Thursday, November 15, 2018

Is human flourishing primarily about psychological health, capability or opportunity?


This question is not just an intellectual puzzle. The way we answer it has important practical implications. The main point I want to make is that the appropriate answer if we are thinking about the flourishing of a close relative, friend or acquaintance is not appropriate if we are thinking about public policy.

Before attempting to answer the question, I need to outline the three different approaches.

The psychological health approach:  Martin Seligman is a leading exponent of this approach. In his book, ‘Flourish’, Seligman suggests that well-being theory ‘is essentially a theory of uncoerced choice, and its five elements comprise what free people will choose for their own sake’. The five elements he identifies are summarised as PERMA: positive emotion (pleasant experiences, happiness and life satisfaction); engagement (the flow state); relationships (positive relations with other people); meaning (belonging to and serving something bigger than yourself); and accomplishment (success, achievement, mastery).

In an earlier post I suggested that Seligman has missed another important element that people seek for its own sake, namely control over their own lives.

A more fundamental weakness of this approach is that it ignores all elements of well-being other than psychological well-being. For example, it seems reasonable to suppose that free people would usually choose to be wealthy rather than poor, even if their wealth made no contribution to their psychological well-being.

The capability approach: This approach was developed by Amartya Sen, an economist. Sen argues that a person’s capability reflects the alternative combination of functionings the person can attain and from which he or she can choose one collection. Functionings include objective criteria as being adequately nourished and being in good health as well as a range of other factors such as achieving self-respect and being socially integrated. In his contribution to ‘Capabilities and Happiness’ (2008, edited by Luigino Bruni et al) Sen noted that individuals may differ a good deal from each other in the weights they attach to different functionings. He seemed unwilling, however, to leave the weighting exercise to the individuals concerned. He suggested that ‘the weighting exercise has to be done in terms of explicit valuations, drawing on the prevailing values in a given society’.

The opportunity approach: The concept of opportunity proposed by Robert Sugden, also an economist, rests on “an understanding of persons as responsible rather than rational agents”. According to this view, individuals may sometimes act foolishly but nevertheless accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The term “opportunity as mutual advantage” expresses the idea that “one person’s opportunities cannot be specified independently of other people’s desires”. Sugden implies that an economic system that generates a great deal of individual opportunity is a system that rewards individuals for finding ways to benefit others. (‘Opportunity as mutual advantage’, Economics and Philosophy (26)).

If we were discussing the measurement of flourishing, I would add life satisfaction to this list of approaches. As discussed in another post, it has become common for life satisfaction ratings to be used to measure the extent that people are thriving or flourishing. Life satisfaction is measured by surveys asking individuals to give a simple numerical rating to their satisfaction with their livesThe countries with highest life satisfaction ratings tend to be those with highest ratings in terms of psychological flourishing and opportunity. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to argue that life satisfaction provides an ideal measure of any of the three aspects of human flourishing identified above.

So, what aspects of flourishing are most relevant if we are considering the extent to which relatives, friends and acquaintances are flourishing. In that context it seems reasonable to argue that psychological health, capability and opportunity are all relevant. For example, you might be able to think of individuals who would score highly in terms of PERMA even though they have limited capability and limited opportunities. You might be able to think of others who may have a fairly low PERMA score, even though they have had superior opportunities in life and seem to be functioning at a high level in many aspects of their work and family life. You might be able to think of people who have weak capabilities because they have wasted the opportunities available to them, and of others who have strong capabilities despite limited opportunities.

When we are assessing the extent that an individual is flourishing, it makes sense to consider the opportunities they have had, their current capabilities and their emotional well-being. It seems to me that an assessment would obviously be incomplete if it focused on only one of those aspects.

However, if we are looking at human flourishing from a public policy perspective, we need to have in mind what aspects of human flourishing public policy could, or should, be attempting to influence.

It doesn’t make sense for governments to accept responsibility for raising PERMA scores, because PERMA scores depend on factors that are largely outside the influence of governments. That is why the role of governments in relation to mental health has traditionally been focused on protecting community members and protecting the mentally ill from those who might seek to harm them. As options for treatment of mental illness have improved, the role of government in funding treatment has become more like its role in relation to other forms of illness. The main difference arises in relation to compulsory hospitalisation/treatment of people who are a danger to the community or themselves.

It seems to make more sense for governments to accept greater responsibility for raising the capability of citizens, but that is not without problems. Governments of wealthy countries have arguably played a role in enhancing the capability of many citizens through their involvement in funding of education and healthcare. However, it seems to me to be more accurate to describe those government interventions as attempting to promote more equal opportunities, rather than raising capabilities. Opportunities provided in education, for example, do not always end up raising the capability of students to earn an income after graduation.

The role played by governments in promoting more equal opportunities seems to me to be rather like a parent intervening in a card game to take good cards from some children to give to others, or to take out of the game. Despite the redistribution of opportunities, the scores throughout the game still depend largely on how well individuals play the cards in their hands. Further paternalistic intervention to nudge the weaker players might improve their scores, but is also likely to weaken their incentive to enhance their capabilities.

In my view, from a public policy perspective, human flourishing should be primarily about enabling opportunities to grow, rather than about redistributing the available opportunities. It makes sense for governments to accept responsibility for facilitating growth in opportunity because government policies impinge greatly – often negatively – on growth of opportunity. Although the growth of opportunity is often uneven, we have seen with the history of economic growth since the industrial enlightenment, that as some people take advantage of new opportunities – for example as a result of technological innovations, additional opportunities are created for others. The growth of opportunity has also provided the wherewithal for individual and collective efforts to improve economic security for those who are not capable of providing for themselves.

Growth of opportunity is not identical to economic growth as conventionally measured. Growing opportunities for people to live the kinds of lives that they aspire to have obviously encompasses considerations of environmental quality and all the other important things that are excluded form GDP measures. As noted in a recent post, the objective of growing opportunity amounts to the same thing as the Wealth Plus objective advocated by Tyler Cowan in his recent book, Stubborn Attachments.
Summing up, considerations of psychological health and capability are highly relevant to assessment of the extent that individuals are flourishing, but the primary focus of public policy should be facilitating growth in the opportunities for people to live the kinds of lives they aspire to have.   

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

How does skin in the game help solve the Black Swan problem?


As I was reading Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb’s latest book, the thought crossed my mind that the author might classify me as an IYI (intellectual yet idiot). He puts economists in the IYI category along with psychologists.
Taleb writes: 
Knowing ‘economics’ doesn’t mean knowing anything about economics in the sense of the real activity, rather than the theories … produced by economists”. 
I agree. Some economists know little about the real world.

Despite his low opinion of economists, the author acknowledges that some of the economists I admire, including Friedrich Hayek, Ronald Coase and Elinor Ostrom, had useful insights about the real world. He even suggests that Paul Samuelson made a useful contribution by pointing out that people reveal their preferences in their market behaviour rather than in what they say.

Rather than viewing Nassim Taleb’s offensive anti-intellectualism as evidence that he suffers from SFB, I think economists and psychologists should view it as a clever ploy to attract the attention of their students. I hope Taleb succeeds, and also hope that his book helps students to pose difficult questions for some of their professors.

There is some irony in the fact that Taleb has a low opinion of intellectuals, since Daniel Kahneman views Nassim Taleb as “one of the world’s top intellectuals”. Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel prize for economics, largely for his research on asymmetry in the way people value potential gains and losses in making decisions. Taleb is critical of that research.

The question I raised at the outset was prompted by the following passage:

Skin in the game helps to solve the Black Swan problem and other matters of uncertainty at the level of both the individual and the collective: what has survived has revealed its robustness to Black Swan events and removing skin in the game disrupts such selection mechanisms. Without skin in the game, we fail to get the Intelligence of Time".

It is worth trying to take that apart to understand the reasoning behind it.

Skin in the game is about more than just sharing in the benefits of an activity. It involves symmetry and reciprocity – paying a penalty if something goes wrong as well as sharing in the rewards for risk taking.

Most people who provide us with goods and services still pursue occupations where they have skin in the game. The problem is that many of the people who don’t have skin in the game - for example, politicians, bureaucrats, bankers and university professors - occupy positions where their mistakes can have far-reaching consequences.

The Black Swan problem arises when we ignore extreme events – potential disasters - that occur infrequently. Taleb’s main point is that there are some risks that we can’t afford to take even though there is a low probability that they will occur at any point in time. His book, The Black Swan, was published in 2007 and made him famous following the 2008 financial crisis. Taleb contends that banks and trading firms are vulnerable to hazardous Black Swan events. The bank blow-ups occurred in 2008 as a result of hidden and asymmetric risks in the financial system.

At the level of the individual, skin in the game helps to solve the Black Swan problem because it helps people to focus on their need to survive in order to succeed. Taleb argues for profiting from risk-taking that doesn’t threaten survival. He points out that Warren Buffet made his billions by picking opportunities that passed a high threshold, rather than by applying cost benefit analysis.

At the collective level, skin in the game helps to solve the Black Swan problem because it requires decentralization of decision-making. Under a decentralized system the costs of the mistakes made by individuals are borne by those individuals, without necessarily affecting other participants. Centralized systems are exposed to the Black Swan problem because they can only be run by people who are not directly exposed to the cost of errors.

What has survived has revealed its robustness to Black Swan events. That applies to ideas, institutions, technologies, political systems, procedures, intellectual productions, car models, scientific theories etc. The only effective judge of things is time, because time is equivalent to disorder. The longer things survive, the more likely it is that they will have survived Black Swan events.

Removal of skin in the game disrupts selection mechanisms. When people have skin in the game they are less likely to reject ideas that have withstood the test of time in favour of new ideas that that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. A lot of findings published in peer reviewed journals fail subsequent replication tests.  

Without skin in the game, we fail to get the Intelligence of Time. Time removes the fragile and keeps the robust. The life expectancy of the nonfragile lengthens with time. Taleb writes:
The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival."

I think Nassim Taleb is correct in his view that skin in the game helps to solve the Black Swan problem. Unfortunately, however, when it is comes to consideration of potential Black Swan events that threaten the survival of humanity, the political systems we have inherited do not ensure that political leaders have enough skin in the game for their minds to focus appropriately. Political leaders focus on their survival at the next election rather than on the survival of humanity. It is up to citizens who are concerned about potential Black Swan disasters to initiate appropriate action themselves.