Working, in “The Happiness Formula”

Today’s New York Times contains another meditation on the intersection of public policy, economics, and happiness, this time by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. There are, of course, many ways to run with this topic, and many responses to the policies Brooks believes his view entails (most of which are not mentioned in today’s op-ed). But Brooks’ piece today focuses on the moral and psychological benefits of work. After perplexingly breezing through some social science statistics that seem to undermine his project (evidently, only 12% of our own happiness is under our control), Brooks writes that faith, family, community, and work are central to our happiness. The remainder of the essay is focused on work, and namely that “the secret to happiness through work is earned success.” He closes with some policy notes:

Free enterprise does not mean shredding the social safety net, but championing policies that truly help vulnerable people and build an economy that can sustain these commitments. It doesn’t mean reflexively cheering big business, but leveling the playing field so competition trumps cronyism. It doesn’t entail “anything goes” libertinism, but self-government and self-control. And it certainly doesn’t imply that unfettered greed is laudable or even acceptable.

Free enterprise gives the most people the best shot at earning their success and finding enduring happiness in their work. It creates more paths than any other system to use one’s abilities in creative and meaningful ways, from entrepreneurship to teaching to ministry to playing the French horn. This is hardly mere materialism, and it is much more than an economic alternative. Free enterprise is a moral imperative.

It’s an interesting piece to see what looks like at least some aisle-crossing by the President of a conservative think tank to the readership of a newspaper often regarded as liberal. That context does, though, make it seem like Brooks is cherry-picking his policy recommendations in order to make this approach more palatable. Regardless, I thought I’d note two basic problems I had with the piece. First, Brooks identifies four values as the building blocks of the happiness that is within our control—faith, family, community, and work. He then defends free enterprise as the best way to achieve happiness through work for most people. But what of the effects of free enterprise on faith, family, and community?

Second, there’s this assertion in that last paragraph—the idea that free enterprise “creates more paths than any other system to use one’s abilities in creative and meaningful ways.” I’m not so sure. It certainly seems like the general laissez-faire attitude allows for the proliferation of more occupations and walks of life than, say, a command economy. But is there a reason to think that the market won’t under-provide “creative paths”?

It would be very hopeful to believe in a one-to-one correspondence between the abilities demanded by the market and the abilities that individuals find they can “creatively and meaningfully” exercise. What’s more likely is that a certain amount of the demand for labor that exists in the market is a demand for labor that does not feel particularly creative or meaningful. There is, of course, something to be said for labor deriving meaning not from the activities that work itself entails, but rather from the more general feelings of being a productive member of society, supporting a family, etc. But Brooks appears to be actively avoiding that stance with his examples—minister, teacher, French horn player. And it’s not much of a stretch to think that some public subsidy of arts and education, for instance, generates more teachers and French horn players than the market alone.

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Bill de Blasio as a Snapshot of Contemporary Liberal Politics

John Cassidy of The New Yorker has a brief comment on Bill de Blasio, the presumptive next mayor of NYC. Cassidy sees in de Blasio potential signs of a new political orientation for liberals:

Since the days of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats, it has been a totem of faith in some liberal-progressive circles that the key to lifting up the lower ranks lies in downplaying social and economic conflicts, cozying up to business interests, and tackling inequality covertly, through largely invisible subsidies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. De Blasio, in pledging to raise taxes on the rich to finance his education programs, has challenged this formula, and turned himself into the standard-bearer for what some see as a new era of urban populism.

Although Cassidy doesn’t describe it this way, this potential “new era” also takes place in the midst of the kind of problems that would-be liberal leaders are increasingly facing throughout the country:

New York still faces significant challenges, particularly with regard to the rising costs of employee benefits and debt interest. The city now spends almost as much on providing pensions and health-care insurance for its own workers as it does on providing food stamps, medical care, and other social services. It spends almost as much on servicing its debt as it does on the Police and Sanitation Departments combined.

(That’s the police force that is not the seventh-largest army in the world)

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China’s Criminal Defense Lawyers

When I was in Nanjing I spent some time at the Nanjing Labor Law Legal Aid Center, one of China’s too-uncommon places for low-income legal help. They were pushing back against bad and illegal labor practices, a difficult task in China’s legal system in particular. Over at The Atlantic, Thomas Stevenson details hazards (some similar, some less so) faced by another group of public interest lawyers in China—criminal defense attorneys:

For several months, on Skype, I helped him unpack and understand the capital punishment literature and experiences of other abolitionist organizations in Asia. On a few occasions he has interrupted our sessions, apologetically, to answer the door. While the video call continues, the camera aimed at the white-washed wall of his apartment, I can make out his painfully polite conversation with the policeman off-screen: “No, I won’t stay in Beijing throughout the Party Congress. Don’t worry. I will leave tomorrow for my hometown. I’m sorry, I can’t talk now. I have an English lesson. My teacher is waiting. I’m sorry.” Mr. Liang tells me the police “invite” him for coffee every couple of weeks to inquire about his movements. …

Unlike Liang Xiaojun, Mr. Gao was never shy about his political opinions. While the two were colleagues, Mr. Gao excoriated the government in one open letter after another, published a memoir detailing his weeks of detention and torture, and urged the EU and U.S. to boycott the Beijing Olympics. His free speech spree ended as they typically do in China — with imprisonment and more torture. Because of his ties to Mr. Gao, the Bureau of Justice forbade Mr. Wen from taking any more “special cases.” However, when Mr. Wen began his search for a new law firm, rejection after surprise rejection drove home the truth of the matter: the Bureau had blacklisted him for good measure. After a period of being unaffiliated, Mr. Wen was stripped of his license, as per Chinese law.

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“Liberal puritanism,” child-rearing edition

Mark Oppenheimer writes of the similarities between an Oregon decision rejecting water fluoridation and a scary birthday party he found himself at:

One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. …

Like any moral panic, nobody was immune to its contagion. Soon, I was fretting—but for different reasons. For all I knew, some of these kids weren’t immunized, and they were fed only unpasteurized milk. The other parents were worried about germs and microbes and genetically modified apricots—I was worried about the parents.

His diagnosis:

The Puritan parents I encounter are nearly all liberals, and they represent the persistence of two unfortunate tendencies liberals have inherited from the Puritans, queered along the way by Progressive-era reformers. The first is the fun-smothering tendency of Progressive-era moral uplift, the tendency that brought us Prohibition and the first laws proscribing opiates and narcotics. (Today, we try to ban large cups of soda.) The second is an interest in hygiene that could be quite salutary—as when reformers pushed clean water and other public-health measures—but could also fetishize symbolic, pernicious forms of sanitation and purity, as in Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics.

And prescription:

I am only suggesting that we resist thinking of Puritanism as the only, or optimal, parenting style for liberals, for two reasons. First, thinking that Puritanism—whether a preference for organic foods or natural fibers or home-birthing—is somehow constitutive of a liberal politics is rather insulting to liberalism. Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.

But more important, realizing that Puritanism does not equal liberalism liberates us to think of another way to be liberal: by rejecting the kind of stress that comes from Puritanism. They say hygienic reform; I say the 30-hour work week and not stressing if my children eat Kix. Liberalism, as the political philosopher Corey Robin has recently argued, should be above all about freedom. The best reasons to want a labor union, or universal health care, or Social Security are to be free of worry, want, and privation, and to be out from under the hand of the boss.

It’s a bit sweeping, and in general I’m skeptical of “limited brain space” arguments like the above—it’s easy to mention something we should be working more on as a society, and then any cultural practice you don’t like can be cast as excessive. But I share the frustration with niggling over everything edible.

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Budget austerity and its (lack of) effects on (Irish) health

The British Medical Journal has an article up detailing the effects of Ireland’s post-2008 budget austerity program on the nation’s health, including its mental health. It doesn’t look like there’s been much of a negative effect:

Ireland is – after Greece – the country where the post 2008 structural adjustment programme, aka austerity, has been proportionately most severe. Yet there are few indications that this has had a significant adverse effect on basis health indicators.

The crude death rate in 2012 was 6.3 per 1,000 compared with 6.4 in pre-austerity 2007. The suicide rate in 2012 was 12.8 per 100, 000 in 2012 compared with 13.2 in 2007. Admission rates for depressive disorders fell to 117 per 100, 000 in 2012 from 138 in 2007. The percentage distribution of self-assessed health status did not change between 2007 and 2010 (the latest available year).

Overall there is a striking lack of evidence that the major austerity programme implementd since 2007, and the concomitant trebling of the inemployment rate, has had a significant deleterious effect on the health of the Irish population. This evidence needs to be given due weight in international assessments of the impact of economic policies on public health.

It’s nice to see an analysis of non-economic effects of a major macroeconomic policy, especially one with similarities to the goings-on in many other developed countries. Much of the reporting and analysis on austerity discusses impacts in terms of GDP and unemployment. Those data are obviously important, and reflect aspects of a nation’s well-being, but are more attenuated than, e.g., health.

(h/t Marginal Revolution)

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Words on Foodies

From L.V. Anderson’s review of Alison Pearlman’s Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America:

Pearlman notes that food-focused publications have increasingly covered issues related to environmentalism, labor, and politics over the last decade—but only “as problems to be solved not by collective political action but by individual shopping choices—in other words, consumption.” If consumption is virtuous, only those with the economic means to consume discriminately can have virtue. Which is how restaurant menus became infected with the elite farm brand-names and modernist amuse-bouches that proclaim how much less accessible they are than the food of the masses. The less accessible, the better.

It’s a point that doesn’t get articulated well enough, often enough, although I’m not sure I’d endorse the review as a whole.

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Teaching Democracy in Beijing

Over at The American Prospect, I have a piece up based on the research I did while studying political liberalism in China (courtesy of a fellowship from the U.S. Fulbright program). As part of my research, I interviewed liberal scholars, teachers, and writers in various cities around China, learning a lot about the intellectual landscape of Chinese liberalism. I also saw how, despite the constraints placed on public debate in China, these thinkers manage to have earnest political conversations with each other, students, and readers in print and online:

For Liu Yu, serious discussion of fundamental political principles is key to China’s future. “In a way, China now is like the 18th century of America or Europe,” she says. “You’re at a crossroads, you’re in a place of encountering all different possibilities.” She worries that the Internet, often considered the home of Chinese liberal dissent, is more conducive to rumors and polarizing disagreement than real debate. In China’s academic circles, discussions abound over how China’s political institutions could improve. The ideas on the chalkboard range from complete laissez-faire capitalism to new forms of communism, including institutions inspired by traditional Chinese thinkers like Confucius or Mencius that don’t easily fall into Western political categories of left- or right-wing.

Liu Yu is one of two professors featured in the article; I’m currently working on publishing more of the interviews other material I have from my research, and will be sure to post here as I do.


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The International Standing of Western Liberals

Lilia Shevtsova has an essay in The American Interest arguing that American liberals, and Western liberals in general, are no longer a model for liberal reformers around the world:

The way liberal democracies are currently trying to revitalize themselves raises some concerns and doubts. There are two “cures” under discussion within the Western community. First, the West has to find ways to deal with entrenched interests and their own plutocracies while at the same time rewriting social contracts to make the welfare state economically effective again. Second, liberal democracies have to figure out how far they want their power to extend in the outside world: whether they should limit its reach in order to tackle domestic problems (as per Obama’s popular “time to focus on nation building here at home” rhetoric), or expand it….Whereas the thinking of the 1970s emphasized a normative dimension and the interdependence of domestic and foreign policy, Western policymakers today are mainly trying to update internal politics—brushing aside interdependence with the international environment—and debating how to maintain the geopolitical and societal status quo.

There’s a high ratio of sweeping diagnoses to concrete examples, but it’s an interesting read. Shevtsova is focused mainly on Russia, but this passage in particular reminded me of many parallels to discussions I had with Chinese liberals:

Hopes of a leader-reformer taking over the Kremlin and reforming Russia are dominant in Western media and literature. Even the most astute Western observers believe that Russia can be modernized from the top down. Are they aware that they are only repeating (subconsciously, I hope) Kremlin’s mantras? …There is another premise that may explain the revival of Western Realpolitik: the belief that the West is a unique civilization that emerged as a result of specific historical circumstances, and that liberal democracy can’t be replicated by other civilizations. … What are the reasons behind this determinism? A lack of understanding and awareness of what is happening outside of the Western world? An attempt to make reality fit an artificial paradigm? Frustration with the neocon era? I can tell you how it looks from the outside. It looks, first and foremost, like doubt that liberal democracy could appeal to the non-democratic world, and secondly, like a condescending attitude toward nations supposedly unable to accept liberal democratic principles.

In China, “specific historical circumstances” is a mainstay of the Communist Party’s ideological defense against Western pressure for democratic and rule-of-law reforms. What was interesting to me was the realization that while Western liberals emphasize pluralism, and so can be sympathetic to the argument that we should “let countries pick their own path,” the experience of many Chinese thinkers is that such an argument is inherently illiberal. Most of the Chinese thinkers I talked with argued that you could apply universalized ideas like rights and democracy while still respecting the Chinese context; they also pointed out that the Communist Party is itself at least nominally based on a system of thought imported from the West.

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Richard Posner vs. Leisure Time

Richard Posner has a review at the New York Times responding to How Much is Enough?, a book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky that makes the argument that society would be better off if we used our wealth to dramatically cut work hours and increase leisure time:

The Skidelskys have an exalted conception of leisure. They say that the true sense of the word is “activity without extrinsic end”: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.” That isn’t true….

But here is the oddest thing about the book: There is virtually no discussion of how people, their incomes halved, might be expected to employ the vastly greater leisure that the authors want them to have. Besides the sentence I quoted about the musician, sculptor, teacher and scientist — and the description is of their work, not of their leisure activities — there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly,” and a list of three recreations — “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” — offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow.”

Posner himself offers some feeble arguments (“Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week”), but in general it’s a pretty good takedown. I’m sympathetic to arguments that cultural or economic factors pull a bit hard in the “work” direction over other activities whose value is less monetizable; but the Skidelskys show some of the hazards in being on my side of the fence. I find it plausible to focus on the tight constraints people face in choosing working and lifestyle arrangements that suit their preferences; the Skidelskys argument is at best underdeveloped, but implies that people’s preferences and values are themselves incorrect. As Posner says, they’re right to say that we could have incomes equivalent to those of the 1920s by working fewer hours; most of us just want more.

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Fed Chairman Just Wants Us To Be Happy

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is the latest to jump on the Gross National Happiness bandwagon:

The ultimate purpose of economics, of course, is to understand and promote the enhancement of well-being.  Economic measurement accordingly must encompass measures of well-being and its determinants…Interestingly, income and wealth do contribute to self-reported happiness, but the relationship is more complex and context-dependent than standard utility theory would suggest. Other important contributors to individuals’ life satisfaction are a strong sense of support from belonging to a family or core group and a broader community, a sense of control over one’s life, a feeling of confidence or optimism about the future, and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Bernanke points to all the usual culprits: Bhutan, the OECD Better Life Index, behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman. He’s previously advocated for more attention to well-being per se (as opposed to economic indicators) in a commencement speech a couple years ago; it’s nice to hear a high-placed U.S. official make happiness a theme, as its gotten increasing attention from foreign governments but has mostly been consigned to academia here.

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