What Focusing Illusion?

An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) discusses the emerging, more nuanced, happiness research orthodoxy on money and happiness: money doesn't make people happier, though people with more money say they're happier. We say we're happier when we have more money, because, upon reflection, it seems satisfying to be higher-status. But having more money doesn't actually make you feel better when you're not reflecting on it.

What happens when high-income earners aren't contemplating their position in the financial pecking order? Consider a June 30 article in Science magazine by Daniel Kahneman, Alan Krueger, Norbert Schwarz, Arthur Stone and Prof. Schkade.

The five professors analyzed data for 374 workers who were asked every 25 minutes during the workday about the intensity of various feelings. Those with higher incomes didn't report being any happier, but they were more likely to say they were anxious or angry.

The five professors also studied government data detailing how folks divvy up their waking hours. They found that people with higher incomes tend to spend more time working, commuting and engaging in obligatory nonwork activities, such as maintaining their homes. All of these are associated with lower happiness.

“People who are richer aren't having a better time,” Prof. Schkade concludes. “But if you ask them about their lives, they report being a little more satisfied” than those who are less affluent.

It seems to me that what they mostly showed is that it is not easy to make money, which is not surprising. It is also not surprising that people who went through the trouble of making money are generally glad they did. For the life of me, I can't get much out of this study other than that working to make more money can be stressful and the astoundingly obvious fact that a backrub, or whatever, won't feel better just because the terms of your labor contract provide a higher than average salary.

Kahneman, et al., however, insist on attributing the higher than average SWB  for wealthy people to a “focusing illusion,” which makes no sense. That life satisfaction judgments do not track the temporal integration of Kahneman's “moment utilities” is not evidence that there is some kind of illusion. It is just evidence that satisfaction judgments are value laden, and people value things other than utility.

Suppose there is a big marathon going on. There is a guy running the marathon, and there is a guy sitting in a bar drinking beer and watching it on TV. You sample their experience over the course of the event. It turns out that the guy running the marathon is experiencing high levels of stress, near-exhaustion, searing pain, etc. The guy drinking beer feels pretty good. It's air conditioned, and he's got a bit of a buzz on. Now, the marathoner wins the race. You ask him how he feels about his life that day: “Fantastic! It's the best day of my life!” And you ask the guy who spent three hours drinking beer: “OK, I guess. I really should have been doing yardwork. Good race, though.” The runner does not only not subtract the pain of the race from the pleasure of winning, the pain, and his triumph over it, increases his sense of satisfaction. Because, naturally, his satisfaction judgment is based on values other than pleasure and pain, such as self-command, perserverence, drive, and winning. Is he undergoing a “focusing illusion”? Asburd. The problem is Kahneman's value theory.

Should Objectivists Become Mormons?

I've made this point a number of times, but apparently I'm not tired of making it, because I'm about to make it again. One of the tenets of Objectivism is that adherence to the principles of Objectivism is a necessary condition for true happiness and maximum longevity. I am completely confident that this is false. So I am also willing to bet that Mormons, for example, are on average both happier (measured according to any standard method) and longer lived than Objectivists.

Any takers? How much you wanna bet?

I anticipate that some will object that happiness measurement techniques are unreliable. Fair enough! But I worry some Objectivists will insist on defining happiness a bit circularly. Rand said happiness is “the successful state of life… that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.” I like it. Elsewhere we get “noncontradictory joy,” by which she means guilt-free joy. Anyway, how can we tell we're there? By noticing that we're in that joyfully guilt-free state of consciouness. It seems like if you were in it, you'd know it. That sure sounds to me like something strong enough to show up on surveys or experience sampling diaries. Still, I think Mormons will report feeling better. The trick is that happiness, by definition, comes from achieving one's (objective) values, and objective values are the necessary conditions for life (“man qua man”). Reason, the capacity of non-contradictory identification, is our primary instrument of survival and happiness, and faith is the abdication of reason. Mormons believe, well, lots of weird things, by faith, totally at odds with reality. So whatever state of consciousness Mormons are achieving, it can't really be happiness, now can it, since it violates allegedly practically mandatory values. 

But you'd think the “philosophy for living on Earth” would buy you some extra longevity, so it's hard to see how you would explain away Mormon dominance in life-span, if such a thing were shown to be true. (And I'll bet you it is!) Since one man's modus ponens is another's modus tollens, we might infer from the fact that adherence to some belief system leads to the longest, happiest lives, together with the premise that reason is our capacity of non-contradictory identification  aimed at survival and flourishing, to the conclusion that the most life-promoting belief system must be endorsed by reason. So if Mormons really are happier and longer-lived, should Objectivists become Mormons? Or should they rather acknowledge that reason isn't necessarily for survival and happiness, but worth caring about all the same, and believing in Kolob or whatever isn't worth it, even it would make you happier and add a couple years. 

New at Cato Unbound: Mexicans in America

Don't miss the new Cato Unbound featuring this morning's lead essay by Richard Rodriguez.

Americans have tended to abrogate to economists the question of the costs and the benefits of illegal immigration. But, surely, beyond how much Betsy Ross is willing to pay for a head of lettuce, there is the question of morality, there is the question of Mexico. How much of Mexico are we willing to take within our borders? I believe the question might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist.

Rodriguez is no theologian, but he gives it a shot. Watch out for Victor Davis Hanson's reply Wednesday. He's not thrilled with Rodriguez.


Aaron Haspel has the best mea culpa I've seen about being on the wrong side of the war. I especially liked this bit:

There was also a certain haste to blame America in the anti-war arguments that bothered me. I have no desire to discourage self-criticism, least of all in this post. But even Jim Henley, who among the long-time opponents of the war most closely resembles a responsible adult, has not exactly emphasized the horrors of a culture that treats suicide bombers like rock stars and stones homosexuals to death. These very horrors, ironically, undercut the case of the warbloggers, who harp on them. Surely the least likely people to successfully impose your political ideas on are those whose core values are utterly alien to your own. You end up just killing them instead.

My initial tepidness about opposing the war was based in a thoroughgoing horror of viciously antiliberal Islamic culture, and I worried deeply about the fact that many anti-war types seemed not to share my horror. But Aaron's incredibly important last point was one of the clinchers for me. I had the idea that maybe the war could do something to undermine Islamic religious authoritarianism, and if it was going to have that effect, that would be a strong reason in its favor. But reflection lead me to see that the depth of the problem is precisely what would make the attempt to swiftly impose liberal democracy an almost certain bloody failure. That's what I had in mind, here:

A moral infrastructure is something neither Bechtel nor the CPA has the power to provide. Canals and constitutions are all for naught if Iraqis don't develop norms that enable the emergence of a complex market and the benign administration of the state. If — whether because of religious conviction, political ideology, tribal affiliation or whatever — they don't believe these are norms worth having, then they won't have them. And despite our best intentions, our efforts there will fail.


How do you build, or grow, a moral infrastructure? That's what we need to understand. Sadly — and let's hope not tragically — we still don't.

Well, it has turned out tragically.

On the Libertarian Vice

I find most of the responses to Tyler's provocative “libertarian vice” post very stimulating, but I find the prevailing defensiveness pretty disappointing. This is 1/2 Tyler's fault for making it sound like the vice—assuming that government quality is fixed and low—is essential to libertarianism, which it isn't. Indeed, a quite widespread understanding of Rand-Rothbard-Nozick rights libertarianism doesn't even require the premise that voluntary price-coordinated action is generally more effective than state coercion. Rights are normatively binding deontic restrictions whose authority and force does not wait on the outcome of an empirical comparison of the consequences of alternative institutional arrangements. (I think this is view incorrect, both in fact, and as a reading of everyone but maybe Rothbard; the point is that this is the catechism of High Church axiom of non-coercion libertarianism.)  

It is, however, 1/2 the commentators fault for not directly conceding that the libertarian vice is indeed a widespread libertarian vice. Alex and Glen: You protest too much! It is exceedingly similar to, if not the same thing as, what I call the “fallacy of asymmetric idealization.” Libertarians are in fact very often guilty of assuming counterfactually ideal markets and counterfactually non-ideal governments. And faith-in-government liberals commit the opposite vice. To argue, correctly I think, that empirical comparative analysis shows us that actually existing market institutions tend to perform better than actually existing government institutions in achieving liberal aims does nothing to establish that libertarians aren't often guilty of Tyler's vice, or my fallacy. Indeed, as long as you don't read Tyler uncharitably as making a silly definitional claim about libertarianism, I don't see how what he is saying is even contrarian, as opposed to a perfectly good observation.

If nothing else, Tyler's post is cagey piece of strategic rhetoric that signals to egalitarian liberals a good faith willingness to actually having a debate without pointlessly pulling out ideological trump cards and declaring victory, and a related commitment to non-utopian policy—to endorsing the best option in the politically feasible set. I read Tyler as saying that he considers it inappropriate to assume a priori that market alternatives to government will always be better than government, or to assume  a priori that a policy to improve the effectiveness of some government function will not be the best feasible alternative. If some politically infeasible market reform is “better” in the abstract, that is often simply irrelevant. I think this is certainly correct.

Of course, each policy decision alters what is politically possible in the future, which can present very complex choices. Suppose policies A and B are politically feasible. Policy C is not. A is “better government” and is best in the short run. But C is “legalizing a market in whatever it is A produces” which is best in the long run. A severely reduces the probability of getting to C. B significantly increases the probability of getting to C, but by no means guarantees it, and at the cost of short-term consequences worse than A. So, should we choose A or B? It depends on what you think the expected value of A and C conditional on B are.

If you think the value of C relative to A is huge, you'll endorse B, even if it increases the probability of C only by a very small amount. I think the debate between statist liberals and market liberals is often a debate over the relative benefits of A and C. If you're the sort of libertarian who endorses B no matter how big the gains from A, and no matter how small the probability of C, then you're guilty of the vice. I've met more than a few libertarians who will not only endorse B for the purpose of very slightly increasing the the low probablity of C, but on the basis of a truly fantastic conception of a possible path from B all the way through the alphabet to N, libertarian nirvana. But by the time you get only a few steps into the future, the probability is basically zero, in which case supporting B on the prospect of its leading to N is surely a form of addlepated utopianism. If you deny that this happens, then we have been going to different libertarian conferences.

Of course, matters of feasibility are just stupefyingly complex. The infeasibility of certain market reforms are often in large part a function of the ignorance or dogmatism of statist liberals. The probability of getting from here to there is a matter of all sorts of endogenous variables. Indeed, it may be that by signaling good faith in the way you are intend to compare market and government institutions–by saying that you think better government can sometimes be the best feasible choice–you are more likely to get into a conversation that slightly lessens the ignorance and weakens the dogmatism of statist liberals, thereby making is slightly more likely that better government is not the best feasible choice. The strength of this signal is surely amplified by visibly aggravating your libertarian comrades. So, good job Tyler! Sorry I can't help by scolding you!

Easy Now!

My first thought upon hearing about the foiled plot to blow up airplanes was: good! My second thought: why are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars, massive manpower, and valuable intelligence resources in Iraq when we should be rooting out this crap instead? My third thought was: “mass murder on an unimaginable scale”? Bullshit.

Auschwitz is mass murder on an unimaginable scale. A dozen jam-packed airliners adds up to a few thousand people. As horrifying as that is, I'm afraid I can imagine it. Andrew Samwick has the same thought, and, better yet, the numbers.

Despite the gigantic quagmire of a distraction in Iraq, we're clearly winning the war on terror. Of course, it is not in the interests of the political class, or of glory-hungry security officials to provide us with a realistic sense of the risk. Steven Johnson has it right, and quotes this bit of John Mueller's great essay in Regulation:

…it would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile. It turns out that someone has made that calculation: University of Michigan transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, in an article last year in American Scientist, wrote that they determined there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out. More generally, they calculate that an American’s chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America’s safest roads — rural interstate highways — one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.

Take away all the TSA foolishness, and I'm still safer in a plane than driving to Alexandria. Sure, murder is different from accidental deaths, and we've got to take active measures to try to stop these kinds of plots. But the response has to be rationally proportionate to the objective risk. I'm afraid we're unecessarily allowing ourselves to be freaked out of our liberties.

What's Going On?

My recent blogging efforts have been directed to Cato@Liberty. Here's one from yesterday on the right of exit versus political predation, and here's one from Tuesday on pluralism and school choice.

And keep eye an out for the new Cato Unbound next Monday. Essayist Richard Rodriguez will kick things off with a meditation on “Mexicans in America,” our topic for August. Victor Davis Hanson is first in line to reply. Should be good.

Jimbo and Larry in the Atlantic

Wow. I sure wouldn't have predicted back in the days of MDOP that Jimbo and Larry would get profiles in the the Atlantic for their contributions to the cataloguing of human knowledge. Actually, I wouldn't have predicted when I was involved in the early stages of Nupedia (I have an unfinished article on “the paradox of analysis” laying around somewhere) that Wikipedia would become some kind of elemental force of nature. So you never know!