Don't worry, be happy

by Rob Horning

5 August 2008


This forthcoming paper on inequality by economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson (summarized in the NYT by Eduardo Porter) is attracting much econoblogosphere attention because it argues, as Wolfers explains at Freakonomics, that happiness is becoming more equally distributed even as income is becoming less so. An excited Tyler Cowen suggests that these findings indicate why “moral arguments from the Left fall on deaf ears when it comes to most Americans.  Of course happiness inequality is more fundamental than either income or wealth inequality because we care about outputs, not inputs.” From this point of view, the Democrats should not futilely practice what the right likes to dub the “politics of envy” when it comes to the wealthiest 1% becoming much wealthier while income has stagnated in lower brackets. Regular Americans don’t begrudge the rich get richer, because they are just so happy themselves with what they have, in both material possessions and opportunities.

Likewise, Stevenson and Wolfers’s findings might give rhetorical ammunition to those who want to argue that income and happiness aren’t linked, and therefore growth policies shouldn’t be pursued aggressively at the expense of policies that prioritize other goals—namely, environmental protection, though any number of moral values may be cited as preferable to economic expansion, which is arguably a centrifugal force atomizing members of communities and leading to social disintegration.

But before one can give full credence to arguments developed from the paper’s findings, one has to sort of the methodological concerns about how happiness is measured—can it be defined in such a way that it measures the same thing for all people? What makes me happy certainly doesn’t make my neighbors happy; it doesn’t even make my parents or siblings happy. So what’s really being compared when the happiness of different social groups are set against one another? Also, are subjective reports about happiness relevant, policymaking-wise, given how adaptable people are and how volatile moods tend to be? And since happiness can often tend to be relative, a matter of looking at yourself in relation to acquaintances, it can vary depending on context.

In his post (and paper), Wolfers talks about the statistical distribution of those responding to this General Social Survey question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are: very happy; pretty happy; or not too happy?” But there’s a temptation to see in his charts a distribution of happiness, as though it were a resource in limited supply. Income, if you think of it as GDP, is a limited sum whose distribution is determined economically. Happiness is an emotion that can’t really be quantified, except as a span of time—it is really a ratio of hours spent in a positive mood over all waking hours. So I find it hard to understand what Wolfers means when he writes, “These changes yield some pretty striking changes in the distribution of happiness.” Isn’t this a matter of more people claiming to be happy in general? There hasn’t been any sort of redistribution, which the wording might imply to non-economists like me. And “happiness inequality” seems like a weird way to describe all this; it seems a coinage meant specifically to supplant or trivialize income inequality. “Equality” makes no sense as a description of the comparison of different people’s subjective, emotional states. It’s only being evoked here to distract us from or negate the impact of the unequal distribution of things that can actually be counted—money, well-paying jobs, vacation homes, etc.

It seems to me that measuring happiness through surveys tells us very little while putting a cudgel in the hands who want to be back a more substantive egalitarianism.


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