Friday, May 26, 2006

Happiness and Politics

The latest trend in econometrics is to disprove the correlation between material prosperity and personal happiness *. The established spiritual truth that money won't make you happy is "news" to economists, politicians and even judges, many of whom think everyone benefits when a society promotes economic growth. While European socialists have been quick to capitalize on the new field of "Happiness studies", and Bhutan has used it as yet another an excuse to postpone elections, Democrats in America are slow to draw the political implications from this research.

People think that money can buy happiness because money correlates with social status in our civilization, and social status correlates with happiness in every civilization, but social status is relative rather than absolute -- there is only so much to go around, so increasing the amount of money in a society does not increase the amount of social status available to its members. So the DLC's equality of opportunity society is, in fact, happiness-neutral, and might even promote unhappiness as more people are tempted to try and fail at achieving social status. If social status is a variable in social engineering, however, one could maximize happiness in a broader society by decoupling social status and wealth, finding ways to reward people who increase the happiness of the society with more social status.

As the philosophical justifications for the economic policies of the Republican party are crumbling, we are in a unique position to reconceptualize our political goals using the most recent economic and social theory. Who could argue against a political movement that just wants to make people happy?

What would happiness friendly proposals look like? Here are a few: Keep school districts under local control, but give public school teachers a military rank, with some tax and consumer benefits, along with increased social status. Encourage bike riding and bike safety not because of traffic congestion, carbon polution, and petroleum shortages, but because people who exercise live longer, happier lives. Find other ways to distribute social status to people who benefit their communities. Recognize community involvement is an ingredient to happiness, so reintroduce a social component into "welfare" programs (i.e., bring back the WPA). A very interesting organization, Goodworkspac.org, is pulling the Democratic Party in the direction of sponsoring happiness-inducing charitable work, but what other Democrats are willing to break away from the tiresome economics and flawed psychology of Republican propaganda?

Jesus tells us that the "poor will always be with us", but Pareto tells us that the rich will always be with us, too. So happiness studies would ask progressives to stop being so obsessed about income parity and opportunities for people to climb class (since that does not increase aggregate happiness, it only displaces other people from the class). Certainly, support progressive income taxes and bigger inheiritance taxes -- if only because the money would be better spent on social programs in the third world -- but if your heart truly believes that money and happiness are correlated, then, as the sixties cliche would have it, you are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy to hear this is the latest trend circulating in the ethereal world of clueless theoreticians. So are they saying that the rich are happy but that there can only
be so many rich? I find it an amazing stretch to say that social status equates to happiness, but let us say it is true. Obviously it would be more about upward mobility than reaching a certain tax bracket. Since upward mobility seems fading as a possibility, the advancement of happiness becomes more attractive. If you were to package it as general sanity, true compassion, values, ect., it might actually be doable.
Dammit Borrow, you may be on to something. Of
course happiness, which you seem to suggest, consists of living a wholistic, balanced life based on common values(compassion, love, sacrifice) would need a kickass marketing program. And lets not forget, the last guy who went all out with the happiness and love angle didn't end up so good.
As a postcript, I nominate ''Jesus tells us the poor will be with us always but Pareto tells us the rich will be with us always, too' as the best blog quote of the last twenty minutes. yrs, Max Eckhart

6:00 AM  
Blogger georgeborrow said...

Max, I know you conceded the point, but I thought the post said that social status correlates with happiness (which is a statistically different statement than saying that one leads to the other). It is not difficult to make the case that the drive for social status might be passed on evolutionarily, since it is directly correlated with contol of resources and access to mates. Presumeably, there would be a biochemical endorphic mechanism for the drive (pleasure correlats with happiness).

Sure, there is a deeper, post-endorphic happiness that correlates with traditional spiritual exercises, but the people who experience that happiness are probably statistical outlyers, and not useful as part of an optimization function for increasing a society's happiness, particularly since spirituality is often correlated with general social decline and higher levels of unhappiness in the society at large.

11:45 AM  

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