI) and I have taken the obesity rate to be the percentage* of a country’s population with a BMI of over 30, a level that is widely used as the threshold of obesity. The WHO data is a few years old now and, if recent reports on increased obesity in Australia are to believed, may be a little out of date. However, the OECD data is also a few years old, so the comparison should be a reasonable one. As usual, I have published the data on Swivel.
Starting with a correlation between average viewing hours per day and the obesity rate of 58% suggests that there may be a link between the two. However, the scatterplot of the data below tells a different story. Most strikingly, the USA is an outlier, both in terms of television viewing habits and obesity. Furthermore, the remaining points show no clear pattern and taking the US out of the sample reduces the correlation to -8%. Japan also diverges from the other countries, this time in a different direction: the Japanese watch a reasonably large amount of television, but exhibit the lowest obesity rate of the countries in the sample. Removing both Japan and the US results in a correlation of 5%.
While this is admittedly a small data set, it does not seem to support James’ contention about the link between watching television and obesity, however plausible the argument. Perhaps finer-grained data or a historical perspective with greater variation in television habits would bear him out, so I would be very interested if any readers are aware of research on this subject.
* The WHO data separates statistics for males and females and I have used a simple average of these
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