Quartz #8—>Judging the Nations: Wealth and Happiness Are Not Enough

Link to the Column on Quartz

Here is the full text of my 8th Quartz column, “Obama the Libertarian? Americans say they’d be happy if the government got out of their way,“ now brought home to supplysideliberal.com. The title of this post is the original working title of the column. Below the text of the column itself, I have an important outtake from my original draft.  This column was first published on December 4, 2012. Links to all my other columns can be found here.

If you want to mirror the content of this post on another site, that is possible for a limited time if you read the legal notice at this link and include both a link to the original Quartz column and the following copyright notice:

© December 4, 2012: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2014. All rights reserved.

Four years from now—or 40—how should we evaluate Barack Obama’s presidency? This is not an easy question. For example, when things go badly (or well), a tricky aspect of this question is “To what extent is the president responsible for what happened?” Ruchir Sharma argues that in their judgment of the last four years, voters put the primary blame for our economic troubles on inevitable after-effects of the financial crisis that hit in 2008. Another tricky aspect of judging a presidency is deciding how to sum things up when a policy initiated by the president helps one group while hurting another. But the first question to ask four years from now, in 2016, will be “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

It’s often assumed that in answering this question people are referring to their financial situation. But what if they took happiness into account as well? As Allison Steed points out in her Nov. 29 article in the Telegraph, “Here’s How Much You Need to Be ‘Happy’ in Different Countries,”  financial aspirations can differ a lot across countries. And money is clearly not the only thing that matters for happiness. A Pew Research Center Report on happiness around the world shows that while happiness goes up with per capita GDP, at similar middle-income levels, the Latin American countries do better than expected while Eastern European countries do worse than expected.

In two previous Quartz columns, I discussed evidence that happiness is not enough: people want to be rich, successful, happy and much more. In previous research my co-authors and I found that in both hypothetical situations and the real-world choices young doctors make about which residency to choose, happiness was very important, but so was money and prestige.  This would be paradoxical if each of the people we surveyed defined “happiness” as “whatever it is I want,” but in fact, people used the word “happiness” to mean “feeling happy.”

That people want more than money makes GDP an inadequate measure of well-being. That they want more than happiness makes happiness an inadequate measure of well-being. So it won’t work to simply replace GDP with Gross National Happiness as Richard Layard advocates in his book, Happiness. And looking at National Life Satisfaction has a similar problem.

So let’s get serious about what it means for an individual or a nation to be better off. Constructing a solid measure of national well-being requires answering the two questions “What do people want and how much do they want it?” So my coauthors Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Nichole Szembrot and I set out to answer exactly those questions in our National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper “Beyond Happiness and Life Satisfaction: Toward Well-Being Indices Based on Stated Preference.” We gave about 4,600 US adults hard choices to make in computer-generated scenarios where they had to identify both what people wanted for themselves and what they wanted for the nation as a whole. We didn’t want to prejudge, so we started with a list of 136 aspects of life that people might care about, drawing from a wide-ranging scientific and philosophical literature, as well as spirited discussions among the four of us.

The answers we found to “What do people want and how much do they want it?” were at once surprising and the height of common sense. I want to focus on the answers people gave for what they wanted for the nation as a whole, since that is primarily what a president should be judged on. One important finding is that, even across divisions of party, religion, age and sex, people by and large put the same things at the top of the list of what they want for the nation.  And the things they want for the nation as a whole are similar to the things they want for themselves.

Let me give my take on the top 25 things we found people want for the nation as a whole. Freedom comes first: freedom from injustice, corruption, emotional abuse and abuse of power; freedom of speech and political participation, freedom to pursue one’s dreams and the freedom of having choices. Besides freedom, people want for the nation goodness, truth, loyalty, respect and justice.

Only after freedom and goodness, do the “bread-and-butter” aspects of people lives start to come in. These bread-and-butter aspects are reflected in 11 of the top 25 aspects of life, including people’s health and freedom from pain, financial security, someone to turn to in time of need, emotional stability, a sense of security and peace, and activities to enjoy. Beyond freedom, goodness, and the practical, bread-and-butter aspects of people’s lives I just listed, people want meaning—the sense that one is making a difference in the world–for themselves and for others.

Freedom, goodness, truth, loyalty, respect, justice, bread-and-butter concerns, meaning: people’s hopes for our nation, and for themselves, extend to a lot more than money and happiness. I believe the breadth of what people want for the nation has implications for the policies our country should pursue, and how we should judge President Obama four years from now. In drawing out those implications, I will leave aside the bread-and-butter concerns, and concerns about “justice,” since I think our leaders understand those better than the other concerns.

One of the best ways to increase the freedom in the world is to allow more people to come to the United States to experience and tell of the freedom we have here, as I advocated in my Quartz column “Obama Could Really Help the US Economy by Pushing for More Legal Immigration.” But there is a lot to be done to preserve and bolster freedom in the US. Taxes represent a loss of freedom that should be mitigated in the kinds of ways I suggest in my post “No Tax Increase Without Recompense.” The conflict between employees’ freedom at work and employers’ freedom to lay down work requirements need to be fairly adjudicated, as discussed in my post “Jobs.” And every government regulation, in addition to whatever other costs and benefits it has, causes a loss of freedom from telling somebody what they must do.

When we do constrain freedom by regulation, it should be in service of something important, such as truth: people’s freedom from being lied to, deceived or betrayed. It is worth remembering that the standard results about the virtues of the free market all depend on deception being effectively neutralized–so there is no fundamental conflict between economic growth and laws that block corporate deception and throw scam artists in jail.  Enforcing the basic principle of telling the truth, like enforcing property rights, is an area where government is on the side of the angels.

Meaning, goodness, loyalty and respect are the trickiest for public policy to foster. As a social scientist who does research supported by government grants, I would like to think that there is some sense of meaning for all of us in humanity’s efforts at scientific research, such as medical research and the kind of research to slow global warming advocated by Noah Smith in his Atlantic column “The End of Global Warming: How to Save the Earth in 2 Easy Steps.” But I think a big part of what government needs to do to foster meaning, goodness, loyalty and respect is to stay out of the way. In this regard, I am worried about recent discussion of limiting the charitable deduction. My proposal for a system of “public contributions” is a way to reform and refocus the purpose of the charitable deduction instead, in order to reduce the government deficit, and reduce the footprint of the government, without depriving people of help they need.

From doing this research, I am left with the overwhelming impression that—even in the realm of intangibles—what people hope for and wish for is not one thing, but many things. Our desires are boundless. And that is how it should be. As Robert Browning wrote, ”Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

In early drafts, I related what I say in the Quartz column to Jonathan Haidt’s six moral tastes in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and ReligionHere is a New York Times book review by William Saletan, and here is a good passage from Jonathan Haidt summarizing his theory, chosen by Bill Vallicella, in Bill’s post “Jonathan Haidt on Why Working Class People Vote Conservative.”

There is a key chunk of text making the link to Jonathan Haidt’s theory that was appropriately cut for being too wonkish, but that I think you might find valuable

  1. for making that connection and 
  2. for more carefully stating the key findings about people’s preferences in hypothetical policy choices from my paper with Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz and Nichole Szembrot

Here it is: 

The most important boon people want for the nation as a whole is freedom. In the words we used for the choices we gave them, the #1, #2, #10, #13, #18 and #23 things people want for the nation are

  • freedom from injustice, corruption, and abuse of power in your nation
  • people having many options and possibilities in their lives and the freedom to choose among them;
  • freedom of speech and people’s ability to take part in the political process and community life;
  • the amount of freedom in society;
  • people’s ability to dream and pursue their dreams; and
  • people’s freedom from emotional abuse or harassment.

The next most important boons people want for the nation are goodness, truth, loyalty, respect and justice. On our list, the #3, #6, #8, #17, #19 and #21 most highly-valued aspects of the good society are

  • people being good, moral people and living according to their personal values;
  • people’s freedom from being lied to, deceived or betrayed
  • the morality, ethics, and goodness of other people in your nation;and
  • people having people around them who think well of them and treat them with respect
  • the quality of people’s family relationships
  • your nation being a just society.

The exact picture of “goodness” and “justice” might differ from one person to the next, but it is clear that they represent more than just money and happiness.  University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt,  in his brilliant book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion argues that morality comes in six flavors (“The righteous mind is like a tongue with six tastes.”):

  1. liberty vs. oppression,
  2. fairness vs, cheating,
  3. sanctity vs. degradation,
  4. loyalty vs. betrayal,
  5. authority vs subversion, and 
  6. care vs. harm.

The first five of Haidt’s flavors of morality are well represented above.  The fourth flavor of morality, care vs. harm, is the one many authors focus on, to the exclusion of the others. It is the bread and butter aspects of people’s lives. In our findings, care vs. harm is reflected in 11 of the top 25 (numbers 4, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, 22, 24, 25), including “the overall well-being of people and their families” in your nation, people’s health, financial security, and freedom from pain; “people having people they can turn to in time of need” and a “sense of security about life and the future in general” and balance, as reflected in the items “people’s mental health and emotional stability,” “how much people enjoy their lives” and “how peaceful, calm and harmonious people’s lives are.”

In addition to all of these, people want meaning, as reflected by #5 and #14 on our list: “people’s sense that they are making a difference, actively contributing to the well-being of other people, and making the world a better place, and “people’s sense that their lives are meaningful and have value.”  In addition to his discussion of key dimensions of morality, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and ReligionJonathan Haidt emphasizes the importance of meaning—in particular, the importance of feeling one is a part of a larger whole. One of his central metaphors is “We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” That is, Haidt believes that perhaps 90% of the time we are out for ourselves, however gently, but perhaps 10% of the time we are out for a higher cause (like the general good of everyone in our group) to the deepest level of our beings. A sense of “meaning” often comes from making that connection to something greater than ourselves.  

You can see my other posts on happiness in the happiness sub-blog linked at my sidebar, and here: