Review: The Politics of Happiness–What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being

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4.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Righteous, Mis-Leading Title

June 20, 2010

Derek Bok

First off, I'm back. After three months integrating into a field position with a prominent international organization, with three days off the whole time, I am finally able to get back to reading, and have about fifteen books on water I was going to read for UNESCO but will now read and review for myself. Look for two reviews a week from this point on, absent another tri-fecta (volcano, storm, minor coup).

This book is the first of three books that I am reviewing this week, the other two are The Hidden Wealth of Nations, which will be a five, and Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being, probably a five as well, but I continue to be stunned as how people limit their references to the last 10 years when so much has been done that is relevant in the last 50.

This book is not about the politics of happiness. It is more about the possibilities of public administration of happiness.

This will be a long review–apart from the author being one of a handful to truly top-notch minds with a historical memory, the topic is important–much more important than I realized until I starting following unconventional economics (ecological economics, true cost, bio-mimicry, sustainable design, human development and non-financial wealth).

The author opens with Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept, with four pillars (good governance, stable-equitable social development, environmental protection, preservation of culture). Elsewhere (on the web) I learn that the 72 indicators are divided into nine domains (time use, living standards, good governance, psychological wellbeing, community vitality, culture, health, education, and ecology).

From there the author moves to the 1800's and Jeremy Bentham, and of course our own Founding Fathers who included “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. As I have commented before in reviewing other books such as 1776; What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States, and The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country, happiness in those days was interpreted as fulfillment, “be all you can be,” not frivolous joy of “excessive laughter.”

The author identifies and discusses six factors pertinent to happiness in the US context as he defines it: Marriage; Social Relationships; Employment (wherein trust in management is VASTLY more important than the paycheck); Perceived Health; Religion (in sense of community not dogma) and Quality of Government (as which point I am reminded of George Will's superb Statecraft as Soulcraft; Quality of government is further divided into Rule of Law, Efficient Government, Low Violence and Corruption; High Degree of Trust in Public Officials and Especially Police; and Responsive Encounters by Citizens with Government.

Note: 30 million in US population are “not too happy.”

Note: Research findings on happiness are a great deal more reliable than the inputs that politicians rely on including hearing from constituents and polling.

Note: Heredity is 50% of your happiness potential, the rest not.

Note: The more direct democracy (citizen engagement), the more happiness.

The author spends time on whether growth as a goal is good or bad, and finds that additional leisure time tends to go toward passive activities such as watching television; and that the highly-educated and upper ranks with plenty of money tend to be over-achievers by nature.

The author is diplomatically blunt on Political Equality in the USA: simply not there. Politicians are at least twice as responsive to the needs of the rich as to those of the poor.

Equality of opportunity is not there either, with poor education from day one being the primary contributor to continuing the gap between haves and have nots. The author discusses the three big risks that all Americans below the top 10% face: insufficient retirement funds; inadequate or no health coverage; and no real protection from unemployment when it strikes. Unlike other nations, in the US anyone not in a union can be fired at any time without cause. There is no recourse.

He says “Health care is one of the more spectacular failures of American social policy.” [p. 106]

He observes that it is hard to save in the US, between twice as much advertising as other industrial nations, and a plentitude of unethical credit card practices that lure people into debt.

I learn a great deal as the author moves in a direction I did not expect, and discusses chronic pain (“many medical schools have no required course in pain management” p. 127); sleep disorders (HUGE costing tens of billions in accidents and lost productivity, 30 million suffer chronic insomnia; 6 million sleep apnea; 6 million restless leg syndrome; another 6 million this and that); and depression, which weakens the immune system and costs $80 billion a year or more in the US. I am impressed by the practical mention that out of 6 people suffering from depression, one will be treated properly; two will be treated improperly; and three will not be treated at all.

The author moves on to marriages and families, and here a number of policy or public administration suggestions resonate with me, including educational efforts to reduce teen pregnancy; changes to the law to eliminate jail time for drugs and non-violent crimes; six months paid leave for at least one parent (impressive findings on the difference that six months makes in the new person's future potential), massive investments in childcare and wage subsidies for parents (900% return on investment for a really good child care program).

Core policy prescription from Nobel economist James Heckman: “The best evidence supports the policy prescription: invest in the very young and improve [their] basic learning and socialization skills.”

I like Thomas Jefferson's and James' Madison's sayings better, see them at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, along with Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Gilad, Ellsberg, Toffler, and the Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi.

Turning to education (I also recommend the 82 books I have reviewed on General Education and the 30 on University Education (only clustered at Phi Beta Iota, I keep trying to get Amazon to adopt these features and it just is not happening–all reviews lead back to Amazon page for respective books) the author concludes that we have lost the art of liberal arts and broad learning and learning to think, and gone way too far toward vocational and pre-professional education, and I completely agree. Muhlenberg College, once described by Playboy as being “in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do” (newsflash: sex and studying go well together), was a priceless education and in retrospect I wish I had not fought so hard to get out of the religion requirement.

QUOTE: “At present, few government officials and educators pay enough attention to preparing young people for a full and rewarding life.” [p. 177]

I am surprised to not see any reference to the grotesque commercialization of the university, and the complete loss of honor on many fronts, but certainly the author is aware of that problem as well.

Discussing government he identified fix factors in which the USA is mediocre at best, and last on two, in comparison to six other great nations: 1) voice and accountability; 2) political stability; 3) effectiveness of government; 4) quality of regulation; 4) rule of law; and 6) control of corruption.

The author is extraordinarily tactful in gently pointing out that the US Government today is characterized by “questionable” tax breaks and earmarks for the rich; a poor record on helping the poor; excessive regulation; and a fragmentation of authority.

I put the book down pensive, in part because I have to read the other two books listed above to appreciate this one better. It would be very interesting to see this author take on the ten high-level threats to humanity identified by the United Nations (see A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change also free online) and the twelve core policies identified by Earth Intelligence Network–someone somewhere has got to do a strategic analytics piece on the whole earth, this author is superbly qualified to lead a team to do just that.

This book alone leaves me certain that economics is being brought into the 21st Century by Open Money, Wealth of Networks, and so many other initiatives, among them we must clearly include Happiness as an intangible hidden value that is neither displaceable nor replaceable by cold hard cash. Now that, I believe, is evolutionary consciousness.

Here are three other books within my ten book limit as set by Amazon, and I list two of mine because they bear on the analytic task that no one, anywhere, is undertaking:

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig (Substance of Governance; Legitimate Grievances; Candidates on the Issues; Balanced Budget 101; Call to Arms: Fund We Not Them; Annotated Bibliography)

INTELLIGENCE for EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability

I would have liked to see the 72 indicators as an appendix, and a bibliography in addition to the notes.

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