Thursday, January 10, 2013
"Happiness" as an elite excuse for stalled economic progress
Aside from the things technological progress provides (flatscreen TVs, cellphones, etc.) most people have not had a rise in their standard of living for many years. "Don't worry. More money would not have made you happier anyway" is the patronizing elite response.
Relatively poor people are at least as happy, if not happier, than those who are better off. That seems to be the message of two recent reports, one looking at happiness around the world, the other looking at wellbeing in the UK. But while ‘poor but happy’ seems a cliché that many are willing to embrace, the drive to emphasise happiness over wealth deserves more critical attention.
A recently released Gallup poll has placed some of the poorest countries of the world - including Panama, Paraguay and El Salvador - at the top of the happiness stakes. In November, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its latest update on the National Wellbeing programme. Not only have life-satisfaction scores remained ‘broadly stable’ in spite of the recession, but deprived areas seem to be home to some fairly happy people (provided they have trees to look at).
Those unfamiliar with the happiness agenda might be surprised at the huge impact it has had; it’s everywhere, from Oxfam to Coca Cola, from the World Bank to UK educational policy. Like the furore surrounding self-esteem in the 1990s, there has been a widespread push to affirm happiness’s importance. Almost every social ill has been said to be remediable through raising ‘subjective wellbeing’ or happiness levels.
Indeed, a 2012 report produced by the Children’s Society argued that ‘a low level of subjective wellbeing’ puts young people at risk of poor mental health, social isolation, likelihood of victimisation and involvement in ‘risky behaviours’. Richard Layard, the UK’s unofficial ‘happiness tsar’, has even claimed that unhappiness is Britain’s ‘worst social problem’.
But the official focus on happiness in recent years was not a response to growing unhappiness in society. In fact, according to happiness advocates themselves, nothing much has changed. And therein lies the ‘paradox’: despite ‘massive economic growth’, the proponents of the happiness agenda say, there has been no increase in happiness. For those unconvinced, graphs are often helpfully included, depicting a stagnating ‘happiness rate’ plotted against a steadily climbing GDP.
The conclusion frequently drawn, as the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon did last April, is that less attention should be paid to traditional monetary indicators of ‘so-called progress’, and more to what makes people (sustainably) happy. British prime minister David Cameron agrees, stating back in 2006 that ‘we have to remember what makes people happy, as well as what makes stock markets rise’. While this idea of shifting attention to ‘what really matters to people’ is often touted as radical, it is important to note that the modern happiness project has always been a top-down initiative. While existing as an idea within the establishment for decades, the politics of happiness was taken up by American positive psychologists in the late 1990s and was quickly embraced by individuals and groups closely connected with UK policymakers, who only then sought to enlist the approval of the general public.
The adage that money can’t buy happiness may seem daft as a guide for policymaking, but it’s been extraordinarily influential since the late 1990s. In addition to the high-profile introduction of an ONS initiative to add ‘wellbeing’ to its national accounts, the current UK government founded a Behavioural Insight Team, which advocates ‘nudging’ people into making decisions more conducive to happiness. A host of policies, from an increased emphasis on treatments like cognitive-behavioural therapy in mental health services to the introduction into the school curriculum of classes designed to foster ‘emotional wellbeing,’ have been justified through recourse to happiness expertise.
Cameron’s commitment to happiness upon taking office in 2010 was dismissed by some as a cover for government spending cuts. In fact, it was no mere political spin. The more uncomfortable question is why groups which should have been in opposition to the happiness agenda found themselves in agreement with it.
There are many reasons why happiness, thus conceived, was widely embraced. Most significantly, many implicitly accept Margaret Thatcher’s famous mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism (TINA). If we cannot hope to change society in real, material terms, then individual minds and behaviours become some of the few sites open to change. With the political outlook narrowed in this way, ideas like ‘rediscovering happiness’ as the ultimate goal of society can sound radical, utopian even. They also offer a way of bypassing uncertain political identities, connecting with people using the lowest common denominator. After all, who doesn’t want to be happy?
But constructing issues in such broadly agreeable terms makes it difficult to imagine how they might be challenged or opposed. Everyone seemingly agrees that ‘money can’t buy happiness’.
The problem with the politics of happiness is that it abstracts this emotion from individual and social experience, and makes it into a flat, measurable policy objective. I have no idea what the future holds, in the same way that no one in 1800, if they had been handed a ‘happiness survey’, would have rated themselves less happy in the expectation of modern innovations like access to electricity. Each generation finds happiness in accordance with the world they take for granted. As a measure of ‘progress’, happiness defaults to an affirmation of the present as the best of all possible worlds.
This has led some proponents of the happiness agenda to dismiss material progress as a ‘hedonic treadmill’; ‘happiness adapts’, they say, and we will not become any happier should we attain the material objects of our desires. Humanity’s extraordinary resilience and tendency to make the best of a bad situation is used as a justification for maintaining low horizons.
The fact that this dismissal of material progress has faced so little opposition speaks to how profoundly disoriented the project of radical change has become. At one time, the expansion of wealth was viewed as a great boon for mankind: ‘For our demands are moderate’, wrote the Irish socialist James Connolly in 1907: ‘We only want the earth!’
The promise to give people a better life was also once one of the principal claims made for capitalism. But unable to expand and generalise wealth, and lacking clear alternatives, today playing down the benefits of material wealth is a rational strategy for the capitalist class. It is useful to remember that the wealthy in Victorian England, too, were known for looking down on the consumption habits of the working classes, pointing out they would not be so destitute if they would only be more frugal with their meagre wages.
Richard Cohen Explains Conservatives
On the last day of 2012, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen inadvertently clarified two huge matters regarding the left.
The first was the ignorance about conservatives and conservatism that permeates the left. The second was the primary reason decent people identify with the left: the effective caricaturing and demonizing of the right. Were it not for caricature and demonization, most otherwise intelligent and decent people would not be on the left.
This is what Cohen wrote in his column, "Republicans Adrift:"
"It is conservatism that is both intellectually exhausted and nearly indefensible. It is the movement of the ideologically ossified, of gun zealots and homophobes, of the immigrant-phobic and the adamantly selfish. It insists that government must be small (an impossibility!), education must be local (a stupidity) and that debt, no matter what the reason, is immoral and reckless. The movement has lost its reliable monster. Godless communists have been replaced by the church ladies of Planned Parenthood. History giggles."
This caricature of conservatism was penned not by some anonymous contributor to the comments section of MoveOn.org, but by a longtime liberal columnist of the Washington Post.
"Intellectually exhausted and nearly indefensible. It is the movement of the ideologically ossified ... "
All one has to do to show how ignorant this description of conservatism is to cite the names of the two conservative columnists at Cohen's paper, the Washington Post: George Will and Charles Krauthammer. Are these men "intellectually exhausted" and "ideologically ossified"? Are their views really "nearly indefensible"? I mean no insult when I say that the intellectual gap between the columns of those two conservatives' and the columns of their liberal colleagues is quite substantial.
Even outside the Washington Post, where are the liberal Charles Krauthammers and George Wills? Or the liberal intellectual equivalents of Daniel Henninger and his colleagues at the Wall Street Journal; or Jonah Goldberg and his colleagues at National Review? And what about Commentary and the Weekly Standard? Are they, too, "intellectually exhausted"? And name one black liberal thinker who inhabits the same intellectual universe as Tom Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas or Larry Elder, just to name a few black intellectual giants of the right.
"... of gun zealots and homophobes, of the immigrant-phobic and the adamantly selfish."
I have never attended an NRA meeting, let alone been a member, but I happen to think that it is a good thing when good people are armed. Am I "gun zealot"? And if there are "gun zealots," are there not "anti-gun zealots"? Or is zealotry a conservative monopoly? That I suspect is exactly what Cohen believes -- just as he undoubtedly believes that there are religious zealots but no secular zealots.
As for "immigrant phobic," Cohen got carried away here, too. Virtually every prominent conservative voice wants an increase in immigration - of legal immigration, of people who can contribute to America's development. It is illegal immigration that conservatives oppose. Is that distinction too subtle for Cohen to appreciate?
"Adamantly selfish" may be Cohen's corker. Conservative Americans give more charity and volunteer more time than liberal Americans (controlling for income level). On what possible basis, then, does Cohen make the charge -- as false as it is defamatory -- that conservatives are "adamantly selfish?"
Conservatism "insists that government must be small (an impossibility!) ..."
America has been great in large measure precisely because it has understood that the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen. Moreover, the real "impossibility!" is not small government but the left's ever bigger government. It is neither economically nor morally sustainable, as we are seeing both in Europe and here in America.
"... and that debt, no matter what the reason, is immoral and reckless."
This is just demagoguery. Conservatives have little problem with manageable debt: a level of debt that does not rob from future generations, and debt that does not jeopardize America's supremacy in the world. And "no matter what the reason" is almost a lie. It depends entirely on the reason. The last time we had the debt percentage of the GDP we have now was World War II -- and conservatives believe that was a fine reason to get into debt, just as the Cold War was.
"The movement has lost its reliable monster ... Godless communists."
What an admission by a leading liberal -- first, that communism was not a real evil, just a "reliable monster" for conservatives, on a par with "church ladies of Planned Parenthood." Second, that "Godless" is a joke, not a real threat to the moral foundations of society -- as if the death of Christianity in Europe didn't lead to Fascism, Nazism and Communism.
This is pure leftism. Since Karl Marx, the left has believed with religious certitude that its views are inevitable. "Scientific socialism" Marx called it. Everything opposing the left will end up in the dustbin of history, said Lenin.
We'll see if history giggles at Cohen or Krauthammer.
The Other America Is Still There
Despite the flood of bad news, including 47 million people on food stamps amid a growing underclass, there’s a whole other America out there, swimming under the polluted media like a whale under a stormy sea. You know it’s there because a dorsal fin surfaces from time to time.
One dorsal fin is the enormous outpouring of gifts, cards and assistance to victims of natural (Hurricane Sandy) and manmade (Newtown school massacre) disasters. Just the other day, I noticed a giant book in a Chick-fil-A restaurant in northern Virginia for people to sign to let the people of Newtown know that lots of people are praying for them. That’s the same company that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said should be banned from his city because the founder believes in God’s definition of marriage.
A few years ago, an underreported story was the massive surge of private charity to aid Gulf communities shattered by Katrina. Churches that were hundreds of miles away “adopted” congregations, sending money and teams to help them rebuild homes and sanctuaries.
According to a December 2012 Gallup poll, despite an increase in the number of people claiming no religious affiliation, “the United States remains a largely Christian nation; more than nine in 10 Americans who have a religious identity are affiliated with a Christian religion.” If even a fraction of these folks read the Bible, they’ll notice that it differs sharply with the values served up by the decadent media culture.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys’ 6’-2”nonpareil receiver Michael Irvin terrified defenders, except for the Redskins’ Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green. The 5-9 Green gave Irvin all that he could handle. Off the field, the two men could not have been more different, with the outspoken Christian Green founding a charitable foundation while Irvin became synonymous with bad behavior.
The two men now travel together to speak at schools, hospitals and churches, spreading the word that Jesus can turn anyone’s life around—even the notorious Irvin. The two are far from unusual in that regard, with many pros giving back to their communities.
Sometimes the Big Picture can be overwhelming, especially after a disappointing election and capitulation by people that you thought were standing up for you and your values. I’m not about to turn Pollyanna and say that everything is okay, because it’s not. In fact, it’s very grim and will get worse if people don’t wake up and get more involved. We can all do something to turn things around.
A boy was walking with his father at the seashore when they encountered hundreds of starfish washed up on the beach, perishing. The boy methodically started picking them up and throwing them back. “What’s the point?” asked his father, gesturing at the magnitude of the problem. “There are too many of them. They’re all going to die.” Undeterred, the boy continued to reach down. As he threw each starfish back into the water, he said, “Not this one. Not this one. And not this one….”
Watch for those fins, stop sulking, take heart and get involved. There are a lot more where they came from.
Australian Federal government trying to muzzle the media
THE nation's media giants have slammed Labor's plans to make it unlawful to offend or insult people under the proposed overhaul of discrimination law, warning it could encourage audiences to be unnecessarily thin-skinned and outlets to restrict contentious or complex material.
In a rare united submission, the media companies say that with the exception of the section of the Racial Discrimination Act used against newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt, no existing federal law deems conduct that is simply insulting or offensive to be discrimination.
They argue that satirical material, political commentary and informative programming on matters of historical or religious sensitivity might be offensive or insulting to some but are part of the national conversation that is "essential for fostering robust social and political debate, and therefore to ensuring a healthy democracy".
"Whilst these and similar topics may be offensive or insulting to some viewers, this does not make them discriminatory," the joint submission says. "No other liberal democracy has a human rights or anti-discrimination statute proscribing conduct which merely offends or insults."
The Gillard government is proposing to consolidate five commonwealth anti-discrimination laws into one act to meet an election promise.
The Senate inquiry into the draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, put forward by Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, has received more than 500 submissions, with criticism from a range of corners.
Business groups fear they will face high costs to defend claims, while some of the nation's top legal minds and human rights bodies believe it could set the bar for discrimination too low, potentially undermining free speech.
The conservative state governments of Victoria, NSW and Queensland warn the law will overlap and create conflict with state anti-discrimination laws.
The ACTU has said the laws do not go far enough and should allow punitive damages to be awarded, as they can be in discrimination cases in the US, while the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association has said that exemptions in the laws for "inherent requirements for work" could lead to pregnant workers being forced to stand for a 12-hour shift or climb ladders
Church groups have warned the plan could lead to lawsuits over religious freedom, while charity groups fear being exposed to discrimination claims by unpaid volunteers.
Media companies say in their submission they support the overall objectives of the plan to simplify anti-discrimination legislation, but parts of the exposure draft provide cause for significant concern, including because in defining discrimination the bill appears to use a subjective test of whether someone feels offended or insulted by published and broadcast content.
While SBS was able to successfully defend a 2006 claim under the Racial Discrimination Act that a documentary on the Armenian genocide in the early years of the 20th century was offensive to Turkish people, under the proposed new anti-discrimination laws the outcome would have been "dramatically different".
SBS had demonstrated that academic and historical experts believe the former Ottoman Empire was engaged in genocide.
But under the proposed new law, such matters would hinge on the subjective reaction of the viewer making the complaint, irrespective of its historical accuracy or academic merit. "Such a conclusion would have been both unjust and to the detriment of Australia's commitment to free speech," the submission says.
The submission is another sign of tension between Labor and the media.
ABC chairman and former NSW chief justice Jim Spigelman has already criticised the proposed law. But the new joint media submission is the first public criticism of the government's anti-discrimination plan by other companies, including News Limited (publisher of The Australian), Fairfax Media, SBS, West Australian Newspapers and AAP, as well as radio and television groups.
Media executives have meanwhile also campaigned against the recommendations of the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review, which have ranged from a new government-funded regulatory body to adjudicate on press behaviour to a new public interest test that could block major media ownership changes.
Late last year, Mr Spigelman warned that the section of the proposed law defining discrimination contained a subjective test of being offended. The new media submission says if this is the case, it could "produce a legal climate in which would-be complainants are encouraged to be unnecessarily thin-skinned and sensitive to offence".
"The introduction of a subjective test could create significant uncertainty for media organisations conducting prepublication review of material," it says.
"The inability of organisations to foresee what standard will be set is likely to have a chilling effect on the publication or broadcast of potentially contentious material. This will most directly affect consumers, whose access to the range of content they are able to read, hear and see may be limited."
On top of this, the proposed law could require media groups "to defend their innocence each time a member of their audience felt insulted or offended" because it put the onus on defendants to prove their innocence. The bill applies a single, simplified test of "unfavourable treatment" for unlawful discrimination; this is defined to include conduct that "offends, humiliates, insults or intimidates". The submission says the words "offends" and "insults" should be cut from the definition of unfavourable conduct.
It also says the general definition of discrimination should have an objective test and specific exceptions for content that is reasonable and in good faith in artistic performances, academic debate, fair and accurate reporting and commentary on matters of public interest. Such measures are in the racial vilification provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, and in the racial vilification part of the proposed law.
The Sex Discrimination Act includes the term "offended".
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.