Friday, March 31, 2017

Make America Happy Again

The United Nations (UN) decided that a better quality-of-life measure was needed for member nations than just economic data.  What they were after was something that would explain why citizens of a nation would reply in the affirmative if they were asked if they were satisfied with their lives or if they were happy (the two questions appear to be equivalent in results).  An organization named the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) was formed to bring experts in various fields together to define the conditions that lead to “sustainable development.”  That is, development including economic as well as social factors that produce happiness and satisfaction.

Survey questions can determine the degree to which residents of a nation consider themselves to be happy or satisfied, but to understand the reasons why different nations produce different responses it is necessary to learn what causes the variations.  Experts have concluded that six factors can be used to quantify the variables that contribute to happiness and life satisfaction.  These factors can be determined by demographic and economic data combined with survey results.

Yearly surveys are used to quantify the factors important for happiness.  The values used in announcing the results are based on averages over a few years.  The recent report, World Happiness Report 2017, was based on data accumulated between 2014 and 2016.

“….countries in the top ten….have high values in all six of the key variables used to explain happiness differences among countries and through time – income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”

Income is determined from national per capita GDP, while perceptions of social support and corruption can be determined by survey questions.  Freedom is the freedom to make life choices as in “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”  Generosity is related to answers to the question “Have you donated money to a charity in the last month?” as correlated with per capita GDP information. 

Using these factors, the various countries can be ranked as to the happiness of their residents and some conclusions can be drawn about why country results are what they are.  This source presents the current top ten countries over time.

All of the countries are developed nations with strong economies.  It should be noted that all five of the countries considered Scandinavian make it into the top ten.  The United States came in at number 14.  What should we make of this ranking for our country?  The producers of the report thought certain countries and regions were important enough for detailed analysis. Separate chapters were included with the titles “Growth and Happiness in China, 1990-2015,” and “‘Waiting for Happiness’ in Africa.”  As for the United States, the authors concluded that a chapter was necessary to discuss the issue of “Restoring American Happiness.”

The chapter analyzing the United States and its happiness problem was produced by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

“Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of The Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General”

Sachs states the problem needing to be addressed.

“The central paradox of the modern American economy….is this: income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen. The situation has gotten worse in recent years: per capita GDP is still rising, but happiness is now actually falling.”

How severe is this decline in perceived happiness?  He compares the United States to other wealthy countries who are members of the OECD.

“While the US ranked third among the 23 OECD countries surveyed in 2007, it had fallen to 19th of the 34 OECD countries surveyed in 2016.”

That is a rather significant drop over a relatively few years.  The reason we made it to the 14th spot in the general survey is because the results are averaged over three years and residents of the United States claimed to be a lot happier in 2014 than in 2016.  This chart is provided.

Sachs points out that the United States focuses most on economic growth as if that would solve all of its problems.  Of the six factors tracked, the United States has improving scores associated with income and longevity, but the other four, all of which relate to social issues, are all declining.

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic
growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

Sachs then proceeds to analyze our social problems and make suggestions on how to ameliorate them and make us happier.  One can find his analysis here.  Rather than go over one more time the sorts of things that Democrats and Republicans have been disagreeing about for over a generation, let’s take another tack.

Consider that all the countries in the top ten in happiness have strong social support systems.  In particular, all five of the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland) make that list.  And all levy a large tax on their citizens.  And guess what they do with all that tax money—they provide an astonishing array of services.  Those services produce happiness in spite of the high tax. 

So we should ask ourselves a question.  If our government provided free, or at easily affordable costs, healthcare, childcare, education, an income floor if you lose your job, and a generous pension at retirement, would you be happier?  And don’t forget, you would also be guaranteed at least four weeks of vacation and more family leave than any one is likely to need.  It can be done.  The Scandinavian countries do it; their citizens pay their high taxes and have plenty of money left over to have some fun.

Believe the data.

The interested reader might find these articles informative:

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