Effective Policy and the Measurement of Human Well-Being

Economists Andrew Oswald and Andrew Branchflower begin a very interesting new NBER paper [$$$] on the relationship between levels of self-reported happiness and blood levels with this dubious claim:

For effective social and economic policies to be designed, it is necessary for policymakers to be able to measure human well-being.

They better hope they're wrong, because if they're right, then effective social and economic policy cannot be designed! Oh no! 

Why? Two reasons:

(1) Human well-being, as opposed to the several dimensions or components of well-being, is pretty much impossible to measure.

Why? Because the specific nature of human well-being is relative to the individual and the components of well-being are diverse and must often be traded against one another. 

What does this mean? Let's start with the relativity of well-being. The achievement of valued aims (meaningful goals, important personal projects, whatever you'd like to call it) is a component of human well-being if anything is. However, the content of valued aims varies from person to person. It follows pretty straightforwardly that the specific requirements of well-being vary from person to person.

(For those of you on the lookout for the scourge of “post-modernist relativism,” please note that this kind of “relativism” is in fact a kind of relativism, and is also completely innocuous, entailed by the uncontroversial fact that different people have different personalities, different tastes, and different “callings.”)

Next, consider the diversity of the components of well-being and the potential conflicts between them. Health and longevity are components of well-being if anything is. But so is the individual achievement of valued aims. Some people's perfectly reasonable aims  may be incompatible with maximizing their health and longevity. Imagine a cholesterol-saturated gourmand who would rather die than give up his foie gras, or an adventurer who draws profound meaning from facing down life-threatening challenges. So… how much weight do we give to one component of well-being —  health and longevity, say — relative to another — for example, the achievement of valued aims that conflict with maximal health and longevity? The answer is that there is no answer — no answer science and empirical evidence compels us all to agree on, at any rate.

The upshot, then, is that while we can measure various dimensions or components of well-being — whether it be health and longevity, the experience of pleasure, a sense of self-efficacy and control, the development of basic human capacities, or the achievement of valued aims — we cannot measure well-being as a whole because Mother Nature has nowhere posted a table of exchange rates between the various values that compose individual welfare. It's simply not out there for the scientist to find.

Now, there may be a rough cultural consensus at any time and place about the relative weight to place on competing individual welfare-constituting values. But this consensus, to the extent that there is one, has to be discovered, and changes as time goes by. So, at this point, we're not “measuring well-being” so much as attempting to find some bit of overlap if people's conceptions of well-being. We can use the overlap to base a few general principles of mutually beneficial social interaction almost everyone will be willing to affirm. But the larger and more diverse the society, the smaller and more general the overlap. There are always broad swathes of often heated disagreement in pluralistic societies. And that's what principles and institutions of liberal neutrality are for: to peacefully accommodate the inevitable lack of consensus about questions of value in open, cosmopolitan societies.

Would you say that a set of policies were “effective” if it peacefully and stably coordinated the behavior of millions of individuals in pursuit of their valued aims, and constantly increased their capacity to to realize them, despite the fact that there are as many conceptions of well-being as there are people?  Would you consider such a set of policies “effective” even if we didn't know how to measure human well-being scientifically? 

(2) Policymakers have no incentive to accurately measure human well-being — even if it was accurately measurable — or to appoint, or take counsel from, those who do.

Lucky for them, Branchflower and Oswald begin their paper with a monumental falsehood. Their introductory proposition implies, among other things, that effective social and economic policy never has been designed! Their general idea, I take it, is that in order to design something effective, you have to be able to measure “effectiveness.” [Edited: Erased gibberish not meant to be publish. Added rest of para, which was meant to be published.] The problem is understanding “well-being maximizing” as equivalent to “effective.” The difference between aggregation-obsessed consequentialists and coordination-obsessed consequentialists lies in accepting or rejection that equivalence. 

I think my considerations (1) and (2) imply that not only does effective policy not require that policymakers are able to definitively measure well-being, but that effective policy is much more likely if we fully grasp the indisputable empirical facts that conceptions of well-being (and of “effective”) are plural (and this is so whether or not I am right on the philosophical point that the constitution of well-being for each individual requires trade-offs between different dimensions of well-being) and that policymakers are neither scientists nor reliable consumers of science. 

Maybe it is disappointing to social scientists — frustrating even! — to face up to the fact that no interest or competence in social science whatsoever is required for a hugely successful career as a policymaker, which is to say, as a politician or bureaucrat. This is even the case in places where social science flourishes most! Disappointing as that fact may be, social scientists may want to take it into account when  thinking about the design of effective policy.  

Bounded vs. Unbounded

Lately I've been noticing a general phenomenon that strikes me as shady… comparing something unbounded against something bounded. The top quintile, decile, percentile, or whatever on, say, the income distribution is going to have no limit on the number. Which is why it is possible to have such a huge gap between the median and the mean when it comes to the top 1% in the income distribution, but unlikely at an n-tile beneath the top.

Or… The fact that happiness surveys lay a 1 to 4 or 1 to 10 scale on top of an in-principle unbounded income distribution, or in-priniciple unbounded growth in income over time, seems to me as a reason not to make a huge deal out of the fact that the average score on a bounded scale doesn't necessarily rise with an essentially open-ended thing like economic growth. If growth is ongoing, and self-reported happiness rises with growth — even excruciatingly slowly — then it is just a logical necessity that there is some time in the future when everybody hits the ceiling of the scale. Even if income and happiness continues to grow, the scale will HAVE to report a flat average, and will HAVE to stop being fully informative. Now, if — as seems to be the case — people have a kind of aversion to putting themselves at or near the top of the scale (if I don't know how happy I can get, I may not want to say that I'm already there, or even almost there), then you've got a case for totally banal scale re-norming that will also produce a flat trend over time, below the top of the scale — again, even if the effect of growth on happiness is ongoing. Perhaps someone can explain to me why this is not considered a huge problem.

Stephen Stich: Quote of the Day

stephenstichsmall.jpgThe idea that philosophy could be kept apart from the sciences would have been dismissed out of hand by most of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But many contemporary philosophers believe they can practice their craft without knowing what is going on in the natural and social sciences. If facts are needed, they rely on their “intuition”, or they simply invent them. The results of philosophy done in this way are typically sterile and often silly. There are no proprietary philosophical questions that are worth answering, nor is there any productive philosophical method that does not engage the sciences. But there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works.”

— Stephen Stich, from Steve Pyke's lovely collection of philosopher portraits.

My kind of philosopher!

[Photo: Copyright Steve Pyke. I hope he won't mind my borrowing the Stich picture if I promise to buy one or two of his prints, and tell my readers to consider it. I really think I could use a Quine!]

Sullivan's Meaninglessness about Meaningfulness

Andrew Sullivan publishes an intelligent letter from a reader on how Sullivan and Sam Harris are talking past each other — Harris talking about truth, Sullivan talking about meaning — and suggesting that they refocus and take this issues head on.

I, personally, as an atheist, find meaning in my own possibility and will to act in this world. I have the opportunity to interact with others and to create things. I have the chance to leave this world a bit better than when I came into it… for my children and for the rest of humanity. I don't do this because a particular flying spaghetti monster ordained that I do it and will punish me with his noodly appendage if I don't. I do it because I have the power and I believe that it is better for me if I help those around me. What else would give my life more meaning than that?

Sullivan replies:

But why is that more meaningful than flying a plane into the World Trade Center?

The obvious retort is: how is Catholicism more meaningful than flying a plane into the World Trade Center? Does Sullivan really mean to lob a meatball for Harris to hit out of the park?

The 9/11 terrorists were religiously motivated, and no doubt did what they did not out of a sense of secular nihilism, but out of deep and no doubt meaningful religious conviction. I think part of Harris' point is: what's so meaningful about a system of beliefs for which there is no evidence? Well, there's no doubt that people find meaning in all sorts of false things, and those false things don't have to be true to find meaning in them. If Sullivan is a Catholic, then he believes that all other religions are false. Does he deny that they are meaningful? Is his point just that you have to believe that the false thing you believe is true in order to find meaning it? But Muslim suicide bombers, and suicide pilots, believe, too. More importantly, if you believe that something is true, and it is, then why can't you find meaning in that? It almost seems like Sullivan thinks that you have to believe something that is false is true, and also sort of believe it is false, but beautiful or good, at the same time, in order to draw meaning from it, which makes no sense.

It's totally mysterious why something that is true and beautiful and good can't be equally meaningful. Indeed, it's mysterious why the commitment to something beautiful and good, like truth, can't be exceedingly meaningful in its own right. Obviously, the problem with running a plane into the WTC doesn't turn on whether or not it was meaningful. It turns on whether it was morally monstrous, which it was–and you don't need Jesus to see that. And, the fact is, many of the most morally monstrous things people have ever done were meaningful to them–and often for religious reasons.

Anyway, what a totally stupid and disgusting thing for Sullivan to say.