Sunday, January 29, 2012

On my way to happine-he-hess, yuha, yuhe-he-he

The problem:
Politics is shifting from economic growth to gross happiness. But what policies do our politicians need to pursue to help us become happier creatures?
Contrary to economic growth we are still struggling to measure happiness objectively. Researchers, countries and companies have invested their efforts in defining measurable proxies for happiness. This means: what questions can I ask someone to get a true measure of that persons happiness. The questions range from "Do you have unbearably noisy neighbours" to "Have you recently helped a stranger"Despite countless research projects, no agreement has been reached on what the perfect question is. There are three basic approaches: subjective well-being, capabilities and fair allocations

Capabilities and Allocations are linked to aspirations and entitlements. These are indicators related to wealth rather than happiness. Letting go of the notion that happiness is linked to wealth is challenging. "The relationship between money and happiness is very tenuous; the relationship between personal bonds and happiness is incredibly strong," says David Brooks "So joining a club that meets once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. It's all about the number of people you associate with and how intimately you associate with them." We probably insist on this false connection between wealth and happiness because our political economy is built on it and our media use every opportunity to repeat this mantra.
To help us choose the best approach, let us call on the happiest man in the world: Matthieu Ricard's definition of happiness is: “well-being, a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys and sorrows that come one’s way.” This leaves no doubt that only the approach of "subjective well-being" can guide our policy decisions. Ricard also says: "You cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or to harm that person. Those are mutually incompatible like hot and cold water." 
So when we want to have a good indication of whether a person is happy we should ask the following two questions: Do you have good thoughts and feelings? Do you have bad thoughts and feelings? 
How does this help us understand what policies our governments should push for? Let's look at the solution below.

The Solution:
If happiness is a subjective, we can only reach it through trial and error. But we do not need to start from scratch. We can look at those countries that are doing well and try to copy what they do. 

Now here the questions to ask matter because Gallup is asking all kinds of well-being questions and depending on the question different exemplary countries will emerge. Unfortunately, figures for Bhutan, the only country in the world pursuing gross national happiness, are not available. 

Using a mixture of wealth, aspiration and entitlement, the following countries come out on top: (The exact order will depend on how the Gallup questions and indicators are combined but the same group of countries is regularly in the top ten.)
New Zealand
Costa Rica

But when we move away from the wealth and aspiration indicators and focus on subjective well-being only, the leading countries change. One of Gallup's indicators, the positive experience index, combines some interesting subjective happiness questions: 
  1. Did you feel well-rested yesterday?
  2. Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
  3. Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
  4. Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?
  5. Did you experience enjoyment?
The countries that end up on top are suddenly markedly different:
Venezuela  86
Paraguay 84
Panama 84
Kuwait 84
Costa Rica 83
Thailand 82
Iceland 82
Guatemala 82
Colombia 82
El Salvador 81
Philippines 81
Ecuador 80
Canada 80
Malaysia 80

The richest countries have disappeared from the top of the list! (Iceland and Canada are the exceptions) The richest countries have similar scores to China and many countries in Africa. Have these richest countries lost a quality of life that contributes considerably to our subjective well-being? What is the common factor between these countries that score so well on the subjective well-being?

Thai Smiles

Following Matthieu Ricard, we should combine this list with the lowest level of negative experiences. Gallup has that index as well. The questions are:
  1. Did you experience physical pain?
  2. Did you experience worry?
  3. Did you experience sadness?
  4. Did you experience stress?
  5. Did you experience depression?
  6. Did you experience anger?

The countries that end up on top are:
Rwanda 13
Thailand 13
Kyrgyzstan 13
Turkmenistan 13
South Africa 14
Kazakhstan 14
Mongolia 14
Uzbekistan 14
Kosovo 15
Malawi 15
Venezuela 15

Again, the richest countries are absent. They suffer from negative experiences. Does wealth come with unnecessary worry? Some countries were negative experiences are rare have gone through traumatic experiences in their recent past. Are the richest nations suffering the small stuff because they are taking security and basic needs for granted? 
Rwanda: Few Negative Experiences

Thailand and Venezuela are in both lists. What is the secret to having many positive and few negative experiences? Is it cause by circumstances or is it innate in the people? 

While the above are interesting questions that need to be answered, the big pink elephant in the middle of the room is: why is nobody looking at this? And if someone is out there looking into it, why is nobody reporting on it? One can only conclude that our systems (media, political and economic) are biased towards maintaining economic growth as the purpose of our governance model.    

The Transition:
We will never be able to transition from the pursuit of economic growth to the pursuit of happiness until we change our political system. As long as our economic elite controls the political system, there is no room for change. Therefore, it is urgent to abolish elections, the parliament, the government, and the administration

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's no longer the economy, stupid!

The Problem:
Before governance, the Hobbesian state of nature prevailed. There was war of all against all, there was fear, solitude and violent death. One beautiful morning, Mancur Olson's sedentary bandit passed by on his black horse and established security. A new paradigm was born: People don't mind that you steal half their income, if you protect them from worse bandits. Until the invisible hand of Adam Smith tapped the sedentary bandit on the shoulder and gestured that people want to have more: Markets can create surplus that allows people to buy their basic needs and when they earn a little more, they can buy themselves some fun. A tectonic shift in purpose of government takes place from providing security to stimulating economic growth. More money really seems to make people happy, up to a point. And that point has been established to be 75K USD. (Rather high if you ask me, but the conclusion remains the same.)

(Chart is from Philip Spagnoli)
More than 25% of all US citizens have already reached this Nirvana. The median US income is about 45K USD, the average income is much higher. Like the US, many countries are well on their way to reach the point where more income does not result in more happiness. Improving our governance system (democracy) to create even more wealth is pointless because it will not make us happier! (Caution: A better distribution of wealth can still make many people a lot happier.) So what should our governments be aiming for?

The Solution:
The answer is simple but I am not sure what it actually means. We have invented our expensive and intrusive government to serve us, so it should help us achieve what we want. Since we no longer only want to be rich, people list a whole array of goals when asked what they want. The demands no longer fits into a neat box like wealth or economic growth. So I am afraid that governments' purpose can only be defined as: Making everybody (beyond only citizens) as happy as possible. Future blog are needed to operationalize the vague concept of happiness into something practical. 

The Transition:
The United States Declaration of Independence states that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right, but little has been done to translate this right into daily practice. 
The only government that has translated its goal of happy people into policies and measurable indicators is Bhutan. (Details will be discussed in a future blog.) And Bhutan did not wait until they reached an income of 75K per person (They have about 5K per person PPP now)
There is certainly no shortage of research into happiness and indicators exist for most countries, they are just not being used. 
Yet! Things are changing. Japan has recently unveiled its happiness index and the UK, France, Australia and Canada are working  on their own version. 

The indices might be part of political jockeying for now but since the idea is partially driven by Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, there is enough momentum to expect something serious from these announcements.
And what gets measured gets done... though this is where the real challenge is because progress towards happiness will need a redefinition of our economic model against a well oiled corporate lobby. 

What else can we abolish?

The Problem:
Over the past few months, this blog has made suggestions to abolish the idea that we need a plan, proposed to abolish elections, to abolish parliament as a legislator and as a controller, to abolish a national budget and to abolish the public administration. So how can this blog continue? What else can we abolish?

The Solution:
In addition of redesigning our governance system, this blog would like to question the basis of its underlying economic structure. Economic growth as the unifying paradigm behind our governance system has lost its appeal. Not in Kennedy's interpretation of the rise and fall of great powers, not only because we have reached the earth's limits to cope, not even because Darwin is said to replace Smith as the most influential economist but because our societies have reached a level of income (and efficiency) that no longer adds to the quality of our lives. The next few blogs will discuss this issue in slightly more detail. 
The Transition:
Feedback seems to suggest that the governance model proposed in this blog is still not clear. Future blogs will provide a more graphic explanation of the model and will use real life examples to illustrate how the latest trends are already pointing towards this model. 
But questioning the basis of our economic order will have to come first. So just out of curiosity Mr. Stevens, let us confuse you a bit more.