Habituation, Loneliness & Consumerism

If you want to be happpy, marriage, family, & friendship matter way more than money. In The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert Lane's argument is that market societies induce people to spend their time and energy acquiring greater material wealth at the expense of companionship, and, as a consequence, happiness suffers.

But if companionship makes us happier than stuff, why don't we demand more companionship and less stuff? Lane seems to hypothesize that there is a diffference in the salience of satisfaction that biases us in favor of stuff. I found this interesting:

Adaptation is the key. If people can adapt to the chronic absence of their arms and legs [ww: as opposed to their temporary or intermittent absence?]– as they do — they will also adapt to absence of friendship, and it is this adaptation that accounts for the lack of demand by the lonely for friends. But, as with the elderly, this adaptation may have a hidden cost, for “the presence of a familiar person lowers blood pressure under stress, [and] . . . people whose heart rates rise more in [certain] experiments have high blood pressure two to 15 years later, whether or not they acknowledge being under stress or feeling intense emotion

What I take Lane to be saying is that companionship adds a subtle positive tone to experience, and we report ourselves much happier when our experience is shot through with that tone. The positive tone is the correlate of an objective organic good. (Not clear the way the causation goes here.) But the quality of the experience is subtle, the source is not easily attributable, and we quickly adapt to its absence, and so are not easily motivated to seek out its cause.

The hedonic surge from material consumption, however, is intense and immediate, and its source is easily attributable. However, due to habituation to the presence of new stuff, there is little lasting satisfaction from consumption. We'd be better off cultivating our relationships. However, because the fleeting hedonic payoff of consumption is more psychologically salient, we're more easily moved to go for a fresh consumption high. Thus, we'll tend to make ourselves less happy, and less healthy, as we consume.

Do you find this convincing?

New Cato Social Security Choice Paper

I have a new paper out today in Cato Social Security Choice series. It's called “Noble Lies, Liberal Purposes, and Personal Retirement Accounts.” If you've been following the Social Security posts on the blog, lots of the paper will seem familiar to you, but there's a lot of new stuff in the paper that I encourage you to check out.

Here's the executive summary:

Opponents of President Bush’s proposal to make individually owned personal retirement accounts a part of the Social Security program routinely charge that it is motivated by ideological animosity toward the values Social Security is supposed to embody, such as equality and social cohesion. However, a frank look at the Social Security status quo reveals that the program is very poorly designed to realize liberal ideals. Social Security has a barely progressive overall structure, if it is progressive at all. The huge volume of transfers inherent in the system accomplishes very little income redistribution within generational cohorts. Furthermore, it works to the disadvantage of current workers, who will receive a smaller “return” on their payroll taxes than do current retirees. The terms of the imaginary “compact between the generations” are manifestly unfair.

What is worse is that the Social Security status quo embodies a government-perpetuated deception designed to generate its own political support by misleading voters into believing that their payroll taxes entitle them to later benefits. The architects of Social Security created a structure and accompanying rhetoric that were specifically intended to encourage the false belief that the system provides a kind of insurance, similar to private insurance based in contract and property, and therefore involves a binding entitlement to benefits.

However, there is no justification for this deception on contemporary liberal grounds. The persistent intentional misrepresentation— the “noble lie” — embedded in the structure and language of the Social Security system is in fact antithetical to the ideals of transparent government, open democratic deliberation, and equality among citizens — ideals at the core of contemporary liberal thought.

A system of personal retirement accounts plus a means-tested safety net would serve the “social insurance” function better than the Social Security status quo according to liberal standards. Contrary to critics of reform, personal retirement accounts would materially enhance equality and social cohesion by more fully integrating workers into the market, providing everyone with a stake in its growth, closing the gap between the investing and noninvesting classes, and making more salient the mutuality of interests in a market society.

The paper is here.


Spelling bees are awesome. (Watching now on ESPN.) I'm pulling for the spastic kid with the mustache from North Carolina. Or the chill blond girl from Jersey who jams her hands in her pockets.

The kids who “spell” the word with their fingers on the back of their name placards are a nice example that cognition isn't just something that happens inside the head. Just a thought.

We will someday be ruled by the Asians. Another thought.

This kid is so gonna flub 'pepysian'. Yup. Ding! I got it right! But I'm 32. The Indian kid (or one of them) nails 'zouave'. Never in a million years. The girl from New Hamspshire is queen of etymology. Oh, here's the chill Jersey pocket girl. Ohh, she doesn't know. Me neither. Tension! Ding! 'laetrile'. Who knew? The Carolina mustache spazz. Nails 'schnecke' with his ridiculous accent. OK, enough spelling bee liveblogging. I'm embarrassing myself with my enthusiasm. Of wait? The 11 year old. Samir Patel. He's very excited! So short! 'cholecyst' Score!


Scanlon Comments Watch

I just want to point out that Scanlon has posted [scroll down] in the comments of DeLong's post conceding Weatherson's point about Delong's reply to one of my posts about utilitarianism.

The question of how “well being” should be understood is really several different questions. As a result, there is a tendency for people debating the question to talk past one another, and this tendency is to some extent represented in this thread.

One way that the question of well being might be understood is: what, at the most basic level, should an individual want his or her life to be like? Preference satisfaction is not a very plausible basic answer to this question, because in many (I would say most) cases people (rightly) prefer things because they believe them to have other properties, such as being pleasant, or worth doing for other reasons. They do not seek these things simply because they prefer them.

On the other hand, the question might be: How should the quality of individuals' lives be assessed by policy makers, as a basis for governmental decisions? Here preference satisfaction is a much more plausible answer, based on the ethical principle that governments should defer to individuals' own assessments of what is good for them.

There are lively debates about the proper answers to both of these questions. Nozick's experience machine is a contribution to the first debate: Should individuals take the quality of their experience as the sole determinant of the quality of their lives, or should they take other factors into account, such as whether our pleasure comes from true beliefs about what we are actually doing, and whether these things are in fact worth doing? Sen's work on capabilities is a contribution to the second debate: Given factors such as the adaptability of preferences, shouldn't governmental policy be judged on some basis other than facts about what people happen to prefer?

I won't argue here for my own answers to these questions. My point is just that they are different, and that this difference needs to be taken into account in order to understand what we are disagreeing about.

My view is pretty close to Scanlon's these days, so that's pretty cool.

DeLong Shot

Brad DeLong takes issue with my recent attacks no utilitarianism. In reply to my claim, against Layard, that if happiness is self-evidently good, then so are lots of other things, such as freedom, DeLong writes:

The response–against which Wilkinson has no defense except to issue squidlike clouds of obfuscating ink–would be that Wilkinson believes that if he were to sacrifice his freedom for his happiness, that if he were to do so he would then look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life, and that he would be unhappy. If Wilkinson says otherwise–that he would look back on the choices he made and look ahead to his future life and be happy, but that he would still regret what he had done and wish he had done otherwise–Wilkinson is simply saying, “Baa baa buff.” He would be demonstrating that he does not understand the rules of conversation using the English language.

I wonder if DeLong has carried on a conversation in the English language. Games of rational and moral justification sometimes but rarely terminate in reasons of happiness, much less in reasons of pleasure. He must hear “Baa baa buff” almost every time someone explains himself. Or BD just refuses to listen, uncharitably reads his philosophical theories into people's heads, and so assumes that they are offering reasons of happiness when they are evidently not. DeLong's argument, if I am making it out correctly, is that the following proposition deserves a little linguist's star of semantic deviance:

(a) Happiness without freedom is not worth having.

English speakers, lend me your ears! Does (a) violate the intuitive semantic constraints of it's constituent terms?

Well, if “worth having” in English means “conducive to pleasure” it sure does. But that's not what “worth having” means in English. That's what it means in Benthamese, the vulgar dialect of the morally insensate (economists, Asperger's cases, etc.) “Worth having” in English means something like” valuable” or “good,” and there is surpassingly little evidence to be gleaned from the semantic practice of competent English speakers that “valuable” and “good” are synonymous with “pleasurable” or “happy making”. (a) is far from “Baa baa buff.” In context, it's surely true!

My defense, then, is the truth of the claim that there are conditions under which being happy would be worse than not being happy. I take it that DeLong would agree that if a mad scientist rigged his brain such that slaughtering his own beloved children would bring him the most exalted, never-ending, guilt-free bliss, this would not be happiness worth having. Or is this, too, just “baa baa buff?”

Anyway, refusing to do violence to one's language, or, more importantly, the complexity of moral experience, in the service of an ill-supported theory does not strike me as a project of obfuscation.

More later on Delong's inability to understand the experience machine thought experiment.


Julian has nailed the upshot of Kelo:

Now that the “liberal” justices on the court have sided with the drug warriors against cancer patients, and with a plan to rob people of their homes for the benefit of wealthy developers, will some court-watchers on the left begin to question the wisdom of having let economic freedom become the red-headed stepchild of modern jurisprudence?

. . . The straightforward implication is that any taking of a private residence to hand it over to a business, or just from a poor person to a wealthy person, will be a taking in service of a public purpose: As a general rule, the rich pay more taxes than the poor, and businesses pay more taxes than households.

That is, if you have something somebody richer than you wants, watch out. Good work, egalitarians, good work.

Don Boudreaux has a strong reaction, too.

Social Change Workshop

I've been at the University of Virginia the last few days helping out with the IHS Social Change Workshop for Grad Students. It's quite nice to not be running the show, and to enjoy it more from the consumer side. As usual, great people, great conversations.

Here are some illustrations of typical phases of the day, below.
Continue reading “Social Change Workshop”

Shermer, Volokh, Evolution, & God

Eugene Volokh comments on this passage from a Michael Shermer post:

In March of 2001 the Gallup News Service reported the results of their survey that found 45 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” while 37 percent preferred a blended belief that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,” and a paltry 12 percent accepted the standard scientific theory that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

Eugene says:

Well, if “the standard scientific theory” is that “God had no part” in the process of evolution — not just that human beings developed in a particular way, but that God didn’t guide this — then it seems to me that the theory of evolution is a challenge to many people’s deeply held religious convictions. And that’s so not just as to the young-earthers who believe the Earth was created several thousand years ago, but also to people who are willing to embrace the scientific evidence but see the guiding hand of God in the process.

What’s more, how exactly do scientists come to the conclusion that “God had no part in this process”? What’s their proof? That’s the sort of thing that can’t really be proved, it seems to me — which makes it sound as if scientists, despite their protestations of requiring proof rather than faith, make assertions about God that they can’t prove.

I think Quinean ontological principles can help us properly understand Shermer's statement, and avoid what seems to me to be a confusion on Eugene's part.

Quine says that to exist is to be the value of bound variable in the formal statement of our best explanatory theory of the world. That is, if your best theory of something requires you to posit some entity or property in order to state it, then you are ontologically committed to that entity or property; you're saying it exists. The best explanatory theory of the emergence of life and the development of biological variety is the theory of evolution by natural selection. The statement of this theory does not require us to quantify over, or commit to, any supernatural properties. That “God had no part in the process” is straightforwardly implied by the fact that the theory does not mention God or God-properties. The “proof” that God is no part of the process is simply the statement of the theory, and the fact that the theory is the best, whatever our criteria for “best” are. You can tell that something has no part in the process by checking the list of things one is ontologically committed to by dint of accepting the theory. If it isn't on the list, it plays no part. Surely Eugene would agree that God is not on the ontological list we would compile by scouring the formulation of the standard theory of evolution to see the kinds of things it quantifies over. But that is, I think, all Shermer is saying.

Now, the fact that the theory of evolution by natural selection doesn't quantify over God-properties does not, by itself, “challenge” the conviction that god exists, unless that conviction is based on the explanation of biological phenomena. If no part of our OVERALL best theory (or collection of theories) of the world requires God-properties, than that is a challenge to the conviction that God exists, because commitment to God's existence just is the belief in the claim that Godmaking properties figure in to the best overall theory of the world. If he doesn't figure in, then he isn't listed in the catalog of things we have reason to believe in.

It seems that Eugene almost flirts with Meinongian nonsense, where not existing is a property something can have, just like existing, so that something's not existing requires that it exist, in a superspecial not-existing way, in order for there to be something that is doing all that not-existing. In that case, the claim that something doesn't exist (or does) is substantive, since one is attributing a property to it, and it makes sense to ask for evidence that it does have that property. But to say that something doesn't exist is not in fact substantive. It is simply to point out a formal absence, like the fact that there is no 'p' in 'beer'. (If you're lucky!)