Glad to be unhappy

The current orthodoxy of our ruling class and national public opinion-makers is that the ideal American, the American our public policy should be designed to accommodate, has only one attribute: The desire to maximize (not optimize) personal net wealth, measured in terms of currency equivalents (money, stock, bonds, etc.) and for other assets the market value. A small portion of this net worth is allowed to be in the form of items with no or small resale value (designer clothes, vanity license plates, flower gardens, club memberships) and these can be carried at their purchase price. Note that the amount of the latter items is a percentage, so wealthier people are permitted more than the less successful.

Those who fail to comport themselves in accordance with this American Attribute are considered eccentric at best and either subversive or a drain on society at worst. This applies to poor families who spend too much of their income on educating their children, college graduates who forgo the partnership track at an investment bank to become academics, or doctors who work among the poor.

Having thus defined the ideal American, it’s easy to see what the overriding political imperative ought to be: Public measures ought to be designed to encourage and facilitate the personal acquisition of wealth and measures that interfere with this quest (beyond bare minimum law against outright theft and egregious fraud) should not be enacted and if already enacted, ought to be repealed.

The New American and the policies necessary to keep him happy require disposing of some antiquated beliefs that some of us—admittedly old-timers, those of us who can remember an age before the Greed is Good Era from the 1980s to current times—were taught in our youth to be verities: There are things larger than us individually. Americans pull together. We have a duty to the less fortunate. There are more important things than money. Social justice is as important as commercial justice. (I will omit such beliefs as “Americans don’t torture,” and “Americans don’t start wars,” because I’m not sure if we have abandoned those beliefs or if the Cheney Regime was an aberration. All optimism has not yet been beaten out of me.)

An example of the quaintness of our beliefs in those days before Ayn Rand replaced Benjamin Franklin as our national philosopher is a speech delivered by President Kennedy at Rice University on September 12, 1962. The subject was the proposed program for space exploration. First, let’s hear an odd sentiment delivered by the President:

 No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half a century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

Consider this: an American President gave a public address in which he assumed his constituents understood the broad arc of history, accepted scientific-historical realities, and considered all of it important. There was no pandering to Young Earth Creationism, no discussion of his favorite sit-com or how he liked pork rinds, no photo op of him barbecuing. It was as though the President thought he was talking to grown-ups. It couldn’t have been because the people in that long-ago age were all intellectuals. Adlai Stevenson famously responded to a supporter assuring him that he had the vote of all thinking people: “That’s nice, but I need a majority.” But yet, even Stevenson’s opponent treated his listeners as adults (and Ike had been President of Columbia University).

Kennedy was proposing that the US make an attempt to land on the moon within 8 years, “the greatest and most complex exploration in man’s history.” Let’s look at how he attempted to sell that goal:

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

We of course don’t intend to go to the moon or anywhere else anymore. We can’t keep in repair the national highway system that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower proposed and had built. We don’t fight a war against poverty anymore, possibly because poverty does not bleed. We don’t much care about the air or water or the hungry let alone start programs like the EPA or food stamps like conservative Republican President Richard Nixon did. These things are all too hard. And our tax accountants tell us they will reduce our individual personal net worth.

The reason we are told this is not simply that these things will cost more. The reason is that not doing anything is more efficient. A more just society, with small income and wealth disparities, with mutual support and real community, with common goals and aspirations—all of this highfalutin talk means more government; more government means less private initiative even if it didn’t require taxes; and of course every cent taken in taxes, particularly from the wealthy, means fewer jobs.

We have now finally achieved the perfect society, the natural society, that Thomas Hobbes described three and a half centuries ago: the war of all against all (Bellum omnium contra omnes). Just as in Ayn Rand’s universe everything given to you is taken from me. It’s all zero sum (except tax breaks for the wealthy, which generate numerous benefits for us all). Everything I get (and much more) is what I am owed; everything I am required to give is theft. And government is the biggest thief. The Tea Partiers will tell you that none of this is new in thought. It’s what American Exceptionalism is all about. After all, didn’t Thomas Jefferson say that the basis of the American Revolution was our desire for Life, Liberty and (especially) the Pursuit of Happiness?

So we should expect that all of this pursuit of mammon and the shedding of the tyrannical impulse of the state to make us more secure and society more just makes us all happier, right? But apparently that is not the case. Evidently, social justice, economic security and equality are things that contribute to our happiness, and not in a minor way.

This is the result of a study by Baylor researchers of a survey of personal satisfaction with life collected throughout the world. In Patrick Flavin, Alexander C. Pacek & Benjamin Radcliff, “State Intervention and Subjective Well-Being in Advanced Industrial Democracies,” 39 Politics & Policy 251-60 (April 2011) (free abstract; article behind pay wall), the authors conclude that “life satisfaction varies directly with four specific measure of state intervention in the economy: tax revenue, government consumption as a share of GDP, the social wage, and welfare expenditures.” Those four things of course are precisely what our New Orthodoxy most abhors. Could it be that these survey results are just from the recipients of hand-outs and pointy-headed intellectuals who are incapable of earning an honest living in a free market? The second conclusion the authors came to was “these effects are invariant over income and ideology. Our results therefore suggest that state intervention in the economy positively affects the subjective well-being of society in general, not simply of those one might reasonably expect to be more affected (e.g., lower-status citizens, or more pro-state liberal-left citizens).”

This is what they did. They measured “happiness,” actually self-reported life satisfaction, using data from the most recent World Values Survey (2005). The World Values Survey is a global research project that explores values and beliefs and  how they change over time. It has been conducted by a network of social scientists since 1981 and involves surveys in nearly 100 countries.  The survey tests support for such things as democracy, gender equality, religion and religious toleration as well as such things as subjective well-being, the thing of importance here. Life satisfaction is measured on a 1-10 scale where respondents are asked: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Using this card on which 1 means you are ‘completely dissatisfied’ and 10 means you are ‘completely satisfied’ where would you put your satisfaction with your life as a whole?” (Incidentally, the world mean of “personal satisfaction” is 7.39 (with a standard deviation of 1.87); the mean in among U.S. responders is below that at 7.26.)

They used data in 15 industrial democracies: Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United  States. They constructed a proxy, which they called “size of the state,” for how much intervention into the private marketplace the state undertook. The four factors they used were:

A country‘s tax revenue as a percentage of its gross domestic product (its “GDP”).

A government‘s consumption share of a country‘s real per capita GDP.

The “social wage” defined as the average gross unemployment benefit replacement rates for two earnings levels, three family situations, and three durations of unemployment.

A country‘s social welfare expenditures as a percentage of GDP.

What they found was that “happiness” (my term) increased with government intervention. And it increased in all groups, including those who are ideologically opposed to government intervention and those who are disproportionately taxed to support the intervention. And despite recent reports that there are “genetic” differences between liberals and conservatives (I will cite the Fox News descriptionof this study because it is the most over-the-top) and the less sensational report, Rafael DiTella, R.J. MacCulloch & A.J. Oswald, “The Macroeconomics of Happiness,” 85 Review of Economics and Statistics 809-27 (2003) (free download), arguing that left leaning and right leaning individuals process effects on happiness differently, the Baylor study concludes that ideology did not negate the correlation between “government size” and happiness.

I will leave you to parse over the statistical details of what appears to be a cleaver analysis of the information provided in the surveys. I will make one prediction, however: You will not see the same kind of publicity of this study on Fox as you did of their wrong-headed analysis of “genetic” political inclinations. And if you see any publicity of this study at all in the mainstream media, we can be confident that the Koch brothers will quickly supply the response that will be chanted by the Tea Partiers, those benighted tools of our new plutocrats who quote Jefferson but are really not pursuing happiness.

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