I feel for ‘the sweaty man in the third row’. We’ll all been there.November 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm | More on Influence and networks | 1 Comment
I feel for ‘the sweaty man in the third row’. We’ll all been there.November 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm | More on Influence and networks | 1 Comment
GD readers might find interesting this piece by Columbia University’s Mark Mazower, from the FT this weekend. He has a book coming out in October on the history of the idea of global governance. Brief highlights:
May 26, 2012 at 10:23 am | More on Global system | 1 Comment
“They decided without us. Let us advance without them,” reads the slogan on the website of Syriza, the leftwing Greek party that shot to prominence after elections this month. But what emerges as one reads on is less a clear strategy for the country’s future than a worldview suffused with the images and memories of its turbulent past. Here, the fight against today’s perceived enemy – neoliberalism – evokes the struggle against the military junta 40 years ago, and the resistance to Nazi occupation during the second world war…Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, is too young to remember this: he was born just as the junta fell, in the summer of 1974. However, his party’s language reminds us that the eurozone crisis is raising some deep historical questions about what has happened to politics, to democracy and to the very idea of international co-operation.
It was in Europe, two centuries ago, where the idea emerged that the world was a governable place. This idea was radically new: the term “international” itself was coined by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham and only entered general circulation in the decades after Napoleon’s defeat. Although nationalism was emerging as a potent force at this time, the supporters of international co-operation were not alarmed. On the contrary, they believed that nationalism and internationalism were soul mates, that a continent of vibrant national democracies necessitated co-operation among its diverse people. Novelist Victor Hugo conjured up the vision of a federal Europe to a wildly cheering audience of peace activists in Paris in 1849; the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini inspired US president Woodrow Wilson with his idea of a society of democratic nations.
If Wilson’s ill-fated League of Nations was one outcome of such views, other internationalists fought equally hard for free trade, or for communism. But the second world war saw anti-fascists in Europe return to the idea of federation for the continent as an antidote both to the bellicose nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini, and to the hopeless high-mindedness of the League. They believed that without integration, Europeans would continue to fight indefinitely; with it, the nation could be tamed and the needs of the weakest members of society guaranteed.
The origins of the EU thus reflect the persistence of the old idea that international co-operation is the best guarantee of national well-being. US support for European integration was premised on the belief not only that it would boost growth and keep communism at bay but that it would revive democracy itself. The early decades of the common market coincided not only with unprecedented productivity gains and growth across western Europe, but simultaneously with significant falls in inequality and enhanced spending on social services and welfare.
That achievement seems to belong to an almost neolithic past. The past 25 years have seen many of those gains reversed and have thrown into question the notion that national sovereignty and international co-operation are complementary. The architects of this reversal were not philosophers such as Bentham or revolutionaries such as Mazzini but sober technocrats such as Paul Volcker and the IMF’s Michel Camdessus. Managers of the global monetary system after the oil shocks of the 1970s, they believed that international prosperity and stability depended upon the liberalisation of capital movements. Europe’s enthusiastic participation in this financialisation of the global economy has had striking if largely unintended consequences.
All international organisations require their members to give up some sovereignty in exchange for the benefits of joining the group. But in earlier times, this choice did not entail anything close to the kinds of sacrifices that are required today. Legislatures within the EU, and especially within the eurozone, are now obliged to cede discretionary power to unelected central bankers, judges, bureaucrats and industry regulators. One does not have to be a supporter of Syriza to see how this allows established political parties in difficult times to be turned into stooges of shadowy special interests.
So what is at stake in the eurozone crisis goes beyond the consequences of a Greek exit and beyond even the future of the EU itself. The crisis has thrown into question the very idea that the world can be governed.
Two news stories caught my eye this weekend. Firstly, the British government wants to launch a voucher scheme so every parent can take parenting classes from a range of providers. One of them is called the Parenting Gym, and is owned by Octavius Black, the millionaire school-chum of David Cameron’s, who made his fortune through Mind Gym, a corporate well-being consultancy.
The other story was that the Templeton Foundation has given a multi-million-pound grant to Birmingham University to set up a Jubilee Values and Character Centre. The press release says:
How does the power of good character transform and shape the future of society? What would be the wider social, cultural and moral impact of a more grateful Britain? What personal virtues should ground public service? How can fostering character traits like hope and optimism be help working towards a better British society? The Centre will initiate a national consultation on a proposed curriculum policy for character building in schools, and will run a 10-year project at Birmingham called ‘Gratitude Britain’.
These are the two latest trumpet-blasts from a movement which has been dubbed the New Paternalism. The phrase originally appeared from Nudge psychologists like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who call their nudge policy interventions ‘libertarian paternalism’. They want to nudge people in pro-social directions without them realising it (hence it’s ‘libertarian’ – because the citizens are so dumb they don’t realise they’re being guided).
But there are other New Paternalists who are much bolder. They want to instil good values in the citizenry, create good habits, foster good character. They are similar to Victorian paternalists like Matthew Arnold, but they take his lofty Hellenic philosophy and try to put it on a firm evidence base, to create a science of resilience, optimism and other ‘character strengths’.
I call this movement the Vickys, after the tribe in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a steam-punk novel about a future society that has fragmented into a collection of tribes or ‘phyles’, each with their own culture and moral code – including a Nation of Islam tribe, a neo-Confucian tribe, and the Vickys, who are cyber-engineers and who follow Victorian customs. Basically, success in this society is all about what phyle has accepted you. Your character depends on your moral culture. The book tells the story of how the leader of the Vickys hires a nano-engineer to code an interactive ‘gentleman’s primer’ to cultivate the character of his niece – except it gets stolen and discovered by a street orphan, who subsequently rises to the top of her society.
The Vickys include Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists, who have got enormous backing from Templeton for their research into character strengths and resilience training, and who launched a $125 million course in resilience-training for the US Army. Like Stephenson’s Vickys, they want to create a computer-automated course in moral education – an app for character. The Vickys also include include self-control psychologists like Roy Baumeister, and champions of ‘social and moral capital’ like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Puttnam.
In the UK, the Vickys include Wellington headmaster Anthony Seldon and his new colleague, the young former policy advisor James O’Shaughnessy, who has gone back to Wellington to set up a chain of Wellington academies; Matthew Taylor of the RSA; Matthew Grist and Jen Lexmond of Demos; the Young Foundation; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine; Danny Kruger, another former Tory advisor who now runs a charity for former prison inmates; Lord Richard Layard of the LSE; and, more speculatively, Alain de Botton, whose more recent writings have called for a shift beyond liberalism and back to a more interventionist paternalism.
Anthony Seldon described the New Paternalist ethos in the Telegraph this week. He wrote:
Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become… The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for the creation [of the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values]. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established…The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or “public school”. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.
I am interested in this movement, and attracted to some aspects of it. My new book is about the contemporary fusion of virtue ethics with empirical psychology, and how this new fusion is being spread by public policy in schools, the army and beyond to foster character, resilience, eudaimonia and other such ideals. I got into the scene when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me overcome depression in my early 20s, and I then found out how much CBT owed to ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a huge fan of Greek philosophy and its practical therapeutic use today, so a part of me loves the renaissance of virtue ethics in modern policy.
But we have to be aware of the ideological and political context of these efforts in mass character education. It can all too easily seem like rich people telling poor people to buck up and be a bit more moral. It can ignore the economic and environmental context and how that dynamically feeds into character. I’m not saying character is entirely caused by economic context. But it’s certainly a factor – Aristotle himself knew that. He insisted eudaimonia was as much made up of external factors like wealth and the kind of society you live in. If you’re too poor or your society is too unequal, he warned, it would be very difficult for you to achieve eudaimonia or for your society to find the ‘common good’.
Rich people tend to attribute their success entirely to their character, as if they simply have the right values, and poor people are poor because they don’t. Very rich people like Sir John Templeton or Andrew Carnegie love to think they became incredibly wealthy because they worked out the primal ‘laws of the universe’ – and then they go around giving money to people like Napoleon Hill or Birmingham University to prove it. They insist that anyone can become as rich as them, they just need to follow these basic cosmic laws. It’s the philosophy of Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire values-preacher in the Coen Brothers’ film. This laissez-faire / law of attraction philosophy goes down fairly well in America, because some millionaires like Carnegie really were self-made men – although look closer and you’ll see that an awful lot of America’s billionaires had the benefit of going to Yale or Harvard, like Templeton, Gates, Zuckerberg and others.
In the UK, it’s a lot harder to sell this emphasis on values and character, because we have a much more obviously class-ridden society, which is still to some extent disproportionately run by the 7% who went to private schools. And almost all of the New Paternalists went to private school. It becomes hard to sell, basically, when a privileged clique insists that the riots are purely a question of bad values. It’s easier to have values like optimism when you grow up in an environment that tells you from the start that you are special, an environment that is filled with opportunities to develop your talents, that rewards effort, that creates the expectation of success, that gives you a sense from the start that you can influence your society. To create such an environment takes money (an average of £15,000 per pupil a year in independent schools, as opposed to £6,000 a year in the other 93% of the country).
On the other hand, if you grow up in a deprived inner city environment that is physically ugly, crowded, where crime pays (at least in the short-term), where there’s never enough money, where the government is seen as an intrusion and threat, where your school tells you to rein in your expectations, where you are constantly immersed in a media that celebrates everything you don’t have, that’s going to affect your values. As Jerome Kagan, the great neuro-psychologist, recently put it, the best prediction for depression is poverty. (On the other hand, growing up in a tougher environment may very well give you more resilience than a more protected environment. It may also give you a sense of indignation, quite different from the gratitude the Templeton Foundation wants to foster, that drives you to change your society).
So I think that if you want to sell values / character education, you need to be aware of this problem. You need to be aware of the dynamic interplay between environment and values, rather than focusing exclusively on the one or the other. And you need to ask yourself: what is the connection between values and character education, and politics – or between the cultivation of a good character, and the cultivation of a good society? In the service of what political ideology are you teaching values? And you can’t say ‘character has nothing to do with politics’. That in itself is a political, libertarian, laissez faire response.
I worry (and I’m not the only one) that a character education course that emphasizes optimism and gratitude is going to be laissez faire and in the service of the status quo. The emphasis on public service can also be quite laissez faire. It’s a public school ethos dedicated to serving Queen and Country – serving, rather than trying to reform the country. However, character education is not necessarily in the service of the status quo. There’s also a great tradition of values education on the Left, which tries to train young people both to engage with their society and change it – like the Joseph Rowntree Trust, for example.
Ideally, character education would not drill young people in any one ideology, whether that be laissez-faire capitalism or Quaker reformism. It would give them the capacity to critically reflect on all such values, to be aware of their flaws, to try and choose the best path for themselves. It wouldn’t ignore politics (we’re trying to create good citizens after all) but it wouldn’t become mindless propaganda either. That sort of nuanced approach is not easy. It takes money and leisure – and the sort of confident teacher who thrives on challenging feedback from their well-informed students. That’s why Aristotle thought philosophy could only the pursuit of propertied gentlemen.
There’s a danger, again, of a class divide in our approach to values education. Take the US Army, which has long tried to teach values and character. The officer class study Hellenic philosophy at West Point, as part of the Cadet Leader Development Studies course. They get the opportunity and leisure to consider and reflect on values in a manner worthy of autonomous sovereign agents (or gentlemen). The privates, meanwhile, get drilled in resilient thinking by Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness course. Their spiritual fitness is evaluated by a computer questionnaire and given an automatic score. There is no leisure to reflect on or criticise the values in which they are drilled. You couldn’t have an entire army of autonomous philosophers, could you? That has to be confined to the officer class.
Are we prepared, as a society, to try and create a society of autonomous citizens capable of critical and reflective thought? Or is that just for the officer class, while the foot-soldiers get drilled in unquestioned good habits?
I’ll end with a quote from Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where Nell, the young orphan, learns the meaning of intelligence:
May 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | More on Influence and networks | Comments Off
[Nell says:] “The Vickys have an elaborate code of morals and conduct. It grew out of the moral squalor of an earlier generation, just as the original Victorians were preceded by the Georgians and the Regency. The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code– but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”
They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”
Yes. Some of them never challenge it– they grow up to be smallminded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel– as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”
“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”
Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded – they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”
You’ve probably already seen this but…this site is quite funny: http://textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com/ As the name suggests, its photos of Secretary Clinton exchanging texts with various other people. For example:April 11, 2012 at 7:32 am | More on Off topic | Comments Off
The UN Happiness Conference last week looks to have been a fascinating event. The Prime Minister of Bhutan sent me a giant Willy Wonka-esque invitation, for which I’m grateful, but wouldn’t pay my air-fare, for which I’m lingeringly resentful (not really). Anyway, I didn’t go, but have spent this morning reading through some of the material that came out of it.
The main event was the publication of The World Happiness Report, edited by Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Layard and John Helliwell. Interesting that Sachs, once a champion of ‘shock therapy’ and the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, should have climbed on-board the happy train.
In fact, Sachs seems to be making a bid to be the train-driver – he wrote the intro to the report, which seems odd, seeing as he’s quite a recent convert to well-being economics, while Layard’s been banging on about it for over a decade. Anyway, Sachs (who says he’s an Aristotelian) has clearly reigned in Layard’s ultra-utilitarianism. There are five or so references to Aristotle and the Stoics in the report, many more to the Buddha, and not one to Layard’s beloved Jeremy Bentham. Sachs opines loftily in the introduction that western economists’ pursuit of GDP is “completely at variance with the wisdom of the sages”. Oh really Jeff? Do we need shock cognitive therapy?
Despite Sachs’ attempt to put himself forward as the global guru of love, the conference really marks another huge success for Richard Layard, who to my mind is by far the most influential British intellectual today – partly because of his success in British mental health policy and the spread of CBT, but also because of the global influence of the happiness agenda he has pushed.
Although there are many aspects of Layard’s agenda that I welcome (its support for CBT in particular) I remain wary of the agenda because I think utilitarianism and positivism can be too monist and authoritarian: they force an entire country to follow one particular philosophy of the good life, which they insist is ‘scientific fact’. That’s what John Stuart Mill warned in On Liberty, where he spoke of the danger of a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and insisted we need to encourage diversity, experimentation, non-conformity, and the right of people to pursue their own good in their own way. Layard, I suspect, would see all that as rank individualism.
The happiness movement often seems a bit bullying to me: the happy / extrovert / optimistic majority telling the introvert / pessimistic minority to get with the programme…or else! Like Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, saying that the 25% of the population who aren’t naturally optimistic are, basically, sick. Look, for example, at this cartoon, The Pig of Happiness, made by David Cameron’s former room-mate after he had a breakdown (no, really). Notice in the video how the entire farm converts to the pig’s vision of happiness. It’s the utilitarian version of Animal Farm.
The warning about too monist an approach to well-being was made well by Martin Seligman, father of Positive Psychology, in his little presentation at the UN conference. He writes that his own well-being theory is plural: he puts forward five different definitions of well-being (he calls it PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaningfulness, Achievement), and adds: “This plurality of well-being is why economist Richard Layard’s important argument that “happiness” is the final common path and the gold standard measure for all policy decisions does not work.”
I welcome Seligman’s more pluralist approach to well-being. But I disagree with him that meaningful happiness, achievement, engagement etc can be objectively and scientifically measured using simple automated questionnaires, as he thinks it can. What the Greeks called eudaimonia is quite a subtle concept – it takes a lifetime to think about it and learn to practice it in one’s life. If you think that governments can easily measure it using computer questionnaires, then you’re opening the door to a quite intrusive, bureaucratic and coercive politics of well-being, which forces people to fit into boxes rather than encouraging them to think for themselves.
Look at the example of Bhutan, the host of the UN Happiness Project conference. Bhutan has, since the 1970s, measured Gross National Happiness (GNH). A paper in the World Happiness Report from the Centre for Bhutan Studies explains to us how Bhutan has defined and measured GNH.
We discover that a third of Bhutan’s ‘psychological well-being’ indicator is constituted by measurements of a person’s spirituality: ‘The spirituality indicator is based on four questions – they cover the person’s self-reported spirituality level, the frequency with which they consider karma, engage in prayer recitation and meditate. The indicator identified 53% of Bhutanese people as adequate in terms of spirituality level.’
This is obviously problematic. Firstly, there’s the practical question of whether you can accurately measure a person’s genuine level of spiritual attainment simply by asking them how spiritual they are (the same problem applies to measuring the meaningfulness of their life by asking them how meaningful it is). Such a measurement rewards the smug and complacent – how would Socrates score on such a questionnaire?
Secondly, there’s a liberal problem: Bhutan’s GNH measures people’s well-being according to how far they accept Buddhism. If you don’t accept Buddhism, you’re unwell.
We also read that Bhutan’s GNH includes measurements of Bhutanese people’s ‘cultural diversity and resilience’. This measurement is reached by measuring to what extent the interviewee speaks the mother tongue, to what extent they agree with ‘good values, eg Buddhism’, and to what extent they agree with Driglam Namzha, or The Way of Harmony, which is the majority culture’s ‘expected behaviour of consuming, clothing, moving’ etc. So it’s not a measure of cultural diversity at all – quite the opposite!
Around one eighth of the population, the Nepalese ethnic minority, failed to speak the mother tongue fluently and failed to follow the Way of Harmony, and they were forced into refugee camps in the 1970s and 1980s – many of them are still there. That’s a clear example of how utilitarianism can lead to a tyranny of the majority, as John Stuart Mill warned.
And before we declare that ‘we’d all be happier in Bhutan’, as the Guardian did rather exuberantly, let’s remember that only a third of Bhutan’s population has had even six years of schooling. This is a rural, semi-educated, semi-literate monoculture (well, it is now the ethnic minority has been kicked out). You will never get an entire western, liberal, educated country to sign up to one philosophy of well-being – not without using the army anyway.
We need a more pluralist approach to well-being, one that balances the science of well-being with the philosophy of well-being, which recognises it’s not enough simply to have ‘meaning’ in your life – the question is whether the meaning you have is worthwhile. It’s not enough to have relationships – are they good relationships? It’s not enough to have ‘engagement’ – is it worthwhile engagement? This is what philosophy can teach us – how to exercise the practical reasoning to arrive at appropriate ethical life-decisions.
I’ve been reading the Pragmatist philosophers this week – John Dewey, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce and others – and they really understood the need to find the right balance between experimental psychology and ethical philosophy (or practical reasoning, done alone and especially in groups or ‘communities of inquiry’). Dewey wrote:
A moral situation is one in which judgment and choice are required antecedently to overt action. The practical meaning of the situation–that is to say the action needed to satisfy it–is not self-evident. It has to be searched for. There are conflicting desires and alternative apparent goods. What is needed is to find the right course of action, the right good. Hence, inquiry is exacted: observation of the detailed make-up of the situation; analysis into its diverse factors.
Matthew Lipman, the father of Philosophy for Children (P4C), wrote:
it was Dewey who, in modern times, foresaw that education had to be defined as the fostering of thinking rather than as the transmission of knowledge… reasoning is sharpened and perfected by disciplined discussion as by nothing else and that reasoning skills are essential for successful reading and writing; and that the alternative to indoctrinating students with values is to help them reflect effectively on the values that are constantly being urged on them.
That’s why I think Positive Psychology, and the ‘happiness agenda’ in general, really needs more philosophy in it. Well-being can’t be ‘transmitted’. It has to be reasoned towards.
I honestly think the evidence-based science of well-being from CBT and Positive Psychology can be balanced with more practical / communal reasoning in the model of Dewey and Lipman. That’s what I argue in my book (out in less than a month!) As a great example, here is a new course from Yale’s Open University, which combines ancient philosophy with insights from cognitive and positive psychology.
I’d love to see this kind of course freely available for all undergraduates (in fact, we just pitched for pilot funding to do that at Queen Mary).
Well, the headline pretty much says it all, but here’s some more of the story:
A mafia traitor was beaten to death with a hammer and then eaten by Serbian gangsters, police believe. Officers said Milan Jurisic, 37, was killed in Madrid by criminals from the Zemun Clan, a mafia group from Belgrade.His remains were then ground up with a meat grinder, cooked, and eaten, according to a confession by another Zemun Clan member, Sretko Kalinic, nicknamed “The Butcher”. Later the gang reportedly threw the bones into the River Manzanares in the Spanish capital.This week, police found bones in the river and the apartment where the killing apparently took place in 2009. Jurisic is thought to have betrayed his fellow gang members by stealing money from them. He was on the run after being convicted in his absence of assassinating Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003. Kalinic confessed to the murder after he was arrested in the Croatian capital of Zagreb in 2010. Police believe the murder and subsequent cannibalism was led by Luka Bojovic, a Serbian gangster arrested in Valencia last month.
Messed UP. Still, you hang around with a gangster nick-named ‘the Butcher’, what do you expect? All I can say is I’m really glad I’m not a Serbian gangster. I don’t have the stomach for it.March 24, 2012 at 12:03 am | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Conflict and security | 3 Comments
It’s become an unlikely YouTube hit. No, not sneezing pandas or puppies on skateboards…but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges talking on C-Span for three hours about the triumph of the corporate state, the failure of liberals, the over-reaching of US empire, the cost of war, climate change, Christianity, the Occupy movement…everything really! Quite a performance. Posted online in January and it already has a quarter of a million views. Difficult to turn off once you start watching.January 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Conflict and security, Global system | Comments Off
Herman Van Rompuy is thinking positive. He is staring into his mirror each morning, and repeating to himself: ‘I am a strong, confident, powerful currency. I am A TIGER!’ He’s so positive, he’s sent out a hefty tome called The World Book of Happiness to 200 world leaders, with this extraordinary letter. I’m quoting from the letter he sent to Barack Obama:
Dear Mr President Barack
I am very happy to present you with this copy of The World Book of Happiness…with my best wishes for a ‘Happy New Year’ but also with my request to you as world leaders to make people’s happiness and well-being our political priority for 2012 [um...what about preventing the catastrophic collapse of the euro? No?]
Positive thinking is no longer something for drifters, dreamers and the perpetually naive. Positive Psychology concerns itself in a scientific way with the quality of life. At stake are not only the happiness and well-being of individuals, but also those of groups, organisations and countries. And above all, in today’s global world we can all learn from one another. It is time to make this knowledge available to the man and woman in the street….
People who think positive see more opportunities, perform better, possess greater resilience, take more often correct and sound decisions [sic], negotiate better, have more self-confidence, maintain better relations, take greater responsibility, have more trust placed in them and so on. In short, they give more hope to others because they can experience it themselves. In order to release this positive energy, people need oxygen. Society can offer this oxygen. Positive education, positive parenting, positive journalism and positive politics play a crucial role here. This oxygen we can also create ourselves by a balanced existence or a religious or philosophical rooting.
[I love this paragraph. My favourite line is 'to release this positive energy, people need oxygen', though I also like the idea of 'a religious or philosophical rooting' - 'rooting' is a slang Australian word for shagging].
Why not address women and men from all angles of their multiple intelligence? [Why not indeed!]...By addressing men and women who are on a growth path, we all become better and happier people. We then do not turn every incident into a trend and every anecdote into a general truth. [You've lost me Herman]. As a consequence our governing will stimulate self-knowledge, reflection, sense of responsibility and commitment.
Positively inclined people see everything in its right proportions. [etc etc for a few more sentences.]
Happy New Year!
Herman Van Rompuy
Chairman of the European Council
Woohoo! I love his cheery upbeatness in the face of chaos. And quite a plug for the book itself. The author, another Belgian called Leo Bormans, blogs excitedly: ‘Will Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in the near future read in the World Book of Happiness before going to sleep?’ You betcha Leo!
Now, a cynic might suggest Herman is reminiscent of the conquistador hero of Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre Wrath of God, who dreams of ruling over new empires while monkeys swarm over his sinking raft. But that’s a cynical thought. Think positive. Think Belgian. Find a happy place!December 19, 2011 at 1:08 pm | More on Global system, Influence and networks | 1 Comment
Here’s a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal Europe about six months ago, about the effect of the internet on Russia’s stagnant politics:
In November 2010, Leonid Parfyenov, a well-known Russian journalist, took to the stage at a black-tie Russian television awards dinner. Visibly nervous, he embarked on a 10 minute critique of everything that was wrong with Russian media. The bravest print journalists are targeted with impunity, he said, while reporters on state-owned television are “no longer journalists, but rather state employees who worship submission and service”. No state television channel transmitted his remarks.
State control of television news is a core pillar of the so-called managed democracy that Vladimir Putin has built since he became president in 2000. As Mr. Parfyenov said in his speech: “News and life in general are categorized as [either] suitable or unsuitable news for television.” The state directly controls most of the national channels, and is suspected indirectly to control many others.
However, while television remains the main source of news for 80% of Russians, the internet is rapidly catching up. Internet penetration is soaring in Russia and it is a median that the state has little or no influence over. Social networking is on the rise and websites like Facebook and Twitter are becoming hugely influential forms of communication for more and more Russians.
For many, like Natalia Rostova, media correspondent for online news site Slon.ru, the increase in internet penetration will act as a balance to the perceived bias of the traditional media. “The television news is always positive about Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev”, she says.”It says that ‘today Putin met an important person and had important discussions’, and that’s it.”
On the rare occasions that television news attacks a Russian politician, it appears to be under the orders of the Kremlin. An example of this was the treatment of former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. “Newspapers had written for many years about Mr. Luzhkov and the political patronage that his wife’s construction company enjoyed in Moscow,” says Ms. Rostova. “National television news never mentioned any of that, until Mr. Luzhkov fell out with president Medvedev. Then, overnight, the television news was full of attacks on Mr. Luzhkov.”
The state is less present in the print media, where quality print newspapers like Kommersant, Vedomosti,Moskovskie Novosti and Novaya Gazeta are not afraid to hold government structures to account. However, the total readership of these papers only amounts to around 5 million people, or 3% of Russia’s population. Furthermore, many papers are owned by Russian oligarchs, whose fortunes ultimately depend on the good favor of the state.
Despite the rise in the use of the internet by ordinary Russians, the state’s control of the main television channels continues to affect all aspects of Russia’s cultural life, from pop music to cinema. Artemy Troitsky, Russia’s leading rock critic, says: “Russian pop stars are economically dependent on the government, because it controls the biggest television stations. Many pop stars are therefore willing to appear in television appearances with Putin, or take part in electoral campaigns.”
Occasionally a pop star criticizes the government, as Yuri Shevchuk, Russia’s most famous rock star, did in a televised meeting with Mr. Putin in 2010. Mr. Putin looked furious, and asked Mr. Shevchuk: “Who are you?” “It would be like the American president asking Bob Dylan who he was”, says Mr. Troitsky. State television did not show Mr. Shevchuk’s criticisms, only Mr. Putin’s answers, and he has not appeared on state-controlled television since.
However, the state’s tight grip on traditional forms of media is being undermined by the increasing number of Russians who get their news from the internet, either from news sites like Gazeta.ru or Slon.ru, or from social networking sites like LiveJournal and from the blogosphere. According to Russian polling firm the Levada Center, the percentage of Russians who get political news from the internet rose from 13% in 2007 to 31% in 2011.
Some political bloggers, like lawyer and shareholder activist Alexei Navalny, enjoy bigger readerships than national newspapers, and use the internet to share documents and video footage that highlight officials’ corruption and abuse of power in Russia. Mr. Navalny has become famous for dubbing the ruling party, United Russia, a party of “thieves and swindlers”.
“It’s much harder to manage public opinion because of the internet,” says Mr. Troitsky. “The internet’s growing popularity is a huge hole in the wall of state control.”
For example, one grass roots opposition movement, the Blue Buckets, uses the internet to post video footage of Russian politicians’ chauffeur-driven cars, which cause long traffic jams by demanding clear lanes for their own private use. The Kremlin’s press spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, declined to be interviewed for this piece.December 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm | More on Global system | 1 Comment
I was dismayed to read the Telegraph’s account of the Foreign Office’s forward planning for the collapse of the eurozone. Apparently, ministers are telling embassies to expect riots on the continent, and a flood of British citizens heading home for Blighty, in tubs and dinghies and pedalos. There was cheeriness from the FT’s Wolfgang Munchau as well, who wrote on Monday, in an upbeat piece called ‘The Eurozone only has days to avoid a collapse’:
If the European summit could reach a deal on December 9, its next scheduled meeting, the eurozone will survive. If not, it risks a violent collapse. Even then, there is still a risk of a long recession, possibly a depression.
The Guardian’s political blog tells me the Treasury is already ‘hard at work’ on a contingency plan:
They are losing sleep over fears of a run on the banks in Italy and some of the other troubled eurozone members. This is what one Treasury source told me: “The five to midnight scenario will be a run on the banks in Greece, Italy and Portugal. Spain is fine. There is already a drawdown from banks. But we haven’t got to a run on the banks yet.” [Why is this official so confident that 'Spain is fine'?]
So what will happen if the unthinkable occurs and the eurozone does collapse? I’d like YOU, the well-informed Global Dashboard community, to tell me, so I can prepare in my London bunker.
Here are my rash predictions:
1) The further rise of far-right nationalist political parties and xenophobia towards immigrants. You’re already seeing this happen in Greece.
2) The Russian government exploits the power vacuum. I’m not saying Russian tanks will be rolling down the Champs Elysees anytime soon. But one of the main ‘points’ of Europe, it seemed to me, was to act as a collective bargaining bloc with Russia, and as a collective buffer against Russia’s imperialist ambitions. What happens when that buffer disintegrates? Keep an eye on the EU’s eastern border next year, particularly Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.
Any other predictions?November 28, 2011 at 10:39 am | More on Europe and Central Asia | 3 Comments
Yesterday, I went to the British Academy to hear Richard Easterlin, the father of happiness economics, present his latest thinking, together with Andrew Oswald of Warwick University. Sir Gus O’Donnell, head of the civil service, was also there – and made an interesting interjection.
Easterlin asked the provocative question: does higher income raise happiness in poorer countries? His answer was ‘no, as far as the evidence goes’. He showed graph after graph of transition economies where the income has been rising sharply over the last decade, while the happiness levels remained flat. He focused on China, a country “where the rate of economic growth has been completely unprecedented, at almost 10% a year for the last decade. If any country would show an improvement in happiness, it would be China.” But it doesn’t. Another flat line. The only countries which showed noticeable drops and rises in happiness levels, as far as I could tell, where post-Communist countries, whose happiness levels showed a clear (and understandable) drop after the collapse of communism, and then a steady rise after that, only to flatten out again.
This famous flattening of average happiness levels despite rises in income has been called the Easterlin Paradox, and is perhaps the single most influential graph for happiness economics. It is used, over and over again, as evidence that governments should not be focusing on raising income, but instead on raising happiness.
I asked Easterlin: do any policies have any clear impact on national happiness levels? Perhaps the happiness flatlines we see in country after country is evidence not that we’re pursuing the wrong policies, but simply that our daily happiness levels are not very sensitive to major policy changes. Think about all the different political, economic and cultural changes over the last 50 years in the UK, and yet our happiness levels remain flat. Why is that? I suggest it’s because the measurement technique – asking people to rate their happiness between one and ten – simply isn’t good enough to pick up changes in quality of life over time. We adapt to our situation, and except in moments of extreme crisis, we always say ‘oh, about a seven’.
What do happiness economists expect? Do they think that, if governments pursue the right policies, the public will go from a seven, to an eight, until eventually, after say 30 years, we will all be shouting ‘Ten!’ before ascending in rapture unto heaven? Of course, given such a bounded numerical scale, people are going to say ‘about a seven’, even if their lives have actually got better or worse over time. We forget the bad times, and we also forget the good times. Our daily well-being is probably protected by our forgetfulness and our ability to adapt.
Happiness economists try to get around this by using country comparisons. ‘Look’, said both Oswald and Easterlin, ‘how Scandinavian countries are typically happier than Anglo-Saxon countries. This is because they spend more on health, education and unemployment benefits. If we did the same, we’d be happier.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what they both argued. Now I’m personally all for higher education and health spending. But that sort of cross-country comparison completely ignores cultural differences.
To be convinced, I’d like to see examples within a particular country where particular policies have led to a clear rise or fall in national happiness levels. Do such examples exist, I asked. “Yes”, Easterlin replied. “There are clear links between employment and happiness levels in countries. Unemployment in the US has dropped markedly in the last three years, and happiness levels in 2010 were at their lowest for many years.”
At that point, the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was listening attentively in the audience, joined the debate. He said: “One of the things we’re trying to figure out is the adaptation effects. There’s a new paper out by Angus Deaton, which looks at the effect of the recession of US happiness levels, and it shows that happiness levels are already back to their pre-crisis levels, despite unemployment still being much higher than it was. There’s even evidence that people adapt quite quickly to traumas like losing an arm. So what does that mean for public policy?”
It’s worth having a look at the paper O’Donnell mentioned (it’s also written up in the new issue of The Economist) because it is quite damning for happiness economics. It finds, for example, that subjective well-being measurements seem only very slightly correlated with the doubling of unemployment in the US, while there are clear spikes on Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Deaton notes that subjective well-being levels seem to be very correlated with stock market levels, and that perhaps they are driven by the same short-term sentiment factors, like headlines, holidays or the weather, rather than serious policy changes.
He writes: “While it is conceivable that, as is sometimes argued for the stock market, the SWB measures are giving an accurate take on expected future well-being, it seems more plausible that, like the stock market, they have actually very little to do with well-being. As McFadden suggests in comments on this paper, we may be looking at “cognitive bubbles” that are essentially irrelevant for any concept of well-being that we care about…[SWB measurements] still have a long way to go in establishing themselves as good time-series monitors for the aggregate economy. In a world of bread and circuses, measures like happiness that are sensitive to short-term ephemera, and that are affected more by the arrival of St Valentine’s Day than to a doubling of unemployment, are measures that pick up the circuses but miss the bread.”
Strong words – and interesting that O’Donnell should have picked up on them. It shows, I would suggest, the Civil Service’s own queries about the mission they have been set by the Coalition Government – but it also shows how seriously O’Donnell is taking this mission, and his own interest in it. I would suggest that empirical studies of what factors lead to flourishing can and should influence policies. I’m just not convinced by broader arguments based on national happiness levels. The measuring instrument is simply too blunt to be of any real use to policy makers.October 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm | More on Cooperation and coherence, Global system, Influence and networks | 2 Comments
Martha Nussbaum has another book out. Does she never sleep? This one is called Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, and looks at the necessity of moving beyond GDP by measuring a broader range of human ‘capabilities’, such as education, health etc. Professor Nussbaum developed the ‘capabilities approach’ together with the Cambridge economist Amartya Sen, who then went on to advise the French government on its launch of national well-being measurements in 2009. But, unlike her former colleague, Nussbaum seems determinedly sceptical about the value or point of national measurements of subjective well-being. She says, in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast:
It’s all a question of what you think happiness is. And this is a question that philosophers have asked for centuries. And the minute that Jeremy Bentham said that we should look at happiness in terms of pleasure and satisfaction, John Stuart Mill immediately said, “Now wait a minute, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” And so he then insisted that we had to think about happiness as containing many different kids of experiences, many different kinds of activity. And well, Mill wasn’t the first to say that. He was really getting all of that from Aristotle. So I’m with Mill, and I think that the Benthamite approach, where we just think of happiness as a single feeling, has got very little going for it. If you just think about a daily experience, the pleasure I get from writing is very different from the pleasure that I get from going out and buying a very nice dress. They’re just very different things. And the pleasure that somebody might get from bringing up a child is different again. So I think that’s not a good idea. And I think we should have a much more Millian rather than Benthamite conception of happiness.
Very well, I agree so far. Others – like Charles Seaford of the New Economics Foundation, have noted this contemporary clash in well-being policy between Benthamite and Aristotelian definitions of well-being. The question for Nussbaum is, does she think this more Aristotelian definition of well-being can be measured in individuals or nations using social science? If you look at the list of capabilities Nussbaum came up with, it includes some rather intangible things like ‘play’, ‘practical reason’, ‘senses / imagination’, ‘emotional attachment’, ‘control over one’s environment’. When I say they’re intangible, I’m not denying they exist. But does Nussbaum think these capabilities can be measured for an individual, or for a society? Or does she think this more Aristotelian idea of human flourishing simply isn’t readily measurable using social statistics?
A second interesting area to think about in Nussbaum’s thinking is the relationship between capabilities and virtues. Does Nussbaum believe that politics can or should promote a particular conception of the good life? This is a key question, because Nussbaum is trying to find a balance between the ancient Greek idea of the good life, and the liberalism and pluralism of John Rawls, JS Mill, and other liberal theorists.
Aristotle’s concept of the good life, or eudaimonia, is grounded in a functionalist account of human nature. Humans, Aristotle argues, have a unique nature. It is rational, ethical, political and religious. Eudaimonia (human flourishing) is the fulfillment of this uniquely human nature, in virtuous activity, in political engagement, in the contemplation of God. Politics should promote well-being or eudaimonia in the people. So it should educate the people and instil habits of virtue in them both through state education, and through creating spaces and institutions in which they can practice the virtues – for example, the university, parliament, perhaps even monasteries. So what Aristotle gives us is a state-backed model of the good life. This particularly inspired Karl Marx, who intended to be a lecturer on Aristotle, and who also came up with a state-backed model of the good life. The Marxist project obviously went a bit wrong. And it should alert us to the dangers inherent in Aristotle’s political philosophy – it is illiberal, anti-pluralist, mono-culturalist, and potentially an excuse for a intrusive and coercive government to meddle in our minds (for our own well-being, of course).
So what is Nussbaum’s solution? She suggests governments should protect human capabilities, rather than impose a particular model of the good life. Her capabilities are not virtues, she insists. They are the basic opportunities which each human deserves to have. They create the space for the pursuit of our different conceptions of the good life. For example, if we’re a Stoic, Muslim or Buddhist, our conception of the good life might involve some ascetic practices, such as fasting, designed to develop our agency and moral freedom. We might choose to follow such practices. But this doesn’t give the state the right to impose these practices on the people, through a Ramadan-style official month of fasting, for example. On the contrary, the state should protect humans’ access to basic nourishment. If they choose to go without food some days for moral purposes, that is their choice.
Another example: if we’re Stoic or Buddhist we must strive to free ourselves from emotional attachments in order to attain tranquility and freedom from desire. But the state should not strive to free us from our emotional attachments through some enforced Platonic or Stoic regime (for example, by taking children away from their parents at the age of five as Plato suggested). On the contrary, Nussbaum argues the state should protect our basic right to form emotional attachments. If we choose, then, to work to free ourselves from these attachments, that’s our choice.
Another example: our conception of the good life might include God. But that doesn’t mean the state should back one particular conception of God’s existence (or absence). But it should protect our opportunity to follow our particular religion, if we want to. So really the state should not be in the business of telling us how to live our lives, but should merely protect our opportunities to follow our own good.
But there remains the question of state education. Nussbaum follows Aristotle in believing the state should play a bigger role in providing education both to young people and to adults, to develop their capacities, such as their capacity for practical reason, imagination, debate, citizenship and so on. She also, however, criticizes the notion of some forms of art being ‘higher’ than others. So she’s quite wary of the state subsidizing opera, for example – such elitism goes against her liberal, Rawlsian, pluralist instincts. She herself was brought up in aristocratic family, and she has self-consciously rebelled against that elitism ever since – this is why she hated Allan Bloom’s very elitist book on higher education, The Closing of the American Mind.
Still, I wonder if there’s a contradiction here. Doesn’t her Aristotelian and Millian rejection of the utilitarian definition of happiness commit her, as it committed Mill, to the idea that some forms of happiness and beauty are simply higher and better than others, and that it is the job of education to guide us, to some extent, towards these higher conceptions of happiness, justice and beauty?
Nussbaum’s own work – such as The Therapy of Desire, Cultivating Humanity, and Upheavals of Thought – put forward a Greek conception of education, arguing that through philosophical education we can move from lower conceptions of the good (based, for example, on money, status, power, tribe etc) to higher conceptions of the good (for example, the good of the whole of humanity rather than our particular tribe).
But doesn’t that mean the state should teach people some conception of the good? Particularly with the education of young people – surely the state has to teach children some conception of the good life? With adults, ie people over 16, obviously there should be more room for debate, disagreement and critical reasoning. But still, isn’t the whole idea of higher education that it involves, in some sense, an education of our emotions, and a guiding of them to higher conceptions of the good and the beautiful?
I think it’s possible to negotiate our way round this problem. What Nussbaum does in her books, and what I’ve tried to do in the book I’m writing at the moment, is show how Greek philosophy offers not one but several models of the good life. These models share some basic Socratic conceptions of human nature, but take it in different directions – Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic, Cynic and so on – with different conceptions of the emotions, of politics, of God and so on. So perhaps we could teach young people these various different models of the good life, these different approaches, without trying to usher them down one particular path? That, it seems to me, would be one compromise between an Aristotelian idea of the good life and a Millian defence of individual choice.
I remain, like Nussbaum, wary of the idea of national well-being measurements, and sceptical of the ability of social science to numerically quantify the goodness of a life. It is much easier to measure well-being in a Benthamite or hedonic sense than in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense. So when people like Richard Layard enthuse about national well-being measurements, what they are really saying is that our government should embrace a specifically utilitarian conception of well-being and then use it to guide public policy. Approached with this level of naivité, General Well-Being could be as distorting a measurement as Gross Domestic Product.
Too many economists, in their enthusiasm to get with the well-being programme, are rushing to promote national well-being measurements. For example, Jeffrey Sachs, in his new book The Price of Civilization, seems to make the same mistake as so many other happiness economists, of trying to marry Aristotle and Bentham’s conceptions of well-being. He claims that the solution to the international financial crisis is a return to “personal and civic virtue”, and he holds up Aristotle as the lodestar for this revival of virtue. Well and good. But then he also says the solution is ‘the measurement of Americans’ well-being’. Does Sachs really think that simplistic questionnaires can measure well-being in an Aristotelian sense? Does he think you can find out how good a person’s life is, simply by asking them how happy they are, or how satisfied with their life they are?
Aristotle thought we could only really know how good a person’s life was when they were dead, and we could consider their life as a whole in all its dimensions and consequences. He also said: ‘It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the subject matter admits’. That is why he is a far greater philosopher than Bentham – because he realizes the complexity of the subject of well-being, and to what extent we should look for precision in our analysis of it. Bentham, by contrast, clearly exhibited ‘the empiricism of one who has not experienced very much’, as JS Mill put it, which is a wonderful description of many modern ‘happiness experts’.September 26, 2011 at 9:49 am | More on Economics and development, Influence and networks | 11 Comments
Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).