Fun debates

The Economist will import its highly regarded debate series into America.  The first debate is November 10, in New York City.

The debators?  Will Wilkinson and myself against Jeffrey Sachs and Betsey Stevenson.  Here are the details.  The proposition is: "America is failing at the pursuit of happiness."

I hope to see some of you there.  Can you guess which side I am on?


Whichever's the most unpopular.

I think the tricky thing is the GDP to happiness binding. I believe Wilkinson acknowledges a non-linear relationship, and declining returns. That is, we need a certain amount of wealth (individually or nationally) but after that, perhaps we should focus our energies elsewhere.

It's kind of shallow to think that more wealth is always the answer. I mean, do we think that's what Britney or Paris need? I few more million?

Nevermind, I found them. Looks like they put up audio files on the magazine's website, and they are kind enough not to make it
premium/subscriber content.

Yancey, even if Americans are sometimes pursing happiness the wrong way (read that Gilbert book) it does not necessarily follow that we need a Czar.

All we may need to do is talk about it, be a little better informed on how it all works.

(As I said above, I think the flaw in American discussion of Happiness is this assumption of a tight and linear binding with GDP.)


The flaw in the discussion is the assumption that we know anything about how a few extra million will affect Britney or Paris' happiness, or mine, or any stranger you meet.

What produces happiness is a personal and subjective thing. It is fine with me if people debate what others should do in the pursuit of happiness, but, unfortunately, the goal of some debaters is some active governmental policy.

I have been to Economist debates in Paris and London and I can indeed confirm that they are fantastic. A shame I can't be there!

I just looked into marginal text messaging rates. ATT/Cingular, Verizon, and T-Mobile have recently raised their rate to .15/SMS. Text messaging must consume an incredibly small amount of resources compared to regular calls--is there any efficient justification for these major companies having the same rates? They all want to encourage the switch to more profitable SMS plans?

In Britain, text messaging was footloose and fancy free among pretty much all the carriers. Here, it seems they have restricted availability to squeeze compensation out of some users. Why is none of them willing to break ranks?

I'm a long time reader (lurker) at MR. I've already booked my tickets for the debate. Looking forward to it.

Yancey, I think we do know some things. But unfortunately one of the initial conflicts we find (the first battleground) is in the definition of happiness itself. I've been a believer in reported happiness (when people say how happy they are, they are usually not wrong). I was pleased to see Gilbert endorse that, with his greater experience and eduction on these issues.

If you accept Gilbertian (Odographian) happiness as the measure, we know how it correlates to wealth. That is, wealth helps, but it isn't the only thing that helps. It isn't enough to compensate for chemical dependence, etc.

BTW for those who don't know, fans of GDP-happiness will attempt to redefine the term. You are as "happy" as you should be, if you really understood your health, wealth, and position. In this extreme view, how you feel is not directly related.

If I recall correctly, Gilbert does about a chapter-length defense of 'reported happiness.' There are certainly cross-cultural issues as we start to compare national economies and strategies for happiness. But, I find the conclusion compelling that even if the 'reported' data is sometimes messy, it is still the best we've got.

"I think the tricky thing is the GDP to happiness binding. I believe Wilkinson acknowledges a non-linear relationship, and declining returns. That is, we need a certain amount of wealth (individually or nationally) but after that, perhaps we should focus our energies elsewhere.

It's kind of shallow to think that more wealth is always the answer. I mean, do we think that's what Britney or Paris need? I few more million?"

1. Median happiness and a given individual's happiness may have to be viewed separately, just as we do with GDP. Neither Bill Gates nor Kim Jong Il need more money. However that doesn't mean that the median GDP per capita in either country is at the optimal level.

2. Lets assume that you are correct and that $1 more for Paris Hilton will not make her more happy. Lets even suppose that $1 more is just as likely to make her worse off as better off. This does not mean any of the following are true:
a) $1 more for Paris Hilton won't make anyone better off
b) A price cap on Paris Hilton won't make Paris Hilton much worse off
c) A price cap on Paris Hilton won't make other people worse off

In fact, if you take into consideration all of the potential side effects of trying to change the way that people make themselves happy -- even if people do it by greedily trying to acquire more money -- you might find that the median happiness goes down quite a lot, even though you are trying to help people increase their happiness in a more efficient manner.

Liberty, compare the idea of an income cap (IMO not very useful) to the European idea of mandated holidays.

That's a very foreign idea to us Americans. No doubt many of you are recoiling from it even now (I do to a degree) ... but does it work? What if it does work? Would we Americans put our markets and our GDP ahead of vacations and happiness even then?

That, I think, is the kind of hard question that comes out of this.

(Or if a visit to Yosemite makes us happy, should we sacrifice some GDP to have more parks?)


Uh, no. Liberty, in the comment above, is most closely aligned with my position. We can know something about happiness by asking individuals, as Odograph wrote above, and I agree with him/her that this will give you the most reliable, indeed, the only reliable information you are going to get about what makes a particular person happy. We can sample the population about what makes, or would make them happiest, but so what? You can't apply this information to proactive policy because you still don't know what would make a particular person happiest without asking them, and efforts to construct policy through government that increases happiness for one cohort may decrease it for others, and in ways you cannot even begin to predict. This is why it is of paramount importance to let people pursue their own paths, free of coercion. It allows people to voluntarily interact, and allow the coming together of those people with complementary needs and desires. Like I wrote, there is nothing wrong about debating what should make you happy, I am just wary of those who want government to act on such ideas.

Define happiness, remembering that the Declaration was written in 1776.

My guess is most people today do not separate happiness from pleasure. Vacations, for instance, are pleasurable, but they will not make you happy.

I would bet good money you are on the optimistic side.

I'm really unimpressed with reported happiness as a measure for a couple of reasons. First of all, and this should be obvious but somehow is mostly ignored, diminishing returns aren't a result, they're an artifact of the scale. Wealth can continue to grow at 3% a year and double every generation, but the happiness measure is inherently bound by the top of the 1-10 scale (or 1-5 scale or whatever).

Doesn't the reported happiness thing tie in well to the evolutionary, neurobiological, explanation? Happiness (and sadly, sadness) are there to motivate us. When we are sad we are supposed to do something (of biological merit). When we are happy we are experiencing reward for doing something (of biological merit).

If I am living unhappily at 2x the median US income, will merely more income fix that? Or am I supposed to do something else?

(In my world view earning money, to some responsible level, does have biological merit. Or put another way, all animals work. We work for money, and not store nuts, bury our eggs on a dead tarantula, or drag a gazelle up a tree.)

Oh man, I'm so there.

Obviously by your association with Wilkinson, you're on the pro-happiness side, as that is His Thing. Good paper of his, though.

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