Friday, December 28, 2012

Can the government make us happier by regulating what we eat and drink?

A guest post by Bridget Sandorford*
Introduction by Winton: The post comes at a time when some readers may be considering New Year's resolutions relating to what they eat and drink. When we have to make tough choices it is often tempting to think that governments ought to make life easier for us by introducing more regulation. The article has been written with particular reference to the US, but he issues raised are relevant in many countries, including Australia.
The post comes at an ideal time for me because it discusses an issue touched on in my book, 'Free to Flourish', published last week.
Bridget writes:
There have been a number of changes to the regulations surrounding the food and beverage industry in recent years, with the intention of cracking down on the nation's obesity epidemic. Fast-food chains have started posting fat and calorie counts directly on their menus, limits have been passed on the size of sugary drinks like sodas, and so-called "fat taxes" have been proposed as a surcharge on unhealthy foods and drinks.
All of these changes and proposals have been introduced as a way to curb the unhealthy eating habits that have become so ubiquitous in our culture and to stem the rising obesity numbers.
But is all this regulation really making us healthier? Happier? Here are a few reasons why it can't:
Spotty Regulation
The recent law in New York City banning sodas and other sugary drinks from being sold in containers over 16 ounces is a good example of the ineffectiveness of such programs. The ban, which will take effect in the spring, will only apply in restaurants, fast-food chains, theaters and other places that are under the regulation of the Board of Health. What that means is that if you really want a 32-ounce soda, you won't be able to get one when you're at a Broadway show, but you can get one by walking right next door to the 7-11.
Spotty regulation like this means that only some food or drinks will be targeted, and only in some cities, and will only affect some consumers. If measures such as these are to be effective, they have to be all-encompassing.
Personal Choice
Even with more wide-reaching regulation, bans and taxes will never be truly effective for one reason: Personal choice. If you live in New York and you want a 32-ounce soda, you can get one. You just have to buy two 16-ounce sodas -- and there's no rule against that. Fat taxes are never likely to be high enough to be cost prohibitive. Those who want the foods that  are taxed will spend less on other foods to afford them -- or, in the case of Denmark's fat tax, the citizens will just go to neighboring countries (or states) that don't have the tax to buy foods.
Personal choice will always be the trump card for any attempt to regulate or curb behavior. Even if penalties are imposed, they may not be a deterrent. The key is to get to the heart of the choice -- to find a way to change the behavior.
Food Culture
The reasons for our obesity epidemic are complex and include the current food culture. Not only have servings sizes increased, but the quality of foods has decreased. Fast food is considered acceptable dinner fare (as well as breakfast and lunch), and not enough people seem overly concerned about feeding children chicken nuggets and fries for a meal. Even foods that seem healthy have become overly processed and loaded with harmful chemicals. GMO foods, corn and soy are pervasive.
Education, a change in food-manufacturing regulations, and a shift in our food culture will help to solve our obesity problem. Forcing people to make the choices we want them to will not.
What do you think about regulations attempting to curb the consumption of unhealthy food and drinks, like container controls and fat taxes? Do you think they can be effective? Share your thoughts in the comments!

* Bridget Sandorford is a freelance writer and researcher for In her spare time, she enjoys biking, painting and working on her first cookbook.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

How easy is it to self-publish a Kindle eBook?

Only a few days have passed since I published 'Free to Flourish' at Amazon, but I am already starting to think that it can't have been as difficult as it seemed at the time.

If I didn't have any end notes or images it would have been easy. The book, 'Building Your Book for Kindle', published by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is easy to follow and provides adequate guidance for a publication with no end notes or images.

My book contains a substantial number of end notes and images, and I wanted the end notes to be 'active'. The advantage of active end notes is fairly obvious. They enable you to click on a number, read the note, click return to get back to the spot you were reading, and then read on without any problems. By contrast, without active notes, you first have to find the note you want to read, which may require you to go back to the contents page first to find what chapter you were reading. After you have found the note and read it, you then have to get back to the spot you were reading. This is manageable with a printed book if you can remember to keep a finger inserted in the relevant page, but you can't insert your finger into an eBook.

I found Scott Locke's book, 'The Kindle Publisher's Guide', particularly useful for instruction on how to deal with notes and images.

Scott Locke recommends use of kindle-notes, freely available third party software, to make footnotes active. It is necessary to get the text in the required format for this purpose, but the time-consuming part of the exercise was restoring punctuation in the document after it had been processed.

After processing in kindle-notes, my document was returned with just about all punctuation other than full stops and commas replaced by question marks. This meant that it was necessary to look at every question mark in the document and decide whether it was meant to be a question mark, inverted comma, a dash, a colon or whatever. I tried to do it quickly late at night, made a lot of mistakes and then had to correct them (with the help of my editor). This is not a process that anyone would want to go through more than once per book. Once in a life-time might be enough for me!

Scott Locke recommends the use of Mobipocket Creator to insert images back into the document prior to uploading at KDP. I found that to be good advice. The alternative method recommended by KDP (creating and uploading a zipped file) didn't work for me, possibly because I had a substantial number of images to deal with.

In retrospect, I can't claim that it was enormously difficult to publish a Kindle eBook with a substantial number of end notes and images. The process was just more tedious and time-consuming than I thought it would be. This was despite the warnings I had been given by others (including the suggestion that it might be wise to use an aggregator, alluded to in an addendum to a guest post on self-publishing on this blog in October).

I still don't understand why publishing an eBook is a much more tedious and time-consuming process than publishing pdf documents and web pages. No doubt the technology will improve. At this stage, however, direct publishing of eBooks with a lot of notes and images is not a piece of cake.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Do we need to be free to flourish?

I hope that anyone who wants an answer to that question will be able to find it in my book, 'Free to Flourish' which has just been published as a Kindle eBook.

The book can be downloaded free of charge until about mid-night on December 21, 2012 - after which the price will be US $5.00.

Much of the material in the book has appeared as a first draft on this blog at some stage over the last few years. The book refines the main messages and draws them together in a more coherent form in order to make them more readily accessible.

As I wrote the book, I was asked by various people what audience I was writing for. The answer I have given in the Preface is that the book is intended to be read by anyone who has an interest in happiness, politics, or public policy - although different parts of it have been written with different readers in mind. People who only want a broad overview of the book should be able to obtain what they are looking for by reading the first and final chapters. Researchers and students who wish to scrutinise the underlying reasoning and evidence should be able to find plenty to interest them in the notes provided.

 I added that I hope the book will provide a catalyst for further discussion at all levels. If readers send me comments, I will endeavour to respond and may open up further discussion of particular issues on this blog.

If you don't have a Kindle or Kindle app on a tablet, an app for personal computers can be downloaded for free from this site.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Can happiness surveys predict the desire to migrate?

The Gallup organization has found in its surveys that about 15 per cent of the world’s adults would like to move to another country permanently if they had the chance. The rate varies substantially between different parts of the world, with about 38 per cent of adults in Sub-Saharan African countries saying that they would like to move permanently if they were able.

About 80 per cent of those who wish to leave low-income countries would like to go to high-income countries, with the United States the most popular destination in terms of absolute numbers. The desire to move tends to be higher in countries with medium to low human development, according to the UN’s Human Development Index.

Gallup has constructed a Potential Net Migration Index (PNMI) which relates the desire to move into and out of particular countries to their population. The PNMI is the estimated number of adults who would like to move permanently into a country if the opportunity arose, subtracted from the estimated number who would like to move out of it, as a percentage of the total adult population. There are a substantial number of countries with a PNMI score above 100 per cent (which implies that the population would more than double under free migration) and a substantial number with a PNMI score below 50 per cent (which implies that the population would fall below half current levels under free migration).

Can PNMI scores be viewed as indicators of the perceived wellbeing in different societies? Unless we have reason to believe otherwise, it would be reasonable to expect societies with high PNMI scores to have potential to provide high levels of wellbeing and societies with low PNMI scores to provide low levels of wellbeing.

On that basis, we might expect that happiness levels (i.e. indicators of subjective wellbeing) in different countries would predict PNMI scores. If indicators of subjective wellbeing are not good predictors of PNMI scores, we would need to consider the possibility that PNMI scores reflect factors other than wellbeing levels in different countries and/or that wellbeing indicators are biased by cultural or other factors.

The subjective wellbeing indicators that seem most relevant are the Gallup estimates of the percentage of people thriving and suffering in each country. Gallup classifies survey respondents as thriving, struggling or suffering, depending on their evaluations of their current and future lives using the Cantril ladder. The percentages thriving could reasonably be viewed as a ‘pull factor’, encouraging immigration, while the percentages suffering could be viewed as a push factor, encouraging emigration.

I have been able to match the PNMI and life evaluation data for 111 countries. There is some correspondence between countries in which a relatively high proportion of the population is thriving and high PNMI scores. The top 10 countries on both criteria include four countries in common (Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Among the countries not included in the top 10 in terms of percentage thriving is Singapore, ranked first in terms of PNMI scores, but with only 34 per cent of the population classified as thriving. Of the countries included in the top 10 in terms of percentage thriving, Brazil had the lowest PNMI score (ranked 59th ) even though 58 per cent of the population of that country was classified as thriving.

At the other end of the scale, there is no correspondence among the 10 countries with highest levels of suffering and lowest PNMI scores. The 10 countries with lowest PNMI scores are Haiti, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, El Salvador, Comoros, Senegal and Ghana (all with scores below -40 per cent). Of the countries included in the top 10 in terms of percentage suffering, Bulgaria (with 45 per cent classified as suffering) had the highest PNMI score (ranked 32nd i.e. well above Brazil).

For those who are technically minded, the estimated coefficients of a regression analysis explaining PNMI in terms of percentage thriving and percentage suffering had the expected signs, but only the coefficient on the thriving variable was significantly different from zero at the 95 per cent level.

This analysis suggests that happiness levels in different countries are better at predicting the attractiveness of different countries as destinations for migration than at predicting the desire to emigrate. That is consistent with Gallup’s research findings suggesting that people who want to migrate are disproportionately young and educated and more likely to have relatives or friends who have lived in foreign countries.

However, the analysis doesn’t do much to improve my confidence in subjective wellbeing indicators. If 59 per cent of people are thriving in Brazil, why isn’t it a desired destination for migration? Again, if only 34 per cent of the population of Singapore are thriving, why would so many people want to move there?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why hasn't more use been made of ACSA for measurement of progress?

What is ACSA? It seems to be an acronym for a lot of different things, but the particular ACSA I am referring to is Anamnestic Comparative Self-Assessment. This is an approach to measuring progress which was first suggested by Jan Bernheim about 30 years ago.

The distinctive feature of ACSA is that it asks survey respondents to rate their current wellbeing by comparison with their memory of the best and worst periods of their own lives (with the best period being given a rating of +5 and the worst period being given a rating of -5).

ACSA is an alternative to the conventional question which asks people to rate their current lives using abstract universal anchors. For example, the Cantril scale gives ‘the best possible life’ a rating of 10 and ‘the worst possible life’ a rating of zero.

In terms of measuring progress, ACSA has the merit of using anchors that could reasonably be expected to more stable over time than perceptions of the best possible life. As explained in recent posts (here and here), when people are asked to rate their own lives relative to the best possible life, they are likely to be making that assessment relative to a moving target. If they see their own lives improving in line with their perceptions of the best possible life, they can be expected to give similar ratings to their lives in successive surveys. It should be obvious to everyone that it is a mistake under those circumstances to interpret stable ratings as implying an absence of progress.

A major study comparing results obtained using ACSA and a conventional measure of life satisfaction for a large number of adult hospital patients suggests that ACSA is indeed less subject to biases of various kinds. For example, the results obtained using ACSA were more responsive to a major objective change in the prospects of end-stage liver disease patients following liver transplantation. The conventional measure of life satisfaction did not capture adequately the impact on wellbeing of the life-threatened situation of these patients prior to transplantation, or the fact that transplantation restored them to an almost normal life. The study is reported in Jan Bernheim et al, ‘The potential of anamnestic comparative self-assessment (‘ACSA) to reduce bias in the measurement of subjective well-being’, Journal of Happiness Studies (2006). An ungated article providing a brief discussion of ACSA is available here.

The potential strengths of ACSA relative to conventional measures of life satisfaction are most obvious where the focus of research is on changes in the wellbeing of individuals over time. A potential weakness of ACSA arises in comparing ratings of different individuals, even though research findings suggest that there are common elements in memories of different people concerning the best and worst periods of their lives (the best periods often involve such things as birth of a child and the worst periods such things as unemployment). It seems likely that many people in high-income countries would perceive that the worst periods in their lives were not as bad as those experienced by vast numbers other people in the world. They might also perceive that the best periods of their lives were better than those of people with fewer opportunities.

One possible way to combine the ACSA ratings of different people would be to place them on the same scale as conventional ratings using the Cantril scale.  When I did that for myself, I gave a rating of 8.5 to my current life, a rating of 9.5 to the best period of my life and a rating of 6.0 to the worst period of my life. That implies an ACSA rating of about 2 [10*(8.5-6.0)/(9.5-6.0) – 5]. That is also the ACSA rating I gave to my current life when I asked myself the ACSA question directly. Such introspective exercises don’t necessarily mean much, but this one suggests to me that the underlying concepts used in ACSA are compatible with the Cantril scale. I urge other people to do the exercise to see if they also get sensible ACSA estimates. 

As far as I can see there is no reason why surveys could not ask people to give a rating to the best and worse periods of their own lives on the Cantril scale, immediately after asking them to rate their current lives on that scale. The Cantril scale is far from perfect as a methodology for making interpersonal comparisons of well-being, but the results it provides in that context seem to make more sense than in making comparisons over time. The calculation of ACSA scores in conjunction in longitudinal surveys using the Cantril question provides potential for development of meaningful measures of perceptions of progress.

I don’t know the answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this post. More use should be made of ACSA. It seems to me that including ACSA type questions in longitudinal studies, such as HILDA, has potential to provide useful information.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why have happiness researchers been so slow to recognize the problems in using surveys to measure progress?

In my last post I pointed out that it is not possible to measure perceptions of progress accurately by using surveys to measure average life satisfaction at different times and then observe to what extent it has risen or fallen. As a result of changing reference norms, people who value an expansion of economic opportunities cannot necessarily be expected to show rising satisfaction with their lives in successive happiness surveys.

I have just discovered that a similar point was made by Francis Heylighten and Jan Bernheim over a decade ago, in an article that seems to have attracted little attention. The authors made the point as follows:
‘Progress could in principle be measured through the change over time of average scores of subjective well-being. However, the existing longitudinal data show little improvement. These survey results are intrinsically insensitive to developments over time, because SWB is typically evaluated relative to proximate, and therefore salient, reference points, such as peers or expectations based on recent experience’. See: Heylighen F. & Bernheim J.(2001): "Measuring Global Progress  Through Subjective Well-Being", in: Proceedings of the III Conference of the ISQOLS.

One of the suggestions that Heylighten and Bernheim made to correct this distortion was to develop a progress indicator from variables that explain a high proportion of cross-country differences in life satisfaction.

If that approach was followed to develop an indicator to measure perceptions of  progress, recent research by John Helliwell and Christopher Barrington-Leigh suggests that the relevant variables to include might be: the log of household income; whether the respondents had relatives or friends to count on if needed; whether the respondents were satisīŦed with their freedom to choose what to do with their lives; whether corruption was widespread in business and government; and whether they had donated money to a charity in the past month. Their analysis suggests that people in both high-income and low-income countries place about the same value on log income (use of logs allows for declining marginal utility of income) but people in high-income countries place more value on variables other than income. See: ‘Measuring and Understanding Subjective Well-Being Canadian Journal of Economics, 43 (3), 2010.

However, I’m not sure that the suggested approach would entirely solve the problem. It seems likely that perceptions that people in low-income countries have of the best possible life would involve a less opulent life-style than the perceptions of people in high-income countries i.e. perceptions of the best possible life rise with increasing wealth (and the marginal utility of income may not decline as rapidly as cross-country regressions seem to imply). In my view, that means it would be preferable to measure perceptions of progress directly using the method suggested in my last post, i.e. by comparing the answers that survey respondents provide when asked to rate their past lives at the same time as their current lives. An even better approach to measurement of progress, as suggested in the book I am writing, would be to identify the characteristics of good societies and measure to what extent societies were adopting those characteristics.

There may be a case to be made that the well-being of people in high-income countries would be higher if the move toward post-materialistic societies was more rapid. But the people who want to make that case should argue it openly, rather than pretending that responses to happiness surveys indicate that most people do not place much value on material progress.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Can happiness surveys help us to measure progress?

I have written about similar questions here before, but I’m not sure that I managed to get the message across to many people. The issues are not all that complex. I probably just need more practice in trying to explain them in simple terms.

The most obvious way to use happiness surveys to measure progress would be to use such surveys to measure average life satisfaction at different times and then observe to what extent it has risen or fallen.

Where is the problem in that? The main problem is that as a result of changing reference norms people who value an expansion of economic opportunities cannot necessarily be expected to show rising satisfaction with their lives in successive surveys.

What do I mean by changing reference norms? When we are asked to rate our satisfaction with life we do so relative to reference norms, such as by comparing our standard of living with that of people we know. Some surveys ask people to rate their lives relative to ‘the best possible life’, but our perceptions of ‘the best possible life’ may also change. For example, education may cause people to expand their horizons so they become less satisfied with a modest standard of living. The same kind of thing can happen when people move from rural to urban areas or obtain access to TV and the internet.  

So, if education tends to make people less satisfied with a modest standard of living, does that mean that they do not value the opportunities that education provides? It obviously doesn’t. Some people make large sacrifices to obtain educational opportunities, so it would be difficult to argue that they don’t value them.

The same reasoning applies to the benefits of technological progress. No-one could expect that people living in 1950 could have felt unhappy or dissatisfied - or sad, or angry even - because they did own personal computers or any of the numerous other amenities of modern life that had not then been invented.

The fact that we do not feel dissatisfied that we do not yet possess the products of future technological progress does not mean that such products will not enhance our future wellbeing and that of our descendants. It just means that we are fortunate to have emotional systems that enable us to give a high rating to our current lives if we can attain a standard of living that is somewhere near the upper bound of what it is currently possible for humans to attain.

Changing reference norms help our emotional system to adapt to changes in external circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that we should allow them to bias our judgements about changes in the quality of our lives.

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, unwittingly provided a good example of the distorted perception that can arise when we ignore changing reference norms when he wrote:
‘As Americans adapt and yesterday’s luxuries turn into today’s necessities, people are naturally unwilling to give them up, but that does not mean that they are any happier than they were before the process began. Neither does it suggest that the products they yearn for in future will bring them any greater pleasure. What then is the justification for future economic growth?’ See: ‘The Politics of Happiness’, 2010, p 67.

The fallacy in that argument becomes obvious if it is applied to advances in medical science. Does the fact that people in high-income countries have adapted to advances such as the development of antibiotics, and now tend to view them as a normal part of life, mean that such advances have no value? In deciding whether or not we would be happier without advances in medical science, or any other product of technological change, the pertinent question to ask is whether we are obtaining a net benefit from it now. Adaptation may cause us to take for granted the benefits of technological progress, but it is our judgement of where our interests lie that makes us unwilling to give up the those benefits.

One way to eliminate the possible impact of changing reference norms is to ask survey participants to rate their lives at some point in the past (for example, five years ago) at the same time as they are asked to rate their current lives. Responses to such questions enable levels of individual flourishing to be gauged against historical benchmarks to show to what extent people feel that their lives have improved over time. My analysis of such data collected by the World Gallup Poll suggests that people tend to perceive the greatest improvement in their lives over the previous five years in countries where a high percentage of people consider that the national economy is ‘getting better’ and where rates of economic growth have been relatively high.*

Happiness surveys can help us to measure progress if they are used in the right way.

*The estimated regression equation is as follows:

LIFETODAY = -0.330 + 1.003*PASTLIFE + 0.015*ECONOMY + 0.037*GROWTH + 0.299*IMPGOV
                       0.290)  (0.044)                     (0.003)                      (0.017)                    (0.243)

Adjusted R2 = 0.84. The figures in brackets are standard errors of the estimated coefficients.
102 countries were included in the analysis.

LIFETODAY is the average rating ‘life today’ from the Gallup World Poll (around 2008) which asks respondents to rate their current lives on a ladder scale with the ‘best possible life’ as the top rung.
PASTLIFE is the average rating of ‘life five years ago’ from the Gallup World Poll.
ECONOMY is percentage of participants in the Gallup World Poll who perceive that economic conditions in their country are getting better.
GROWTH is the estimated rate of growth in per capita GDP (rgdpl) from Penn World Tables over the preceding five years (2002-07).
IMPGOV is the improvement over the period 2002-07 in the average of the six World Bank Governance Indicators.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How should we describe the current imbalances within western democracies?

Nicholas Eberstadt’s answer to this question is fairly clear from the title of his recently published book, ‘A Nation of Takers, America’s Entitlement Epidemic’. Eberstadt describes the growth of welfare payments in the US, the decline of stigma against accepting help from the government and the growth of dependence on entitlements. He establishes that about half of the US population now live in households receiving some government benefits and more than 30 percent now receive means-tested benefits. He suggests that, with the growing numbers living on disability benefits, ‘gaming and defrauding of the entitlement system have emerged as a mass phenomenon in modern America’. He also suggests that the ‘taker mentality’ has gravitated toward ‘taking from a pool of citizens who can offer no resistance to such schemes: the unborn descendants of today’s entitlement-seeking population’.

The book also presents two dissenting views. William Galston argues that although many people have come to depend on entitlements to fund their living expenses, they have not become ‘dependent’ in the way that children are dependent on their parents. He suggests that much of the growth of welfare entitlements rests on ‘temporally extended interdependence’. One generation consents to helping to fund the retirement of their parents, with the expectation that the next generation will do the same for them. He acknowledges, however, that ‘something has gone awry’ when the current generation discharges its obligations by imposing heavier sacrifices on the next generation. He suggests that the moral issue is ‘generational selfishness’ rather than dependence. He agrees with Eberstadt that disability benefits are subject to serious abuse, but suggests that the willingness of people to take advantage of the system is not necessarily evidence of deep cultural change.

The main point made by Yuval Levin is that differences in vision about the relationship between government and the citizen – collectivism versus radical individualism – overlook the importance of the ‘space between the individual and the state’, which is occupied by the family, civil society and the private economy. He argues that the state gravely threatens the space for private life. He suggests that rather than dependence, the problem is more ‘a draining away’ of ‘civic energies by the effort required to sustain the liberal welfare state. The country ‘is increasingly exhausting itself’ not just because of the size of the entitlement and benefit regime but also because of its ‘immense inefficiency’. Levin suggests that rather than a nation of takers, America is ‘a nation at risk of becoming incapable of rising to the challenge of self-government’.

The different viewpoints presented in this book are highly relevant to some issues discussed in the book I am writing. One of the points I am making is that when governments relieve us of the need to exercise our power of self-direction, then our skills in running our lives will not develop properly and we are likely to remain dependent on government throughout our lives. That means I am in sympathy with the points that Nicholas Eberstadt is making. At the same time, the US does not seem to me to be a particularly promising place to look for evidence of dependence on welfare having a widespread adverse impact on the social fabric.

I also suggest in the book I am writing that there is a growing gap in many wealthy countries between the responsibilities that many people expect democratic governments to discharge and what governments are actually capable of delivering. Perhaps it could be described as a problem of dependence, in the sense of governments becoming addicted to ever more spending (despite rising debt levels or increased reliance on unstable revenue sources).

At times, I have described the problem as an expectations gap, implying that it has arisen because of inflated public expectations of what governments can do. But it isn’t particularly helpful to blame ‘the public’. The underlying problem is that political leaders who seek to place responsibilities on government that are beyond its capability do not suffer appropriate political consequences. So, we should be thinking about how political leaders could be persuaded to moderate their promises and focus more effort on delivering efficient government.

The diagram presented below seems to me to be a useful way to think of the issues involved.

It is interesting to consider where particular countries should be located on the diagram. The countries of southern Europe should obviously be placed near the bottom right hand side and the Scandinavian countries would be at the top right. Hong Kong might be toward the left at the top. But where should we place the US, or Australia?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is there more economic freedom in Australia than in 'the land of the free'?

It is difficult to believe that there could be less economic freedom in the United States than in Australia, but that is what economic freedom indexes seem to show.

The Heritage Foundation’s index currently has Australia in 3rd place, behind Singapore and Hong Kong, and the US in 10th place. The Fraser Institute’s index currently has Australia in 5th place and the US in 18th place.

Both the Heritage Foundation and the Fraser Institute have economic freedom in the US declining below that of Australia around 2008.  See Figures 1 and 2 below.

The timing of the decline in US economic freedom as indicated by the Heritage Foundation’s index suggests that it may be largely associated with the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, but the Fraser Institute’s index has the decline beginning around the turn of the century. According to the Heritage index the main decline in recent years has been with respect to financial and investment regulation, but the Fraser index also shows a decline in other areas, including freedom to trade internationally.

If the decline in US economic freedom was related solely to re-regulation of financial markets, it might be tempting to dismiss it as some kind of necessary evil. Well, it isn’t, but that will not stop me from suggesting that financial re-regulation has been far from benign in any case. Rather than side-track myself on that issue, however, I will just link to a highly relevant recent article by Ken Rogoff.

There are several reasons why Australians should not take comfort from indexes suggesting that we now have greater economic freedom that the US. The most obvious is that it has occurred as a result of a decline in economic freedom in the US, rather than any recent reform efforts in Australia.

The second reason is because the measurement of economic freedom is difficult. I think the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation should be applauded for their efforts to define economic freedom precisely enough to enable it to be measured, but I don’t think their indicators adequately capture all relevant aspects of the regulatory environment. For example, in 2008, just before he left Australia, Phil Burgess made some important points about the regulatory environment in this country that would be difficult to capture adequately in economic freedom indexes.

Before I proceed further, I should remind you that Phil Burgess was one of the ‘three amigos’ who came here to help Telstra through a difficult period. If that doesn’t ring any bells, you might remember the very wise - and very public – investment advice he gave to his mother about not buying Telstra shares because of what the government was then doing to squeeze profit out of that company, not long after selling it to gullible investors.
The comment that Burgess made concerns the degree to which the ‘public order’ tends to dominate the ‘civic order’ in Australia. What he was talking about was that, compared with other liberal democracies, government leaders in Australia have a very high capacity to frame and control the public dialogue by virtue of agenda setting, money and expectations management. Counterbalancing voices of legitimacy and authority in the civic order – including business - are, by contrast, often muted and ineffectual. He suggests that is associated with a greater tendency for the civic leadership groups to play an insider’s game and focus on influencing politicians.

I think Phil Burgess is probably correct in his judgement, but I don’t have sufficient knowledge of the US to be sure. If he is correct, it would be fair to say that economic freedom indexes tend to over-state the extent of economic freedom in Australia relative to the US.

My third reason for not taking comfort from indexes showing economic freedom higher in Australia than in the US is that public attitudes are still more supportive of economic freedom in the US than in Australia. Data from the World Values Survey suggests that Americans are more strongly in favour of the existence of large income disparities as incentives (i.e. less in favour of redistribution to make incomes more equal), less in favour of public ownership of business, somewhat more inclined to say that competition is good and less cynical on the question of whether success comes from luck and connections rather than hard work.
All that suggests to me that it would not make sense to bet my life savings that the economic freedom will be greater in Australia than in the US over the next few decades. The only problem is that my modest life savings are actually almost exclusively allocated towards investment in Australia. It might be time for a re-think!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is the 'trial narrative' integral to emergence of the modern view of happiness?

‘Our own concept of happiness is, in its essentials, the eighteenth-century concept that emerges after the trial narrative has wrought its effects on the classical idea’
-                                                                       Vivasvan Soni, ‘Mourning Happiness’ (2010).

Mourning Happiness
 Soni argues that happiness has come to be viewed as ‘a mere emotion or subjective state’ and that this view of happiness is ‘hopelessly and inescapably private’. He contrasts that with the classical view in which happiness was ‘held to be the highest good for an individual, almost without question’.

The author argues that the trial narrative, referred to in the quoted passage, was introduced by Samuel Richardson’s novel, ‘Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded’, first published in 1740. The novel tells the story of Pamela, a young servant girl, who resists harassment by her sexually predatory master until he comes to recognize her virtue and marries her. It is appropriate to describe it as a trial narrative because it involves the trial of the virtue of an innocent girl who suffers a great deal of misery and eventually obtains happiness (so readers are told) through an elevation in social status (brought about by marriage to the man who almost raped her). There are similar narrative themes in other novels in this period. I suppose a novelist could tell a similar story in the modern world, but the reward for virtue would more likely come in the form of an out-of-court settlement of a large sum of money.

How could our modern concept of happiness emerge from the trial narrative? Soni’s answer is ‘reification’. The main point he is making is that when happiness is viewed as a reward it becomes identified with specific things such as positive feelings, wealth and marriage, rather than being the subject of a narrative which responds to the question of whether an individual has had a happy life (without specifying in advance what that might mean). The author spends a few hundred pages explaining this, so please don’t rush to judgement about the quality of the argument on the basis of my attempt to sum it up in a few words.

The general line of argument seems to me to be plausible. Trial narratives might not have been invented in the 18th century, but the author seems to be successful in establishing that they became common around that time. His explanation for reification of happiness makes sense. 

However, there is an alternative, less complex, explanation for reification of happiness. With advances in science and technology and the spread of education following the Enlightenment it is reasonable to expect that people in Europe would generally have tended to became more aware of the consequences of the choices that they were making in all aspects of their lives.

The author seems to me to draw a long bow when he attributes the choices that some people currently make, for example the choice to work longer or harder now in order to obtain greater happiness later in their lives, to the power of the trial narrative in modern thinking. People may see themselves as making sacrifices now in order to obtain greater rewards later, but that is no reason to question their capacity for self-direction by implying that they are subconsciously following some kind of script which requires them to undergo a trial of their virtue.

The author attempts to link the trial narrative to Immanuel Kant’s argument that ‘the sovereign who wants to make the people happy according to his concepts’ is likely to become a despot. Surely Kant’s argument that people differ in their thinking about happiness to such an extent that it cannot be ‘brought under any common principle’ deserves to be considered on its merits. If pursuit of happiness is viewed as a collective goal, rather than an individual right, is there not a real possibility that collective efforts to make individuals happy will end up making them miserable?

I found Soni’s discussion of what he describes as ‘the erasing’ of the political concept of happiness during and following the American revolution to be interesting and illuminating. However, I don’t think he is correct in his view of the consequences of failure to include collective pursuit of happiness via government as an explicit goal in the US Constitution. He suggests that ‘without the open and indeterminate horizon of happiness to guide our politics, the state of legitimacy in which we live can have no other purpose beyond maintaining itself’ (p 479). That seems to me to devalue the intended role of the state in defending the rights of citizens to pursue happiness as they see fit and the contribution of civil society to the pursuit of public happiness. And I doubt whether he is correct in implying that Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, saw individual pursuit of happiness as a purely private and domestic matter. It seems likely, as suggested by Darrin McMahon (‘Happiness’, p 325-6), that Jefferson's view of the individual pursuit of happiness included a strong dose of doing publicly useful things. McMahon notes that Jefferson was familiar with the work of Francis Hutcheson who argued that people tend to obtain ‘private pleasure’ by ‘constant pursuit of publick Good’.

It is interesting to speculate what effect the inclusion of a goal of pursuit of collective happiness in political constitutions might actually have on public policies. Bhutan’s experiment with gross national happiness (GNH) suggests to me that it would be likely to result in further reification of happiness. Applying a national happiness yardstick to all aspects of public policy tends to make the happiness objective more specific. Pursuit of GNH seems to be evolving increasingly toward specific policies such as discouraging smoking and encouraging organic farming. The niggling concern, lurking at the back of my mind, is that pursuit of GNH could actually impact negatively on the ability of individuals to live happy lives. Sending people to jail for possessing tobacco products or pesticides seems to me to be unlikely to help them to live happy lives.

Finally, I don’t think our modern view of happiness is quite as shallow as Soni implies. While it is common to view happiness as purely an emotion, when you ask people whether they have had a happy life the response you are likely to get is a narrative – a story of flourishing or languishing, or more likely periods of both flourishing and languishing. I am reminded at this point of the findings of Dan McAdams’ narrative research (discussed briefly on this blog here and here) which suggests that the life stories of many people involve redemption themes. In these stories the narrator encounters many obstacles and suffers many setbacks but eventually develops toward actualization of an inner destiny.

Having read and thought about ‘Mourning Happiness’ I admire the ambitious attempt made in this book to identify the dominant narrative theme in our modern lives. In the end, however, I am not persuaded that the dominant narrative themes in our modern lives stem from Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ and similar 18th century novels. Perhaps it might be just as valid to argue that the dominant narrative themes in our modern lives stem from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’or the biblical story of Job. I suspect it might be an impossible task to identify the different themes in mutually exclusive ways and to disentangle their influence from other factors that impact on on the way we currently view happiness.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How should we get started with self-publishing?

A guest post by Sarah Rexman:

Getting a book published can be a long, uphill battle. After facing dozens of rejections, you may start thinking that you just don’t have what it takes – that maybe you weren’t really meant to be an author after all. The reality is that much more than talent determines whether your book will be accepted by a traditional publisher, including market trends, the timing, and even the person who happens to pick up your book from the slush pile.

You don’t have to wait for all these elements to align and get accepted by a traditional publisher in order to be published. With the increasing popularity of e-readers, many authors are finding success publishing their own books and selling them to readers directly.

Here’s what you need to know about how to get started with self-publishing to realize your dream of becoming a published author:

Choose an Outlet

There are many sites that sell self-published e-books, including giants Amazon, Smashwords and Lulu. Each of these sites has a different user base and different rules for how to format, upload, and distribute content. They also offer different models for compensation, with different commission rates based on the parameters you choose for selling your book.

Take the time to get to know each of these sites and decide if you want to sell on one of them or all of them and what the advantages and disadvantages will be.

Format Your Book

Once you know where you intend to sell your book, you can figure out how to properly format it. Each site will have its own guidelines for formatting the book, and it may take you awhile figuring out how to get your book just right to meet those guidelines.

You will also need to design a creative cover for your book. If you aren’t able to design the cover yourself, you can hire a freelance designer to create one for you.

Get Reviews

Good reviews will help you build buzz around your book and sell more copies. You can get more reviews for your book by sending it to bloggers, book reviewers for local publications, and even to family and friends.

While it is OK to ask for reviews from family and friends, you should be careful not to influence the content of those reviews. If your readers suspect that your reviews are not honest, they may reject your book.

Market Your Book

In addition to getting good reviews for your book, you must also market it to build buzz and promote sales. You can start a blog, host contests in which you give away copies of your book, or even buy online advertising to promote your book.

Don’t stop at formal marketing. Be prepared to talk up your book to anyone you meet. Carry business cards with information about your book. The next time someone asks you what you do, tell them that you’re a published author and hand them your business card.

Publishing your own book is not a difficult process, but it will take the same kind of dedication it took for you to write your book in the first place. When you’re finished, you will be able to say that you are a published author and can find success on your own terms.

Sarah Rexman is the main researcher and writer for Her most recent accomplishments include graduating from Florida State, with a degree in environmental science.  Her current focus for the site involves researching updated websites.

Addendum by Winton

Sarah’s offer of a guest post on this topic came at an opportune time since I am currently considering publication options for the book I am writing.

Self-publishing seems to me to be an attractive option for the reasons Sarah mentions, but also because it gives authors greater control of the process. I recently learned that authors often don’t even have much say over the titles for their books when they use traditional publishers.

The main considerations for me in choosing a method of self-publishing are to obtain a professional-looking product, access to the main sites that sell e-books and a small print run, while containing costs.

Jim Belshaw had some relevant discussion on his blog a few weeks ago.  Jim suggested that it might be worth considering use of an aggregator, such Australian e-book publisher (AEP) to put content into the right form and arrange for its lodgment with the e-store.  As Jim says, a price has to be paid for this, but it makes things simpler. Since AEP offers a range of different services it would not be necessary to get them to take over the whole publishing exercise.

Another option I am thinking about is the use of Dpublishing, which has links to Dymocks book stores. Dpublishing seems to provide good guidance on formatting etc and makes it easy to also have a printed version of the book. The downside is that Dymocks does not have links to Amazon, so I would need to arrange separately to get the book in suitable form to be sold on Kindle.


In the end I decided to publish the book as a Kindle eBook at Amazon. My comments can be found in a later post.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Is it the duty of government to realize the good life for all citizens?

‘If the first goal of the individual is to realize the good life for himself, the first duty of the state is to realize, insofar as it lies within its power, the good life for all citizens’.

How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life By: Edward Skidelsky,Robert SkidelskyThe quoted passage is from ‘How Much is Enough?’(2012) by Robert Skidelsky - a biographer, economics professor and member of the British House of Lords - and his son. Edward, a philosopher.

Some readers might think that the quoted passage implies support for the view that it is the role of government to ensure that individuals have the freedom to realize the good life as they choose. That is far from what the authors have in mind, however.

Robert and Edward Skidelsky are unashamedly paternalistic in their views on the role of government. They recommend that governments should promote the good life by taxing the rich more heavily, imposing sumptuary taxes, regulating labour markets more extensively, disallowing tax deductions for advertising, and imposing more restrictions on international trade and capital flows. They see such interventions as necessary to ‘free up’ more time for leisure, reduce income inequality, improve the social bases of health, personality, respect and friendship, and help people to live in harmony with nature.

The authors describe their policy approach as ‘non-coercive paternalism’ because it involves incentives and disincentives rather than commands. Yet coercion must still be involved. The authors do not suggest that people who do not share the Skidelsky view of the good life would be exempt from compliance with their proposed taxes and regulations.

How do the authors make a case for paternalistic interventions to encourage people to live the good life? J M Keynes (later Lord Keynes), a famous economist, plays an important role in their story. In 1928, Keynes predicted that within 100 years humanity would be able to satisfy all its material needs by working at most three hours a day. For a time, it seemed as though this prediction might prove to be correct, because a substantial proportion of the benefits of rising productivity were being realized through greater leisure. The Skidelskys suggest that at the beginning of the 1970s it looked as though the rich part of the world was close to ‘the dawn of universal abundance’.

What went wrong? The explanation offered by the authors is that governments shifted to a market-based philosophy when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power. They acknowledge that free marketeers made some telling points about the crisis of Keynesian economics (the combination of rising unemployment and rising inflation) resulting from attempts to pursue full employment through fiscal deficits. But they claim that the oil price hikes of 1973 and 1979 played a bigger role in exposing economic rigidities and paving the way for a move toward free market policies.

So, how could a move toward greater freedom discourage people from choosing ‘the good life’? The authors’ explanation seems to have two components.

First, they argue that a free market economy gives employers power to make employees work longer hours. That doesn’t make sense to me. If large numbers of workers wanted to work shorter hours, surely it would be in the interests of employers to find ways to accommodate their desires. Over the last 40 years, it seems to me that working hours have actually become more flexible, with a move toward casual employment and greater willingness of many employers to allow workers to take time off to meet family obligations.

Second, the authors claim that capitalism rests on an endless expansion of wants: ‘It has taken away the consciousness of having enough’. The authors see advertising as the major culprit:
‘Advertising may not create insatiability, but it exploits it without scruple, whispering in our ear that our lives are drab and second-rate unless we consume “more”.’

This seems to me to be another weak point in the story. Advertisers didn’t suddenly begin to whisper in our ears with the move toward freer markets in the 1980s. They were whispering in our ears during the 1950s and 60s, when working hours were declining. And it is possible for people to cope with the whispering and to decide for themselves how much is enough. A lot of people choose non-materialistic lifestyles. Many of those who choose to work long hours and/or multiple jobs do so in order to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle at a later stage of their lives.

I disagree profoundly with the central argument of this book that governments should construct incentives and disincentives to guide people to adopt that particular perception of the good life. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading ‘How Much is Enough?’ I agree with much of the discussion of the concept of happiness and strongly support the view presented there that a happy life is more than just a string of agreeable mental states. I admired the way the authors developed the idea that we should consider harmony with nature as part of the good life for humans.

In a personal sense, I find myself substantially in agreement with the authors’ vision of the good life. If they had confined themselves to sermonizing I would be cheering instead of jeering.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Are we better off when we have charismatic leaders?

151961897Before I began reading ‘The Charisma Myth’, by Olivia Fox Cabane, I would have said that we are probably better off with non-charismatic political leaders. I would have argued that while non-charismatic political leaders tend to inspire no more confidence than is appropriate, some end up performing surprisingly well. By contrast, charismatic political leaders often seem to generate expectations that cannot be met.

However, by the time I was about half way through ‘The Charisma Myth’ I was thinking that the world might be a better place if there were a lot more charismatic people. Olivia demystifies charisma by suggesting that it consists of three behaviours – presence, warmth and power. Presence is about being fully present when you are in a conversation with another person. Warmth is about being benevolent, altruistic, caring etc. Power is about being perceived as able to affect the world around you. It seems like a good idea for everyone to show interest in what others are saying, to have good feelings toward other people and to show through their posture that they know that they have a right to occupy space.

Soon after that, however, I began to wonder whether it was the kind of book I should be reading. I think it was the bit about imagining yourself to be a big gorilla, taking up a lot of space, that got me wondering. The gorilla exercise might be good advice for people who have doubts about their right to occupy space, but it reminded me of the objectionable behaviour of someone I once met who held a powerful position which entitled him to sit at the head of a board room table. Instead of sitting in that position, this person sat at the side of the table, spreading his papers to occupy the space of about three normal people and leaving less space for everyone else. At the time I thought he was just doing it to display his power, but I now wonder whether it was something he learned to do at a leadership training course.

It was probably the catchy title that motivated me to read this book. I was interested in discovering the secret of charisma. But I must admit that once I started reading I decided to do some of the exercises in the book to see if I could develop some charisma. (It might take a lot of practice!)

I suspect that most of the people reading the book will be looking for more effective ways to win friends and influence people. That is not a problem, but the sub-title, ‘How anyone can master the art and science of personal magnetism’, might attract people who seek personal advantage at the expense of other people.  
In his recent comments on the book, former blogger Arnold King, wrote:
‘The self-help book I wish people would read is "How to recognize when you are being seduced by charisma and dial down your response." I think that a reader can find some of that information in this book, although it is not presented with that purpose in mind’.

We know that an attempt is being made to manipulate us when we detect pretence and insincerity. Olivia suggests that most people find it easy to perceive when others are being inauthentic because it shows up in their body language. Even if people read the book for ulterior motives, there is a fair chance that if they do the exercises they will tend to change their perceptions and behaviour in ways that would make them show genuine presence and warmth. Hopefully this would mean that they are less likely to knowingly exploit the vulnerabilities of others. But it would still leave potential for charismatic leaders who believe their own hype to lead their followers astray.

How can we tell when a charismatic leader is claiming to do things that he/she is not capable of doing? Imagine a political leader who obviously has massive confidence in his/her own abilities. This person makes it obvious from what he/she says that he/she listens to what ordinary people have to say. He/she shows great personal warmth and presents a vision of how life could be better for everyone.

Are there any warning signals to look for that might suggest whether such a leader is likely to end up disappointing his/her followers? In my view, an ambitious vision presented by a leader who shows no hint of doubt about his/her ability to achieve the desired outcomes should be enough to set alarm bells ringing loudly.
The problem is that a lot of people don’t want to hear the alarm bells. The expectations gap (that I write about in Chapter 8 and 9 of the book I am writing) is as much the result of voters wanting to be led to fantasy land as of political leaders promising to take them there. Nevertheless, a leader can generate support by admitting that he/she has ‘nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’, when it becomes obvious that unpleasant truths must be faced.

So, after reading the book, do I think we are better off with charismatic leaders? Presence and warmth are obviously good qualities for everyone to have, including political leaders. As for power, I think it can be positive or negative depending on its source. Leaders who display unlimited faith in their ability to accomplish miracles will almost invariably disappoint everyone, including their followers. Charisma is a plus when the power component comes from intellect and/or values that might help the leader to do the job. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Is there a close relationship between subjective and objective indicators of environmental protection?

The subjective indicator of environmental protection that I have in mind is data from the Gallup World Poll on the percentage of respondents who say they are satisfied with efforts to preserve the natural environment. I have used this as one of several indicators of opportunity for individual human flourishing in a draft of Chapter 6 of ‘Free to Flourish’, the book I have been writing.

The objective indicator of environmental protection that I have in mind is the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) which is the result of a major collaborative project of research agencies associated with Yale and Colombia universities. The EPI is calculated on the basis of 22 performance indicators reflecting facets of environmental public health and ecosystem vitality.
The relationship between the two indexes is shown in Figure 1 below.

In broad terms, the relationship is positive, but not close. The people in some countries (e.g. Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Singapore) seem to be much more satisfied with efforts to protect the environment than would be predicted on the basis of objective indicators. By contrast, the people in some other countries (e.g. Mongolia, Bulgaria and Italy) seem to be much less satisfied with efforts to protect the environment than would be predicted on that basis.

Some light is shed on what seems to be happening by a regression analysis which seeks to explain satisfaction with efforts to protect the environment in terms of government effectiveness (using the relevant indicator in the World Bank’s suite of governance indicators) and the EPI. The analysis suggests that the governance variable is much more important than the EPI in explaining satisfaction with efforts to protect the environment. This is shown graphically in Figure 2, which plots the satisfaction variable against government effectiveness. The points shown as blue squares are the predicted values for each country based on the multiple regression (including both of the explanatory variables). The values barely diverge from the black line in which the government effectiveness variable is the only explanatory variable. 

My conclusion is that satisfaction with efforts to protect the environment is more a measure of satisfaction with governance than a measure of environmental protection. On this basis it would probably be preferable to use the EPI as an indicator of the impact that environmental factors are likely to have on opportunities for individual human flourishing.I am using the EPI in the latest draft of Chapter 6 of 'Free to Flourish'.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What fantasies are associated with the modern pursuit of happiness?

A draft of the final chapter of ‘Free to Flourish’, the book I am writing, has just been uploaded to the book’s web site.

My aim in this chapter has been to draw together the threads from earlier chapters by identifying fantasies related to the issues discussed.

My list of fantasies:
  • Happiness is just about experiences.
  • Paternalistic governments can help us flourish.
  • Restrictions on freedom help people to flourish.
  • Governments should be seeking to maximize collective happiness.
  • No society is better than any other.
  • Progress is history.
  • Democratic governments can’t fail.

It is tempting to try to summarize why I think the listed points are fantaasies, but anyone who is interested can easily follow this link and take a look at the draft of ‘Chapter 9: The Choice – Fantasy or Opportunity’.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How addictive is blogging?

I might be about to find out.

The time has come for me to take a short break from blogging while I finish the first draft of the book I am writing.

Postscript 1:
I would like to thank kvd for his comments, below, which have led me to attempt to articulate more clearly the main message in the book.

As I have been writing the book my perception of threats to human flourishing has changed somewhat. When I began, I thought that the main point I would be making would be that in order to be fully flourishing individual humans need to have control of their own lives. In other words, if governments relieve us of the need to exercise our powers of self-direction, then our skills in running our own lives can be expected to dissipate, resulting in character development failures. That is still an important message, but I think the more urgent message to convey is that when people come to expect governments to take the obstacles out of the obstacle course of life then they are likely to end up disappointed (i.e. unhappy). The gap that has emerged between what democratic governments are expected to deliver and what they can actually deliver cannot go on increasing indefinitely. An adjustment to reality must occur sooner or later. The larger the gap, the more painful the adjustment is likely to be. (That sounds a bit polemical, but I am writing a polemic!)

Postscript 2:
One week later, I can now answer the question posed above – in case anyone thought it might be a serious question.

I’m not addicted to blogging. It is no more addictive than any other hobby might be. The rewards are entirely intrinsic. I am not blogging in order to achieve fame or fortune (just as well!) but for the satisfaction in thinking my way through issues, writing about them and engaging in discussion with other people.

As someone once told me, we always have enough time to do the things that are most important to us. Blogging is fairly important to me, but ‘other things’ sometimes have priority. It seems likely that over the next few months ‘other things’ will often be more important to me than blogging, so I do not expect to be blogging as regularly as in the past.