Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Do realistic optimists have more successful lives?

I think realistic optimists probably do have more successful lives than optimists and pessimists, but unfortunately I cannot claim that I have a particularly strong basis for that view.

A couple of months ago I notice a story by Tia Ghose on Huffington Post reporting on research findings by Sophia Chou of the National Taiwan University. The research apparently suggests that realistic optimists – people who combine the positive outlook of optimists with the clear-eyed perspective of pessimists – get the best of both worlds. Their realism enables them to perform better at work because they don’t delude themselves that they can do well without working hard. Their optimism enables them to avoid getting bogged down by unhappiness.

I was particularly interested because of something I wrote on this blog a couple of years ago entitled: Why can’t we have a realistic basis for optimism? My consideration was prompted by a discussion by Martin Seligman of issues relating to possible circumstances where expectations may influence reality.

After reading the article by Tia Ghose, I decided to go looking for the relevant paper by Sophia Chou, which was presented at the American Psychological Association in Hawaii earlier this year. I haven’t been able to find a copy of the paper on the internet. I could write to the author and ask for a copy, but I don’t think I will bother. My qualifications are in economics, so I have reason to be pessimistic about my ability to judge the quality of the research behind these findings.

Sophia Chou’s research findings seem to me to make a lot of sense, but I guess a realistic optimist would wait for her paper to be published in a peer reviewed journal before getting excited about them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Why seek out the statue of Adam Smith when visiting Edinburgh?

When I visited Britain in August I was pleased to see the image of Adam Smith on £20 notes. I was even more pleased to find a statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh.
The statue, by Andrew Stoddart, stands in the Royal Mile, in High Street, next to St Giles Cathedral and opposite Edinburgh's City Chambers. It is not difficult to find.
Unfortunately, it seems that the birds are not treating Adam Smith with the respect he deserves, but I doubt that he would care.

I went looking for Adam Smith because he is the father of modern economics and because his views on the benefits of specialization and free trade have contributed to a vast improvement in living standards over much of the world over the last couple of centuries. But I suppose that is the kind of thing that might be said by anyone who views himself as a disciple of Adam Smith.

When asked to be more specific about Adam Smith’s contributions, people who are familiar with his writings tend to emphasize different things. One important contribution lies in fundamental thesis of Wealth of Nations that the extent to which people are able to enjoy ‘the necessaries and conveniences of life’ depends largely on labour productivity – ‘the productive powers of labour’. Economists debate whether Smith told the right story about productivity growth – perhaps he gave too much emphasis to capital accumulation, gains from specialization and scale economies, rather than to technological progress. I think the important point is that Smith understood and emphasized the importance of economic freedom in promoting productive use of resources (including good management) as well as an efficient allocation of resources among industries.

Mention of economic freedom brings me to the contribution that Smith made in pointing out the role of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market in translating the pursuits of individuals into desirable social outcomes. Smith noted:
‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’.
Smith would not have approved of that oft-quoted sentence from Wealth of Nations being interpreted as implying that butchers, brewers, bakers and other people engaged in business activities pursue only selfish interests.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote:
‘How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it’.

Smith also made a major contribution in explaining that the visible hand of government is often far from benign. I particularly like a passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments about the consequences of being governed by ‘the man of system’ – a political leader who is ‘apt to be very wise in his own conceit’. Smith suggests that the ‘man of system’ imagines that ‘he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess board’. He fails to consider that ‘in the great chess board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it’. Smith points out that when the visible hand of government is attempting to regulate the individual members of society, it is likely that ‘the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder’. (See: TMS, VI.ii.2.17).

I think Smith’s greatest contribution was in promoting the idea that a ‘system of natural liberty’ can establish itself ‘of its own accord’, when the role of government is confined to duties of ‘great importance’ that could not otherwise be performed. We should never lose sight of Smith’s vision of natural liberty:

‘Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring forth both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty [for which] no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society’. (See: WN, IV.ix.51).

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Is there no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?

The question is from the first lines of a poem by William Wordsworth, written in 1841 in protest against plans for construction of the Kendall to Windermere railway in the Lakes District of England.

Wordsworth was not impressed by the view that the railway would place the beauty of the Lakes District within easier reach of these who would not otherwise have access to it. He described such arguments as: ‘Utilitarianism, serving as a mask for cupidity and gambling speculations’. Environmentalists sometimes advance similar arguments these days, but few are as rash as Wordsworth. The famous poet suggested that an appreciation of the beauty of romantic scenery was beyond the capability of ordinary people:
‘Rocks and mountains, torrents and widespread waters, and all those features of nature which go to the composition of such scenes as this part of England is distinguished for, cannot, in their finer relations, to the human mind be comprehended, even very imperfectly conceived, without processes of culture or opportunities of observation in some degree habitual’.

Our rash assault on Lake Windermere took place late in August, via the steam train from Haverthwaite to Lakeside.

It is hard to imagine that any reader of this blog would have difficulty in appreciating the beauty of Lake Windermere, but I will nevertheless add some of Wordsworth’s poetry below my photos.

Standing alone, as from a rampart’s edge,
I overlooked the bed of Windermere,
Like a vast river, stretching in the sun.
With exultation, at my feet I saw
Lake, islands, promontories, gleaming bays,
A universe of Nature’s fairest forms
Proudly revealed with instantaneous burst,
Magnificent, and beautiful, and gay.

(William Wordsworth, The Prelude Book IV)

After our cruise on Lake Windermere we visited Grasmere.

Rest in peace, William Wordsworth. I hope our visit did not disturb you too much. We were only in your beautiful Lakes District for one day. 
John Stuart Mill, one of the most famous advocates of utilitarianism, walked all over your Lakes District for the best part of a month in July-August 1831 and even spent about 4 days walking and talking with you.

After visiting Wordsworth, Mill told a good friend, John Sterling:
 ‘all my differences with him [Wordsworth], or any other philosophic Tory, would be differences of matter-of-fact or detail, while my differences with the radicals and utilitarians are differences of principle’. (See: Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill, 2007, p 74.)

The best explanation of Mill’s views at that time seems to be that he was somewhat confused after setting out to expose himself to a variety of different views opposed to radical utilitarianism - the secular religion of his youth. Mill did this following a mental crisis which he attributed to realization that even if all his (radical utilitarian) objectives were realized, he would not be filled with ‘great joy and happiness’. In addition to the views of Wordsworth, Mill became strongly influenced at that time by French secular messiahs, Saint-Simon and Auguste Compte. (Mill’s involvement in that brand of secular religion has been examined by Linda Reader in her book, John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity, 2002.)

Mill embraced the poetry of Wordsworth because it helped him to achieve a more tranquil mental state. I expect that vast numbers of people have been similarly helped by the imagery of the Lakes District conveyed by Wordsworth’s poetry. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do I understand the meaning of W B Yeats' epitaph?

I know that poetry can sometimes convey thoughts and feelings that tend to get lost in prose. Nevertheless, I don’t read much poetry. Reading poetry has always seemed like something that I could do when I become older.

Even so, I have recently been reading some of the poetry of W B Yeats. My interest was aroused by the epitaph on his gravestone in the cemetery of St Columba’s Parish Church at Drumcliffe in County Sligo, when we visited Ireland during August.

What could Yeats have meant by suggesting that we should cast ‘a cold Eye’ on ‘Life’?
Before trying to answer that question it may be worth considering why we should care what Yeats meant. I think we should show some interest because he has been widely held to have been a literary genius. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, for what the Nobel Committee described as ‘inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. His poem, ‘Easter 1916’, about the participants in the rebellion that occurred at that time in Ireland, comes to mind as a poem that might warrant that description.

Beside the grounds of St Columba’s is this artistic feature, sculpted by Jackie McKenna.

The figure is called ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, after Yeats’ poem of the same name, and the poem is laid out in front of him:
‘Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.

Yeats seems to be widely esteemed in this part of the world. This statue of Yeats can be found in Sligo.

There is also a Yeats memorial building in Sligo, with displays providing information about his links with that region and other aspects of his life.

There is a Yeats exhibition at the National Library in Dublin, which contained among other things his response to a questionnaire about creative effort. I was permitted to take some photos:

Yeats’ suggests that his creative efforts always involved day-dreaming. He never waited passively for inspiration and always worked systematically regardless of inspiration. He claims that his critical ability was always active in his creative efforts.

Yeats’ epitaph is the last stanza of his poem, ‘Under Ben Bulben’. Ben Bulben is a mountain close to where Yeats is buried.

In a small booklet, entitled ‘The Eye of the Heart’, available at St Columba’s church, Derick Bingham suggests that Yeats is saying:
‘If you are looking for answers as to what lies behind life and death, I can’t help you. You must look somewhere else. Horsemen, pass by’.
That is one possible interpretation.

However, reading the epitaph in the context of the poem, it seems that the horseman referred to is mythical superhuman creature ‘with an air of immortality’. We are told in the poem that such horsemen and women now ‘ride the wintry dawn’ ‘where Ben Bulben sets the scene’.
I think the key to the meaning that Yeats was intending to convey is in the following lines:
‘Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all’.

I think Yeats wants us to view life and death through the cold eyes of mythical god-like beings of the ancient world.

That perspective leaves me cold. Is it not better to look at life and death through human eyes? Perhaps contemplating whether those who have gone before have had happy lives can help us to consider how best to live our own lives.

This is one of the most popular posts on my blog. I urge visitors to take a look at the comments provided below, some of which disagree with my understanding of the epitaph.

Postscript 2: April 6, 2020
A followup post with comment by Beth Prescott has now been posted: See: What did Yeats mean by "Horseman, pass by"? 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Should we choose eudaimonia over hedonia?

Last week my attention was drawn to the findings of some recent research, led by Barbara Fredrickson, which suggests that eudaimonia – which can be described in broad terms as a sense of wellbeing associated with a noble purpose or engagement in meaningful activities - provides positive health benefits in protecting against a variety of human ills, including arthritis, heart disease and viral infection. By contrast, the study suggests that hedonia – a sense of happiness associated with pleasure, satisfaction and self-gratification – has the opposite effects.

The findings are noteworthy because previous research has suggested that both eudaimonia and hedonia are associated with improved physical and mental health outcomes. I feel more inspired than surprised by the findings. Like many other people I was brought up to believe that a noble purpose can be protective, but in adult life I viewed that as more a matter of faith than anything else. It is interesting to learn there may be a scientific basis for such beliefs.

The research combined psychology tests to determine the nature of happiness experienced by 80 healthy adults with a health check and test of blood samples to assess gene expression associated with chronic stress and antiviral responses. Barbara Fredrickson is a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. On this project she collaborated with a team led by Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry, at the University of California. (The research findings have been published in PNAS.)

Like previous studies, this study indicated that there is a relatively high correlation observed between eudaimonic and hedonic indicators of happiness (r= 0.79). People who score highly in terms of eudaimonic happiness tend also to score highly in terms of hedonic happiness, and vice versa, but there was nevertheless sufficient difference to enable the impacts of eudaimonia and hedonia to be disentangled.

The authors’ conclusion is a bit complicated, but it seems to be implying that if the ‘good life’ means a long and healthy life, then eudaimonic wellbeing is superior to hedonic wellbeing.

 However, there are some important qualifications noted in the discussion:
‘In interpreting these results, it is important to note that hedonic and eudaimonic well-being are not mutually exclusive approaches to happiness, nor do they represent a simple typology or a tradeoff. Both types of well-being share some common sources (e.g., perceived social connections) and can reciprocally influence one another [i.e., positive affect predisposes people to find positive meaning, and finding positive meaning increases positive affect]. As such, the current finding that a purified index of eudaimonic well-being (purged of shared variance with hedonia) predicts a more favourable pattern of gene expression than does a purified index of hedonic well-being (purged of shared variance with eudaimonia) says more about which form of well-being one would not want to do without, rather than which form one would be better to avoid. For people in whom one form of well-being outweighs the other, striving predominately toward meaning may have more favourable effects on health than striving predominately toward positive affect per se’. (References to cited works have been omitted from the quote.)

I struggle to understand what some of that paragraph means – the findings of the study seem to me to suggest that some kind of trade-off between eudaimonia and hedonia must be involved, despite the existence of complementarity. The issues involved appear a little clearer, however, when I bring my training in economics to bear and think in terms of a possibilities curve that surrounds all the combinations of eudaimonia and hedonia that it might be possible for an individual to achieve.

I have drawn the possibilities curve to depict a trade-off between hedonia and eudaimonia at most of the attainable points (i.e. between A and B) but allowing some regions where single-minded pursuit of either hedonia or eudaimonia might result in inferior outcomes. I draw the curve as concave to the origin over most of its length because I imagine that the eudaimonic benefits we can obtain by sacrificing a unit of hedonic benefits would tend to diminish as we sacrifice more and more hedonic benefits. My reasoning is that there are likely to be diminishing returns to devoting time both to activities that produce high hedonic benefits and activities that produce high eudaimonic benefits. I expect that single minded pursuit of hedonia might be counterproductive for the same reason that J S Mill argued that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it (as discussed here previously). And I expect that single minded pursuit of eudaimonia might be counterproductive for the same reason that Aristotle argued that we need amusement – ‘for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously’. (That comes from the passage in Nicomachean Ethics Book X, where Aristotle suggests that it would, indeed, be strange if amusement was your purpose in life and you were to take trouble and suffer hardship all your life just in order to amuse yourself.)

The sentence in the paragraph quoted above about the findings saying more about ‘which form of well-being one would not want to do without, rather than which form one would be better to avoid’, seems to envisage a person who is at a point inside the possibilities curve, such as the point at the question mark. A person in that position might be considering whether to seek to become happier by moving in the direction of point H or point E.

I should emphasize that the possibilities curve I have drawn is based mainly on my speculations and may not be related to what Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues have in mind.

However, I think my diagram may have some value in considering the information and practical wisdom we need to make sensible decisions about how we live our lives:
  • ·         First, we need to know ourselves well enough to know where we stand at present relative to the possibilities that are available to us.
  • ·         Second, additional information (such as the findings about potential health consequences in the study discussed above) has potential to help us to choose wisely among the possibilities that are available.

My final point is the same as the point I made a few years ago in discussing whether J S Mill was correct in his rejection of Jeremy Bentham’s claim that pushpin is a good as poetry. There doesn’t seem to me to be much point in arguing whether eudaimonia is or is not superior to hedonia. The important issue is about obtaining balance in one’s life.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How does 'democratic failure' threaten progress?

In Chapter 8 of my book, Free to Flourish, I suggested that the greatest threat to human progress over the next few decades is that democratic governments will not be able to cope with their expanding responsibilities. I noted that increased public disorder is already evident in Europe and is likely to become more widespread as people become increasingly aware that governments cannot deliver on the promises they have made.

There is a risk that failing democracies will be replaced by authoritarian regimes that have little regard for human rights. Even if democracy limps on, however, over-expansion of the responsibilities of government seems likely to bring progress to an end in many societies.
Progress ends at the point where societies cease to be able to offer expanding opportunities for individual human flourishing.

From an economic perspective, the most obvious threat to progress posed by expansion of the responsibilities of government has to do with the economic costs of high levels of government spending, high taxation and excessive regulation. Government spending has to be paid for sooner or later by collecting revenue from citizens and (as every economist should know) the economic cost of taxation rise disproportionately with tax revenue. There are also economic costs associated with forms of government spending and regulations that divert resources to less productive activities or weaken incentives for efficient resource use. As a general rule, the further the activities of government extend beyond core functions in which government has a comparative advantage, the more likely it is that progress will be stifled.

However, that kind of analysis understates the threat to progress posed by expansion of government responsibilities because it assumes that governments act in the interests of the broader community and that all governments have competence in taxing, spending and regulating to pursue agreed objectives. Democratic processes may reduce some of the problems of such government failure, but democracy doesn’t provide much assurance that governments will pursue objectives that are in the interests of the vast majority of citizens, or that the activities of government will be undertaken efficiently. Democracy doesn’t prevent voters from developing inflated expectations of what governments can do – politicians often encourage inflated expectations in competing for votes. Democracy doesn’t ensure that individuals have the opportunity to discover and pursue whatever it is that enhances their own wellbeing and the responsibility to manage their own lives; it doesn’t prevent people from being relieved of important responsibilities – such as education, health care, saving for retirement. Democracy doesn’t prevent governments from becoming captive to interest groups in industry, the community and the public sector, and to pursue the interests of those groups at the expense of the rest of the community. The absence of market disciplines in the public sector makes public sector activities particular prone to corruption and inefficiency, even in democracies.

As a consequence of such democratic failure there is a tendency for the responsibilities of government to expand until economic disaster threatens. The point at which this occurs differs greatly between countries, depending on the extent of corruption and inefficiency. For example, Greece was well on the way to an economic crisis before its government spending as a percentage of GDP reached levels comparable to those in Sweden, which is often held up as a prime example of a country with big government.

Another symptom of democratic failure is difficulty in changing course when disaster threatens. Again, a comparison between Sweden and Greece is appropriate. When disaster threatened in the early 1990s, Sweden was able to introduce reforms to contain the growth of government spending, reduce marginal tax rates and regulate more efficiently. Despite the high level of government spending in Sweden - still around 50 per cent of GDP – there is some prospect that opportunities for individuals to flourish will expand over time in that country. Gallup poll data suggest some increase in average life satisfaction in Sweden over the period from 2005-07 to 2010-12 and that Swedes are optimistic that their lives will improve further over the next five years.

By contrast, Greece has shown much less ability to introduce the reforms needed to avert economic disaster, even though successive governments in that country have known that public debt problems were looming since before 2001, when Greece joined the Eurozone. The consequence has been a fall of about 20 per cent in Greece’s GDP since 2008. The average unemployment rate in Greece has been about 28 per cent this year and youth unemployment over 60 per cent. Over the period from 2005-07 to 2010-12, average life satisfaction in Greece declined from 6.3 to 5.4 (on the Cantril scale in which the ‘best possible life’ is given a value of 10 and the worst possible life a value of zero). Greeks have become pessimistic about the future – the average Greek expects life to get worse over the next five years.

It would be nice to be able to contrast the experiences of both Sweden and Greece with those of a country that can be held up as a model of ideal democratic governance. Unfortunately, no country comes to mind. Institutional innovations have resulted in improved policy outcomes in some countries, but I don’t think any one country deserves to be held up as a model of ideal governance.

The growth of inflated expectations of what governments can do seems to be a common pattern throughout the democratic world. It is also common for responsibilities of government to expand until crisis threatens.

As we have seen, what happens at that point is of critical importance. If policy reforms are introduced to contract the responsibilities of government, that enables opportunities for individual human flourishing to expand over the longer term. If reform is too little and too late there is the prospect of following Greece down the path toward widespread misery. Unfortunately, a Greek tragedy may await many countries, particularly in Europe, where democratic failure seems to have become too deeply entrenched for substantial reforms to be implemented.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How should virtue ethics be applied in the pursuit of happiness?

Jeffrey Sachs has described his essay, ‘Restoring Virtue Ethics in the Quest for Happiness’ as highly speculative. That description is apt in my view, even though the idea of restoring virtue ethics does deserve serious consideration. (The essay was published recently as Chapter 5 in the World Happiness Report 2013.)

Jeff begins by establishing that before the modern era, virtue and happiness were seen to be inextricably intertwined. Happiness was seen to be achieved by harnessing the will and the passions to live the right kind of life. He goes on to argue that, over several centuries, virtue ethics has largely been replaced by utilitarian considerations, resulting in greater hedonism and consumerism.

I agree that people have come to think of happiness as being largely about feelings – about pain and pleasure, or positive affect and negative affect, rather than about tranquility, equanimity or spirituality. And, for many people, the pleasure of immediate consumption seems to have encroached upon the virtue of prudence.

Jeff takes this argument much further. He suggests that in the early decades of the 20th Century (the Roaring 20s) ‘America slid into an ethos of ‘hyper-commercialism, untethered by ethical, religious, or philosophical constraints’. He suggests that since then the prevailing ethos has been that happiness ‘was more and more to be found in personal wealth, pure and simple’. He follows Wilhelm Ropke in suggesting that the ubiquity of advertising and the other ‘dark arts of persuasion’ are undermining social values and ethics. He also shares Ropke’s concerns that financial innovations are undermining the fragile restraints that induce households to save for the future.

Jeff argues that hyper-commercialism is the dominant ethos in the United States today. He also claims:
‘Hyper-commercialism has failed to lift average US happiness for more than half a century, even as per capita income has tripled. In Figure 2.3 of this report, the US ranks just 17th in happiness, though it has a higher income per capita than the 16 countries ahead of it, with the exception of Norway’.

However, I don’t think Jeff has established that hyper-commercialism is the dominant US ethos. It seems to me that what Jeff describes as ‘hyper-commercialism’ is normally referred to in less inflammatory terms as ‘materialism’ - a preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts and considerations at the expense of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values. Whereas hyper-commercialism is linked exclusively to commercialism, materialism could have a number of different causes. Businesses certainly try to tempt people to buy the things they sell, but they were not alone in encouraging materialism. The 20th Century was also prime time for industrial and political movements which promoted materialism by encouraging people to agitate for improvement in the material conditions of their lives. Practitioners of the politics of envy have been active in America in encouraging people to become discontented, even though they have been less successful than in some other parts of the world.

The idea that materialism has become dominant seems to me to understate the ongoing influence of ethical constraints and non-commercial values in the United States. Views about anti-social behaviour have moved in favour of greater government regulation, and opportunistic and untrustworthy behaviour is widely discouraged. Moralists and even some entertainers preached against materialism during the 20th Century, as in earlier periods. Their view has gained impetus in recent years as scientific evidence has emerged that people whose main goal in life is to become wealthy tend to become unhappy if they fail to attain that goal.

Jeff also seems to have overlooked the possibility that people might have chosen to become more materialistic in their outlook even in the absence of urging by commercial and political interests. Is it not possible that we have come to want the material objects that make our lives more comfortable and provide us with better travel and communication possibilities as they have come into existence and as we have come to learn how they can improve our lives? My casual observations suggest that it is possible. For example, when I visited Bhutan it seemed obvious to me that many of the people who live there still want access to the material objects of the modern world, even though they have been exposed to little advertising.

The evidence that Jeff cites of no increase in average happiness in the US for more than half a century is contradicted by evidence from the Pew Research Center and the Gallup Organisation that since 1964 the proportion of Americans saying that their life today is better off than five years ago has generally far exceeded the proportion saying that their life today is worse than five years ago. It seems to me that the latter surveys are more reliable because they require respondents to evaluate their current and past lives on a directly comparable basis.

The point that Jeff makes about average happiness in the US ranking below that of some countries with lower incomes invites an inspection of the reasons why the US ranking is lower, to see whether they provide support for speculations about hyper-commercialism. I don’t see any obvious evidence in support of Jeff’s speculations in Figure 2.3 (to which he refers in the passage quoted above). Perceived levels of social support and generosity are comparable to those in the highest ranking countries. The Figure suggests that the areas in which the US performs more poorly than the highest ranking countries are perceptions of corruption and freedom to make life choices – which are not linked in obvious ways to hyper-commercialism. Further research is required to understand why people in the US perceive corruption to be high and their freedom to be restricted.

It is fairly clear from what I have written that I disagree with a fair amount of the reasoning by which Jeff comes to the view that virtue ethics should play a larger role in the quest for happiness. Nevertheless, I agree with him that we should be seeking some kind of ethical consensus as a guide to public policy. In Free to Flourish (and on this blog) I have suggested that the concept of a good society – a society that is good for the people who live in it – could be a useful focus for thinking about this issue. I have suggested that there would be widespread agreement that a good society would have three important characteristics:
·         a set of institutions that enable its members to live together in peace;  
·         widespread opportunities for its members to live long and healthy lives, and to pursue their economic, educational, cultural goals; and
·         a degree of security against misfortunes such as accidents, ill-health, unemployment and environmental disasters. 

Finally, I agree with Jeffrey Sachs’ suggestion that more attention should be given to monitoring individual norms regarding honesty, trust and other aspects of virtue ethics. The state of the social fabric is clearly of fundamental importance to the pursuit of happiness.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What has happened to average world happiness levels since the GFC?

Despite the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and its aftermath, there has been a small improvement in average life satisfaction of the world population over the period from 2005-07 to 2010-12. That finding is based on data from the Gallup World Poll, and is reported in the World Happiness Report 2013 edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs.

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It seems to me that the report may actually understate the extent to which most people in the world have perceived their lives to have improved since the GFC. I will give my reasons for that view toward the end of the article, after I have presented some of the Report’s findings.

Chapter 2 of the World Happiness Report indicates that increases in average life satisfaction occurred mainly in Latin America and Caribbean countries, the Commonwealth of Independent States (Russia and other former Soviet countries), East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. It suggests that these increases were offset to a large extent by declines in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Western Europe and NANZ (North America, Australia and New Zealand).

Significant improvements in average life satisfaction occurred in 16 of the 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and significant declines occurred in only 2 of those countries. The increases for Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Chile were all greater than 0.7 (on the zero to 10 Cantril scale), putting those countries among the top 12 countries in the world in terms of improvement in average life satisfaction.
The pattern was more varied in other regions. For example, average life satisfaction declined in 7 of the 17 countries of Western Europe but increased in 6 of those countries. Average life satisfaction declined in the United States and New Zealand, but did not change much in Canada and Australia.

Analysis in the report suggests that the main reasons for the improvement in life satisfaction in Latin American and Caribbean countries was growth of average income levels, combined with substantial declines in perceived corruption and a substantial improvement in life-choice freedom.

The Report includes a special analysis of the reasons for the decline in life satisfaction in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, the four countries of Western Europe in which life satisfaction declined to the greatest extent during the Eurozone crisis. The declines in life satisfaction in those countries were far greater than could be explained by the decline in income alone. Declines in perceived life-choice freedom, social support and generosity and increases in perceived corruption went some of the way toward explaining the decline in life satisfaction, but left a substantial amount unexplained. Inclusion of unemployment in the analysis suggested that this variable also had a significant independent impact.

The authors note that Greece stands out among the four countries as having the largest decline in life satisfaction that cannot be explained by any of the above factors. They suggest that another factor that might be of particular importance in Greece is a decline in trust in key institutions, such as the legal system.
It might have been illuminating to include Ireland in this analysis because that country was also severely affected by the GFC and still has an unemployment rate of 14%, which seems alarmingly high even though only about half the rate in Greece and Spain.  In contrast to the four countries included in the analysis, average life satisfaction levels in Ireland remained virtually unchanged over the period considered.

The time has come to discuss why I think the Report may actually understate the extent to which most people in the world have perceived their lives to have improved since the GFC. In my view there is a problem in attempting to measure changes in world happiness levels by comparing the results of successive surveys. The problem arises because the measurements have been made relative to a reference point – perceptions of the best possible life – that changes over time, and changes to a different extent in different parts of the world.

It seems to me that while it would be reasonable to expect that people in Europe would not have changed their perception of the best possible life to any great extent over the last five years, that is unlikely to be true of people in a country such as China, where high levels of economic growth would have been accompanied by broadening horizons and rising aspirations. I think that means that the World Happiness Report has probably tended to understate progress toward a better quality of life in countries with relatively rates of economic growth and thus to understate the increase in average happiness levels of the world population.

Perhaps it would help to clarify the point I am trying to make if I elaborate on the implications of rising aspiration levels in China for measurement of happiness. I noted on this blog a few years ago that Gallup data for 2008 indicates that the rating the Chinese gave to ‘life five years ago’ is lower than the average life satisfaction rating for just about every country in the world outside Africa. I also noted that the rating the Chinese gave to their lives five years ahead was higher than average life satisfaction in some western European countries. I went on to predict:
‘When they appraise their current quality of life in five years time they will realize that they still have somewhat further to go before attaining “the best possible life”. But they are not likely to become discontented while they continue to experience the economic growth they have come to expect’.

The World Happiness Report shows only a small improvement in average life satisfaction in China, from 4.7 in 2005-07 to 5.0 in 2010-12. We don’t have data on how much the Chinese have perceived their lives to have improved over the last five years, but it could well be by about the same magnitude as the improvement they perceived in the five years to 2008 (1.2 points). What we do know is that the Chinese remain just as optimistic about the prospects for improvement in the quality of their lives over the next five years as they were in 2008 (with an average improvement of 1.5 points expected in both instances).

We can be confident that the current optimistic expectations of the Chinese people will not be fully reflected in their average happiness levels in five years time because expected improvements in the quality of life in China over that period are likely to be accompanied by a further elevation in perceptions of the ‘best possible life’. Even if optimistic expectations are met concerning economic growth and other relevant factors, it is likely that there will be little increase in average happiness levels in China. Changes in the average happiness data provide little information on the extent to which people in China perceive that their lives are improving.

If we want to know the extent to which Chinese people perceive that their lives are continuing to improve we need information on the rating they give to their past lives that is comparable to the rating that they give to their current lives. As noted above, in the past the Gallup organization has in the past collected data on ‘life five years ago’ when collecting evaluations of ‘life today’. Unfortunately, this information has not been collected in recent surveys. Hopefully, the relevant information will be collected regularly in future.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How does meditation affect word mongering?

Teach Us to Sit Still seemed like an appropriate title for a book to read on the flight from London to Sydney a couple of weeks ago. The book, written by Tim Parks (a successful author who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel, Europa) turned out to be an even better choice than I had expected. The book provided me with a timely reminder of the benefits of Vipassana meditation. When I became too tired to read, I put on my eye mask and spent a couple of hours observing the sensations arise and pass away. That is something that I should do more regularly.

Tim has a delightfully dry sense of humour, which he has used to good effect in this book to tell the story of how he overcame severe pelvic pain that had made his life miserable. The medical profession was unable to find the cause of his problem, but Tim found that ‘paradoxical relaxation’ helped. This technique involves calmly identifying and observing tension without trying to relax it; the paradox is that the muscles eventually relax themselves.

Tim’s massage therapist told him that ‘paradoxical relaxation’ had some similarity to Vipassana meditation and he decided eventually to attend a Vipassana course. Although his immediate problem was cured, Tim felt that there was much work still to be done – predators ‘prowled the borders of the small haven of comfort’ he had staked out.

Tim approached Vipassana with irreverent scepticism, but this did not prevent the experience from having a profound impact. I want to focus here on the impact it had on his desire to continue to be a successful author.

At one point in his first meditation course, Tim is reflecting on the relationship between novels and life. He notes that the novels that ‘most accurately, intensely and wonderfully’ imagine life tend to keep us away from life: ‘If it is life we want, we put the book down’. This leads him to consider his own thought processes:
‘First the emotion, then the excited reflection on emotion, attempting to divert it from its initial function, to enroll it in my career project, to turn it into smartness and writing’.

During his second meditation course Tim accepts that the time has come to face up to ‘simply being here, instead of taking refuge in writing about being here’. He comes to consider the possibility that his former illness might be a consequence of his successful writing career:
‘Nor was it unthinkable that the strange pains I had been feeling had in some way to do with all those years sitting tensely, racking my brains over sheets of empty paper, building up hopes, rejoicing over some small achievement, overreacting to setbacks and disappointments. And it was true that if you placed yourself, or your attention, as it were beside these pains, if you just sat together with them and let them be, not reacting or wishing them away, they did in the end subside. Likewise the thoughts’ … .

The passage goes on with Tim acknowledging that he had sensed the first hints of equanimity. He concludes:
‘All you have to do now is stop writing … and you’ll have clinched it. You’ll have changed forever’.

When Tim tells the meditation teacher, John Coleman, that he is thinking of giving up his writing career, Coleman responds:
‘You know a lot of people come to these retreats and get it into their heads they should retire to a monastery or something. I can’t see why’.

Tim didn’t think that response was helpful; it didn’t resolve the conflict that he saw between word mongering and experiencing life.

So, how did Tim resolve that conflict? Well, he obviously didn’t stop writing. He has written a couple of other books since writing Teach Us to Sit Still, including the novel, Sex is Forbidden (first published as The Server). And some of the things he has written suggest that he still sees the potential for conflict. For example in an article entitled ‘The Chattering Mind’, for the NYR Blog, Tim suggests that modern authors are obsessed with mental suffering and impasse: ‘Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility’.

I have just read Sex is Forbidden to see whether it sheds any light on the effect that meditation had on Tim’s writing. This novel tells the story, in first person, of a rather naughty young woman who has spent several months at a meditation institute both as a meditator and as a voluntary helper (server) following a traumatic experience. Despite segregation of sexes at the institute, the young woman almost ends up in another relationship with an older man, after she stumbles on his diary and reads it. The main character is likeable, the challenges facing her are interesting and the story-line seems plausible. At the end, however, I was left unsure of how well Tim had actually managed to capture what might be happening in the mind and emotions of the young woman. (I went looking for reviews by women, but the only review I found that attempted to deal with the issue was by an opinionated man.)

The relevant point, however, is that while this novel is focused on mental suffering it manages to end on a hopeful note. We know that while the main character is unlikely to live happily ever after, her chances of living a happy life have improved.

Tim made a similar point in an interview with Jan Wilm:

 ‘So has meditation changed my writing? I’m not sure. … What I am talking about in a lot of my books is this process whereby you get yourself into a position from which there is no way out. Which is also a way of saying, the whole way you’ve structured your mental life actually doesn’t fit the nature of reality, because when you carry on in the way your map tells you to, you always end in a place on the territory where there’s nowhere to go. A lot of life feels like that to me. The different thing about The Server—and I was quite surprised about this when I wrote the end of the novel—is that here there is a feeling that, if nothing else, that period in the meditation retreat has helped these two people to avoid one more catastrophe, one more dead end. And that the girl, if not the man, has maybe moved on ever so slightly. She is not stuck, she seems able to move forward. I was quite surprised by my optimism’.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why was Northern Ireland a highlight of our tour of the British Isles?

There were many highlights of our recent tour of Britain and Ireland, but the visit to Northern Ireland will stick in my memory. Before we went there I knew that it was now a safe place for tourists to visit, but I had not grasped how much the conditions of life of the people who live there have improved since the Good Friday agreement was signed 15 years ago.

My first surprise was that crossing the border from the Republic to Northern Ireland was less noticeable than crossing from England to Wales. If we had not been told to look out for a change in the colour of the lines marking the edge of the road, we would not have known that our bus had crossed the border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

As expected, you don’t have to drive far in Northern Ireland before seeing evidence of division, with some communities displaying the Union Jack and others displaying the flag of the Republic. There are also plenty of murals, like this one, to let you know the feelings of the local communities.

However, people seem to be able to travel freely. Apparently it has become common for Protestants living in Northern Ireland to take a drive into the Republic. They have an incentive to do this because fuel is cheaper in the Republic. That is probably attributable to some kind of regulatory distortion, but it is nevertheless a hopeful sign when people put aside their prejudices to take advantage of economic opportunities.

Ronan McNamara, our local tour guide in Derry, or Londonderry (if you prefer), gave us a message of hope. He suggested that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland now just want to get on with living their lives and leave sectarianism behind.

I was also surprised to learn that the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is now below the average rate for the UK. (The unemployment rate for NI was 6.9% in June 2013, compared with 7.7% for the UK. The corresponding figure for the Republic was 13.5%, reflecting the uneven impact of the global financial crisis.)

We saw some symbols of hope in both Londonderry and Belfast.  The Peace Bridge is a cycle and footbridge across the River Foyle in Derry, which opened in June 2011, to improve access between the largely unionist 'Waterside' and the largely nationalist 'Cityside'.

The so called ‘peace walls’, built to separate the Protestant and Catholic communities in Belfast, are still very much in evidence and the gates are still closed at night. But the black cab drivers take tourists to see the murals on both sides of the walls. We were encouraged to add our messages to one of the walls.

I was impressed by the message left by Angus from Australia, last year.

The message I left would come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog.

Our trip to Northern Ireland has left me with a somewhat different perspective on the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. I had to visit Belfast before I fully appreciated that the ‘troubles’ were the last smouldering embers of ongoing sectarian violence that has infected the British Isles since the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII. It will help me to make the point if I present a couple more photos taken in Northern Ireland in historical context, relating to other things we saw as we travelled around the British Isles.  My efforts in doing this have been aided by the gruesome stories of warfare that our travel director, Paul Murphy (from Glasgow), told us as we travelled though the peaceful countryside of Britain and Ireland.

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey are an appropriate place to begin. Before Glastonbury Abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1539 it was one of the largest and most famous English monasteries. The dissolution of monasteries combined revenue-raising with religious persecution as buildings and other assets were seized by the Crown, to be sold off or leased, while monks and nuns were dispersed.

Now, fast forward to 1623 and the reign of James I. Although James was tolerant toward loyal Catholics, he decided that the best way to subordinate the people of Ulster (which was the last part of Ireland resisting British rule) was by colonising the area with Protestants from England and Scotland. Part of this colonisation involved building the heavily fortified city of Londonderry, so named because of investment from the City of London. The city walls are still intact despite the siege of 1689.

Before we can discuss the siege of Derry we need to skip past the English civil war, Oliver Cromwell’s suppression of the Royalists in Ireland, which led to confiscation of land owned by Catholics in Ireland, and the restoration of the monarchy which brought James II, a Catholic, to the throne. Although James II showed some degree of religious tolerance, influential members of Parliament became increasingly concerned about his religious beliefs and his close ties with France. So they brought about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which involved Parliament inviting William of Orange to ascend the English throne as William III of England, jointly with his wife, Mary II of England.

I have previously suggested on this blog that the Glorious Revolution was an important milestone in replacing tyrannical government because it was followed by the Toleration Act of 1689, which gave formal recognition to religious pluralism and was an important step toward giving equal rights to followers of all religions. That is still my view, but some of my ancestors (those from Ireland) would have had some difficulty in accepting that the revolution brought about by William and Mary was glorious.

James II fled to Ireland and assembled his supporters to begin undoing the Protestant land settlement. In April 1689 he presented himself before the walls of Derry - and so the siege began. After 105 days, however, Williamite ships allowed supplies into the starving town. William of Orange subsequently met James at the Battle of the Boyne and defeated him. That is why we see William III portrayed prominently in this mural in a Protestant area of Belfast.

Our story continues as the Williamite forces went on to control Ireland, with the exception of Limerick, which they lay siege to. The Jacobite forces surrendered after the signing of the Treaty of Limerick, promising religious toleration among other things, on the Treaty Stone in the photo below.

That might have been a good place to end this story, but the Irish parliament, representing landowners who subscribed to the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, dishonoured the Treaty. While Catholics were not prevented from practicing their religion, a series of penal laws prevented them from owning land, practicing law, holding public office and bearing arms. Catholics and Calvinists were also required to pay tithes to support the Church of Ireland.

In 1745, on the other side of the Irish sea, the Jacobites led by Bonnie Prince Charlie attempted to take back the English throne. His army had some initial success, but he failed to obtain the English and French support needed to beat government forces. His army was massacred on the battlefield at Culloden, shown below.

In the aftermath of Culloden, the Scottish Highlands were disarmed, Gaelic was banned and the wearing of tartan was made a hanging offence for a time.

Discrimination against Catholics began to diminish from about 1760 onwards, in response to agrarian unrest in Ireland and the emergence of a reforming minority, urging greater respect for individual rights, among those in power in London. The process of granting equal rights to people of all religions occurred gradually in a series of steps and is still not complete. The Church of England still has links to the state and while citizens of the United Kingdom have freedom of religion, the sovereign does not have that freedom.

One of the things I think we can learn from the history of the British Isles is that freedom of religion and respect for individual rights emerged as a kind of stalemate from a long series of conflicts. Those in power gradually came to accept that it was counterproductive to try to force people to change their beliefs or to discriminate against them because of their beliefs. They came to accept that suppression just led to rebellion at a later stage.

When we travelled around the British Isles we saw a great deal of evidence that this was a very violent part of the world only a few hundred years ago. But without visiting Northern Ireland, this evidence would have seemed as though it had been planted for the benefit of tourists. Britain and Ireland are, for the most part, incredibly peaceful places where the vast majority of people are obviously willing to ‘live and let live’. It was good to learn that there are now strong grounds to hope that Northern Ireland will be able to stay on track to become as peaceful as the rest of Ireland and Britain.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How much will the change of government change Australia?

I returned to Australia last Saturday, just in time to vote, after having spent a month travelling around Britain and Ireland. That means I had the good fortune to miss the election campaign.

However, missing election campaigns is not always an unmixed blessing. The last time I missed an election campaign, in 1983, when the Hawke government was elected, the country seemed to change in my absence in ways that I found difficult to understand. Prior to leaving Australia I think there was a fairly common perception, which I shared, that Bob Hawke was a divisive figure in Australian politics. After I returned just a few weeks later, it took some time for me to adjust to the fact that Hawke had come to be widely viewed as a national leader, capable of bringing the nation together to deal with difficult issues. The mood of the country seemed to have changed while I wasn’t looking.

I don’t think I missed much by being absent during the most recent election campaign - there doesn’t seem to have been any marked change in public mood. It was predictable that voters who were having doubts in 2010 about the leadership offered by the old Kevin Rudd, would realize during the campaign that the new Kevin was still the same person. It was also predictable that people who were having difficulty bringing themselves to vote for Tony Abbott prior to the campaign would not suddenly see him as offering inspiring leadership. The issue was whether Tony would be able to demonstrate during the campaign that he had learned how to keep his foot out of his mouth. 

How much will the change of government change Australia? There are some who argue that when the government changes, the country always changes. Paul Keating famously put that view to voters in 1996, as his period as prime minister was drawing to a close.  I suppose some of the people who decided to vote for John Howard would have disagreed with Keating’s warning, but others would have actually wanted the country to change.

In my view, the Howard government did not actually change the country to a huge extent relative to the course that had been set by the Hawke and Keating governments. The size of the federal government (measured in terms of cash payments as a percentage of GDP) contracted from 25.6% in 1995-96 to 23.1% in 1999-00, and then rose again, peaking at 25.1% in 2000-01. The trend toward greater centralisation of power in Canberra continued unabated. There was a change of style and some change of emphasis – possibly including greater enthusiasm for privatisation of government business enterprises - but the direction of policies did not change to any great extent until the final term of the Howard government.

In its final term the Howard Government introduced ‘work choices’ in an attempt to further free up the labour market. The net result, however, was one step forward and two steps backward. The reform encountered so much political opposition that it helped Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to gain power and introduce tighter labour market regulations than had existed prior to the Howard reforms.

In my view, the Rudd-Gillard-Swan governments changed the country to a much greater extent than could reasonably have been anticipated in 2007, when Rudd came to power. As well as the change of direction in industrial relations, the emphasis of policies turned towards redistribution of wealth as opposed to wealth creation with the introduction of an additional tax on mining profits. The change of style of government in the Rudd era – a prime minister with delusions of infallibility announcing policy on the run – made government seem chaotic. The Rudd-Gillard-Swan governments also brought about a substantial expansion in size of government – cash payments rose from 23.1% of GDP in 2007-08 to 26.1% in 2009-10. On the positive side of the ledger, the changes to health policy are possibly having positive outcomes (but I haven’t seen the evidence) and changes to education policy might also be positive. However, these policy changes have occurred at the expense of further centralisation of power in Canberra.

There seems to be a widespread expectation that the Abbott government will cut back the size of government, but I’m not sure that view  is warranted. The government will probably reduce the number of federal public servants, but when election  promises of increased spending are taken into account it seems unlikely that there will be a substantial reduction in government spending.

It is possible that the new government could take action to reform federal-state relations, by retreating from some policy areas that are more appropriately dealt with by the states. However, I will not be holding my breath waiting for that to happen. As noted a few years ago in my review of Tony Abbott’s book, ‘Battlelines’, he seems to be in favour of greater centralization of power in Canberra.

Perhaps the government will move on tax reform in its second term of office. But the most likely outcome will be a higher rate of GST to raise more revenue. If we continue to drift toward a European style welfare state, we will need a European style tax system to fund it!

I am not sure that we can even expect the new government to maintain policies favourable to free trade. Policies proposed with respect to ‘dumping’ suggest a lack of understanding of normal business practices and the role of international competition in the economy.

The main change the Abbott government seems likely to bring about is a return to more orderly government processes. In that respect, the contribution of the new government could be quite similar to that of the Fraser government in the 1970s, which brought to an end the chaos of the Whitlam years. In fact, the more I think about it the more I think that, with the exception of policies toward asylum seekers, the Abbott government could end up looking quite similar to the Fraser government. There will be plenty of talk about tough decisions, but I don’t think there is likely to be much action.

I had intended to mention that I was prompted to begin thinking about this question by a post last week on Jim Belshaw's blog. Jim's post was entitled: 'What can we expect of a new Coalition Government?'