Monday, April 16, 2012

Robert J. Samuelson Is Unhappy About Happiness Economics

In today's Washington Post, fresh from having made a fool of himself recently over Social Security, the indefatibable Robert J. Samuelson is at it again. This time his target is "The economy of happiness," which he thinks should be left to novelists and philosophers rather than psychologists and economists, who obviously do not know a thing about it. If this is not done, then governments trying to follow the mandate of the Declaration of Independence to support the pursuit of happiness (among which is the Tory-led government in UK) are "at best utopian; at worst...silly and oppressive." Well.

RJS notes the research of Richard Easterlin, dating to 1974, on the paradox named for him that shows that while at any given point in time in a society poorer people tend to be unhappier than middle and upper income people, rising incomes over time in a society do not noticeably raise the level of happiness, thus suggesting that it is very much a relative matter. He then contrasts this with the recently much-publicized work of Wolfers and Stevenson that supposedly shows that rising incomes do help happiness. It is true that unexpected increases in income may help happiness, although China's happiness levels have been declining with its rising income, and it is definitely true that people become less happy when their incomes unexpectedly decline, as happened in the former communist Eastern European countries after 1989. But their main evidence is cross-country comparisons.

So, yes, higher income countries tend to have higher happiness levels than lower income countries. However, this is easily explained by the Easterlin Paradox applied internationally. Poorer countries tend to be weaker in political and military terms than higher income ones, often having histories of having been ruled or dominated by some of those higher income countries. With TV and internet they can see the lifestyles of those in the higher income countries and can thus feel the negative effect of their relative poverty. This does not disprove Easterlin at all.

As for what is going on at the top, RJS gets all in a snit about the 10 countries ahead of the US in reported happiness: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland. He argues that these do not matter because they do not have large populations and also that they are relatively homogeneous ethnically. He then notes that UK, France, and Germany are all behind the US and sneers at those who think the US should somehow emulate Europe "where the happiness movement is strongest."

Well, one barely knows where to begin with this dipsy-doodle. Of the 10 countries reportedly happier than the US, 7 of them are European. Oooops! Also, several of these are not nearly as ethnically homogeneous as he seems to imply. Canada has long had conflicts between its Anglophone and Francophone populations, not to mention native groups. Several of the others have large immigrant populations with increasing conflicts related to that, notably Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden. He notes accurately that high unemployment tends to reduce happiness, but are policies designed to increase employment likely to be "silly" or "oppressive"?

As it is, one should consider just what sort of policies are being proposed to increase happiness in the US. Happiness studies note the importance of time with family and friends to happiness, along with the obvious matter of greater income equality, and better health. So, laws and rules making it easier for people to have flexible work hours, for women (and fathers) spend time with their children or have decent child care, as well as efforts to reduce inequality, not to mention making quality healthcare more affordable and widely available should help happiness. These are indeed things one finds in most of those countries with reported higher happiness than the US, and many efforts have been made to move on these matters in the US. Are they really so obviously utopian or silly or oppressive?

And when will Robert J. Samuelson start writing columns that are not just crawling with reptilian nonsense?

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