Bhutan’s well-being measurements (or ‘how Buddhist are you?’)

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. (more…)

Why are national happiness levels always so flat?

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?” (more…)

Can you measure eudaimonia?

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?

Whitehall’s new philosophy of well-being

Global Dashboard had its summer drinks party last night – thanks to Alex and David for hosting us, it was great fun. I particularly enjoyed talking to some of the civil servants who attended, as I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy and morality, and the question of whether it’s possible to have a ‘good society’ in a bureaucratic age. Can politics promote the good life, and if so, what is the role of the civil service in pursuit of that goal?

When the modern civil service was set up in the 19th century, via the reforms of Macaulay, Northcote and Trevelyan, it was modeled on the Chinese imperial civil service – this is why senior British civil servants are still called ‘mandarins’. The Chinese civil service was founded on Confucian philosophy, and part of that philosophy was the meritocratic idea that anyone could become a good person through the proper philosophical training: ‘By nature men are similar, by practice men are wide apart’, as Confucius put it.

So the Chinese civil service had an open exam entry system, which tested civil servants’ intelligence and aptitude in various subjects, including their knowledge of the Confucian philosophy. The imperial civil service played a central role in shaping the Confucian moral values of Chinese society. Civil servants were, in effect, the public intellectuals of Chinese society.

When it came to the British civil service, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, who set up the prototype of the modern civil service in the Raj, embraced the Chinese idea of the civil service as a meritocracy, but thought the civil service should embrace an empirical, scientific model of statecraft rather than also being guided by ancient ethical philosophy like Chinese mandarins. In an essay on Francis Bacon, he unfavourably compared the ancient Greek approach to the modern, English approach: “For Plato, the end of legislation is to make men virtuous”, he wrote, while for Bacon,  the end of legislation is “the well-being of the people”, by which Macaulay means making “imperfect men comfortable”, supplying their “vulgar wants”, improving their material circumstances.

Macaulay was deeply scornful of the way ancient philosophy focused entirely on creating inner virtue rather than trying to improve the material circumstances of society. He believed philosophy had failed in its project of creating character or virtue, while the new philosophy of science had, in a few centuries, invented such wonders as the steam-engine. He wrote: “The wise man of the Stoics would no doubt be a grander object than a steam-engine. But there are steam engines. And the wise man of the Stoics is yet to be born.”

So Macaulay thought that the aim of the civil service, and of politics in general, should be improving the well-being of the people by making life more comfortable, through science and technology. Modern statescraft should deal in facts, not airy-fairy ‘values’. And later reformers, such as Northcote and Trevelyan, agreed that the civil service should be both meritocratic in the Chinese model, and should also strive to be impartial, non-political, technocratic. This vision of the civil service abides: when Whitehall came to codify its values (this only happened last year) it enshrined the values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

But is there a contradiction here? If a civil service is impartial and non-political, does that also mean its amoral? If it is purely technocratic, then is it value-less? If a government wanted to go to war on a trumped-up cause, for example, would it be the job of the civil service to find the most efficient way of administering its masters’ will?

If the civil service aims, as Macaulay says it should, at the ‘well-being of the people’, does that not imply some moral vision of the good, or can one have a purely scientific and non-moral definition of well-being and human flourishing? (more…)

A technocratic solution to a spiritual question

There is a danger that we have become not just trapped in the ‘prison of GDP’, but trapped in the prison of statistics. We have become trapped in the idea that something can only be a serious goal if we can quantify it, measure it, and track our progress towards it on a neat Power Point graph. And we want to use this approach to find well-being. We want a technocratic solution to a spiritual question. (more…)