They’d Much Rather Be Rich

The Williams Directory, 2006–2007

Williams College, Office of Public Affairs, 77 pp.


“I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor,” the cabaret entertainer Sophie Tucker was once heard to say, famously adding, “and believe me, rich is better.” Avner Offer disagrees. In his view, the spread of affluence not only corrupts character, but has caused all these disorders and discontents:

family breakdown, addiction, stress, road and landscape congestion, obesity, poverty, denial of health care, mental disorder, violence, economic fraud, and insecurity.

He cites surveys in which today’s Americans declare themselves unhappier than their parents were. Young people who earlier heeded their elders are now prone to “intoxicating short-term dissipation.” Offer argues that advertising, by flaunting what we don’t have, is a major cause of malaise. His book’s most vivid examples come from the research at Duke University’s Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing. Recurrent pitches, for example, have insidious effects: “By saturating the public domain with false sincerity, advertising makes genuine sincerity more difficult.”

Moreover, he writes, “affluence breeds impatience,” whereas more modest degrees of wealth fostered “reciprocity and commitment.” Modern marriages are like products purchased at a mall: turn them in if they don’t work out. Using statistics from Nigeria and Lebanon, he finds a link between low incomes and family bonds. But he can also get the figures wrong, as when he writes that cohabiting couples have less sex than their married counterparts. In fact, the study he cites found the former to be considerably more active, which is what most of us might expect.1

While Offer doesn’t define “affluence,” his book focuses on how rising income affects ordinary people. The average American family now has two and a half times the purchasing power of its 1947 counterpart. Affluence for such a family isn’t wealth; many have heavy debts and are unprepared for calamities. But they frequent suburban malls, crowd the nation’s airports, and are helping their children through college. Offer’s statistics suggest that at least two thirds of Americans are in this pool, whereas in 1947 only one in three were.

Early in The Challenge of Affluence, a predictable thought arises: weren’t indigence and diseases common in pre-affluent periods? Yet Offer, who is Oxford’s Chichele Professor of Economic History, says little about the past. In New York City, at the start of the last century, one fifth of all babies died before reaching the age of six. Tuberculosis was rampant in the tenements, and very often fatal. Altogether, fewer than 2 percent of New Yorkers survived to celebrate their seventieth birthday—the kind of fact Offer fails to consider. Yet on one count, Offer is correct: nuptials were taken seriously. The 1910 Census found only 8,292 divorced men and women, against the 1,805,335 who were married. Today’s divorce ratio is forty times higher.2

Offer’s chief concern isn’t with the very rich who have always lived lavishly. Rather, he focuses on how a half-century of abundance in the United States has fomented a “self-regarding individualism” in the new majority who now share in its largess. He…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.