Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Well no, we're going to look at the opposite frame, which is happiness, or sweetness if you like. Economists have long assumed that the desired end of all human activity is what they call economic growth, which means essentially humans converting more and more of whatever was here before we came into stuff that is more to our liking. One problem with this philosophy is that it doesn't pay attention to the destruction of the original resource that was converted. For example, as I have noted here several times, there is no such thing as oil "production," even though that's what economists call the process of extracting petroleum from the ground and, ultimately, destroying it.

Now that we might, just maybe, be running into a situation where "growth," as the religion called economics defines it, might have to stop, we need to think about what it will mean to live with that situation. If economic "growth" is not essential to human well being after all, maybe we can do it. So what does really matter?

I'll Carol Graham's article on Happiness and Health as a starting point. I hope it doesn't make you too unhappy, but you can only read the abstract. A couple of highlights are that, in the U.S., all other things being equal*:

  1. Being male tends to make you somewhat less happy. Sexist we may be, but women are actually happier than men controlling for everything else -- which isn't necessarily fair since women could tend to have other problems that make them less happy because they are women, and we're controlling for those things which makes them seem to go away, but that's the trouble with multiple regression models. However, in this case I don't think it's correct.
  2. Being married makes a big contribution to happiness. I'd better get going.
  3. Having more education tends to make you slightly happier; income makes a big difference, but only toward the bottom of the income scale. Once you have a certain amount, getting more doesn't help much. (Technically, the regression model shows this by fitting the log of income, rather than the raw number. But Graham discusses this further and it is clear that as people get more, they just keep wanting more; there's never any such thing as enough and they aren't getting any happier.)
  4. Being a student, or retired, or for that matter a homemaker (really) makes you happier than being in the labor force. However, if you are in the labor force, being unemployed really makes you unhappy. Being self employed, on the other hand, makes you a bit happier than being an employee.
  5. Being healthier makes a big contribution to being happy. However, if you look at international comparisons, health and life expectancy increase as you go from the very poor to the slightly less poor countries, then they level off. The graph rises from Zambia to China, then it goes flat, all the way from Argentina to the United States.

It's a bit different in Latin America. Income seems even more important but that's presumably because a much higher proportion of people are down there where they really don't have enough. Being married is much less important, being retired makes you relatively unhappy instead of happy, but being a homemaker or self-employed are bad instead of good. But, being self-employed in El Salvador means something rather different than it does here. Being unemployed is still a drag, but being healthy is still a good thing.

So what does this tell me? We don't need more, we need more equality. There really is such a thing as enough income, and enough stuff, but there is also such a thing as not enough, and having some people with too much and some people with not enough is a problem. This article from the New York Times makes me barf.

Buyers this year have already closed on 71 Manhattan apartments that each cost more than $10 million, compared with 17 apartments in that price range during all of 2007. Last week, a New York art dealer paid a record $1.6 million for an Edward Weston photograph at Sotheby’s. And the GoldBar, a downtown lounge, reports that bankers continue to order $3,000 bottles of Rémy Martin Louis XIII Cognac.

“When times get tough, the smart spend money,” said David Monn, an event planner who is organizing a black-tie party on May 10 for dignitaries and recent purchasers of apartments at the Plaza Hotel; the average price there was $7 million. “Short of our country going on food stamps, I don’t think we’re doing anything differently.

And who are these folks dropping $3,000 on a bottle of booze? One example we're given is Lee Tachman, "a manager for a company that executes trades for hedge funds and the owner of “a handful” of buildings in New York." In other words, a useless parasite on society. Put him down for $60,000 a year, and the average level of human happiness rises. The economic gains of the past decade have gone entirely to people like him; if the pain of the next merely took it all away, there would be zero net loss to social welfare or human happiness.

Of course, it isn't going to happen that way.

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