Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Wrong Turn If We Want Happiness

The World Happiness report has just hit the streets, and the U.S. has fallen to 14th place. The top five spots are overwhelmingly dominated by Scandinavian countries, with Norway number one.

The Washington Post reports some of the background of how the ratings are done. While they start from a type of self-report, the results are analyzed using six variables:

  • income
  • healthy life expectancy
  • having someone to count on in times of trouble
  • generosity
  • freedom
  • trust, which is measured by the absence of corruption in business and government
What's up with that declining rank for those of us in the U.S.? Well,
Americans...have been reporting declining happiness over the past decade, according to the report. While the United States has improved in two of the six variables used to calculate happiness — income per capita and healthy life expectancy — it has suffered when it comes to the four social variables. American citizens are reporting less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business.
Note that our declining happiness dates back to the to the Bush years, before the crash in 2008. It didn't improve during the Obama years. It has been so notable that the report includes a special chapter called Restoring American Happiness, written by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs.
“This American social crisis is widely noted, but it has not translated into public policy,” Sachs wrote. “Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naive attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed.”

Sachs told Reuters that President Trump's policies will only make things worse. In his preliminary budget, released last week, Trump has indicated plans to gut several federal agencies and slash spending on foreign aid, including to the United Nations.

“They are all aimed at increasing inequality,” Sachs told Reuters. “Tax cuts at the top, throwing people off the health-care rolls, cutting Meals on Wheels in order to raise military spending. I think everything that has been proposed goes in the wrong direction.”

The United States, he concluded in the report, is looking for happiness “in all the wrong places.”

“The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse,” Sachs wrote. “Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth. And the prescriptions for faster growth—mainly deregulation and tax cuts — are likely to exacerbate, not reduce social tensions. Almost surely, further tax cuts will increase inequality, social tensions, and the social and economic divide between those with a college degree and those without.”

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