Income inequality and happiness

Two interesting and somewhat related items of interest on income inequality and happiness/well-being.

First, a collection of short essays from various Canadian writers (economists, political scientists, philosophers) from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), entitled, Why Inequality Matters in 1,000 Words or Less. Canada’s income gap between the richest and poorest is continuing to widen, and these authors reflect on the implications of this growing inequality.

Second, a pair of researchers from Washingont’s Brookings Institute (Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers) have recently offered up evidence that seems to refute the Easterlin paradox, a long-standing theory (based on observation) that while happiness increased with income to a certain level, beyond that point there was no relation. Money, it was believed, could only buy happiness to a certain degree.

But thanks to the surfeit of data now available for re-examining this phenomenon, Stevenson and Wolfers were able to re-evaluate the question, and have come to the conclusion that, apparently, more money generally does correlate with greater happiness.

Graph charting income against self-reported happiness

The new research does not, of course, overcome the inherent difficulties in comparing happiness across cultures when understandings of happiness (as well as aspirations, expectations) vary considerably, as Easterlin himself points out.

In the same vein, of course, there is no way to control for the possibility of self-deception. How many people who are actually unhappy would report being happy? I think it’s more than just plausible that the very wealthy would be biased towards describing themselves as happy–to be making $500k a year and describing yourself as unhappy would be essentially admitting defeat. You would be admitting that all you hard worked for, the dream life you were living, was a sham.

The impossibility of sorting out the complexity of self-reported happiness levels, I think, means that you’re never going to get a definitive answer on these questions.

Great conference on bikes; less great over-reliance on “tipping point”

I was at an excellent conference yesterday called Bike Summit 2008 that brought researchers, policymakers, politicians, etc. from across North American to discuss biking, infrastructure, public transit and all that stuff.

What was a bit less excellent, though, was the continual reference to the pop philosophy concept of “tipping point,” an idea that has some merit but not quite enough to warrant the amount of play it gets. For some relevant and fairly convincing criticism of the theory, see:

At the same time, Gladwell doesn’t deserve some of the criticism he’s received for this book. With the “tipping point” idea, Gladwell was, in one sense, a repackager: he took an old idea that had been floating around in similar form in the study of non-linear dynamics, chaos theory, combined it with some marketing theory on influecners, and came up with a new presentation. “Repackagers” are often disparaged in Western culture, and there are more than a few critics nipping at Gladwell’s heels, claiming he’s simply recycling old ideas and hasn’t provided anything of merit (with the implication that only what is new is worthwhile).

But Marx was a repackager too — he repackaged Feuerbach, Saint Simon, Hegel, Bakunin, Proudhon, etc. This is of course no mean feat, and a good repackager is every bit as valuable and original as someone who comes up with a “new” theory.

Slavoj Zizek web 2.0

Some thoughtful and entertaining musings from everyone’s favourite neo-Leninist:

Zizek’s reivew of Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding appeared in the February 2008 issue of Harper’s, and in the current, May 2008 issue we are treated to Critchley’s response. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read Critchley’s book.)

While I agree with Critchley on the unfortunate fact of Zizek’s tendency towards “rhetorical posturing” and his absurd authoritarianism, I think Critchley writes Zizek off too quickly, and that there are in fact decent points in Zizek’s review that merit argument and discussion.

For one, I have to disagree with Critchley’s definition of politics as “the invention of interstitial distance”, and it is in fact statements such as this that lead people to mis-read Critchley as a postmodernist. In fact, Zizek sounds remarkably (and somewhat surprisingly) reasonable when he queries:

If the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way?

I don’t think we need to interpret “accepting the Third Way” as endorsing Chavez-style authoritarianism. What it means for politics and political philosophy is that the “beautiful soul” model that Zizek accuses Critchley of promoting (whether this accusation is fair I cannot say, not having read Critchley’s book) is not enough, and that left-wing politics must get its hands dirty and act “with(in) the state”–without, of course, meaning that violent revolution is the answer.

Here, I side with, I think, Critchley, Hannah Arendt, Gandhi, and an English truism when I say that violence only begets more violence. For more on violence, politics, and “starting with a blank slate”, see Naomi Klein:

Inequality is bad: left-wing dogma, or common sense?

The Australian Centre for Independent Study (CIS) recently claimed, in an article purporting to debunk “six social policy myths“, that an “egalitarian orthodoxy”, i.e. a systematic and biased belief that inequality is bad, “shapes the public policy agenda in all sorts of ways without people even realising it.”

This is a little bit like claiming that a “democratic orthodoxy” likewise pervades the public policy agenda. Sure it does, but is that so bad? Not everything is “up for question”, and I suggest that the ideal of equality (however that is interpreted) is not up for radical questioning. This is essentially what C.S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man: to question such things is to place yourself outside the “tao” or the canon of traditional morality (which sounds very conservative, but isn’t actually) and to set yourself up as a nihilist.

In any case, there are lots of reasons for thinking inequality is bad. Among them are those offered last fall by U of T professor of Philosophy and Political Science Frank Cunningham (What’s Wrong with Inequality? – published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)) and, somewhat randomly, Daron Acemoglu et al’s Theory of Military Dictatorships, in which they argue that inequality is a serious threat to the emergence of democracy.

This last item echoes the findings of the CIA State Failure Task Force, which examined state failure over the last 50 years and found that the main predictor was high infant mortality and that while democracy lowers the risk of state failure (akin to Amartya Sen’s suggestion that democracies do not suffer famines — a bit overstated, but generally true), poor democracies are still very vulnerable to state failure.