Americans Happy, but Think Country's on Wrong Course

This new AP-Yahoo! News poll shows that while 66 percent of Americans say they are happy, 77 percent think the country is heading in the wrong direction. This is, in a nutshell, why Sachs-Stevenson lost the Economist happiness debate. Right now, many Americans are unhappy with their position in the political and economic cycles. But Americans are a happy people, with a sense of control over their lives. This high level of personal satisfaction is the consequence of an optimistic culture and stable institutions that create wealth and opportunity. Dissatisfaction with the way things are going will change soon enough, Americans know it, and that's why it doesn't actually get us down.

Throwdown in Midtown

We won! From my vantage on the stage, I'd say the crowd swung from 30/70 against Tyler and me at the beginning to about 55/45 in our favor at the end. Sachs basically spent the entire time complaining that the United States does not have the politics of the readership The Nation, which I think must have struck a good deal of the audience — many of whom came to see him — as evasively off topic. I simply agreed that we have a bad president, are involved in a pointless war, and that we most certainly have not implemented Jeffrey Sachs' policy preferences. And I repeatedly emphasized that the proposition was about how Americans are doing in the pursuit of happiness, about which there is a great deal of evidence, and was not a referendum on the Bush years. Stevenson I think was hampered by the fact that the happiness data simply doesn't show that Americans are unhappy. She pushed hard on negative externalities from positional arms races, but I think that's a bit hard for an audience to grasp when stated, but not really explained. Plus, its a theory-driven, not a data-driven argument, and plain evidence is simply more persuasive. And if you ever have to be in a debate, get Tyler as your partner. That helps a lot.

I have to say I was completely stunned by the scale of the event. I had no idea that the venue would be a grand old bank with a soaring domed ceiling, that there would be a red carpet and red velvet ropes, that there would be 400 people there with a giant screen and 30 foot red Economist banners behind us on the stage. It was probably the most exciting intellectual event I have taken part in, and I've never been so nervous. So I can't tell you how much of a relief it was to have (I think) nailed my closing statement, or how much of a thrill it was to see all those red fans go up in the final vote.

Pre-debate highlight: Sachs said he read my happiness paper and that it was “excellent” and that he “learned a lot”.

Oh… and the debate continues in my mind. At one point in the main event Stevenson cut me off to express incredulity that welfare benefits didn't improve the average happiness of the unemployed. I certainly wasn't making it up. I don't know what explains the finding, but there are a number of reasons why this isn't at all implausible. First, as she was arguing, the effect of income on happiness is often weak. Second, surveys show that unemployment is very depressing. It often involves a painful loss of status. And social networks are often work-related, so the unemployed often lose friends and end up feeling isolated. Welfare transfers may do little to boost happiness under those sad conditions. Third, there is a stigma to “the dole,” so the effects of income from welfare transfers may be different from market income. Fourth, generous welfare benefits reduce the incentive to quickly reenter the labor market, which may extend the average depressing period of unemployment. Anyway, I felt like she was trying to have this worse than both ways: denying the normal economist's assumption that income translates straightforwardly into utility when it is market income, but then acting like its simply crazy that income wouldn't translate straightforwardly into utility when it's a government transfer.

Here's Tyler's account, and accounts from a number of his commenters who attended.


Debate Prep Bleg

I'm busy prepping for Saturday's happiness debate in New York. I haven't been fastidiously following the happiness literature since I published my Cato paper. So if there is some interesting new work I ought to be aware of, please let me know. Also, if you are aware of anything Sachs has done touching on happiness research (all I can find is a Brookings panel he was once on), please give a shout out. I can't wait. This is going to be a blast.

Ron Paul

I gave $50 to the Ron Paul campaign yesterday, and I'm delighted he made such a huge haul. I've been critical of what I see as Paul's nationalism,  since I think this is incompatible with a concern for liberty. But, on balance, I cannot help but think that Paul's presence in the race as a critic of war and executive power and as a proponent of limited government more than compensates for the confusion inherent in his border-reifying sovereignty fixation. I feel hopeful that with his now-bulging war chest, he'll help keep the non-interventionist wing of the GOP vital, and make a lot of college students interested in learning about the libertarian alternative.

James Flynn on IQ

I found James “Flynn Effect” Flynn's essay in this month's Cato Unbound really fascinating. I especially liked this part:

The first implication of the new perspective is the benefit of persisting in cognitive exercise throughout life. There is the dramatic case of Richard Wetherill. He played chess in retirement and could think eight moves ahead. In 2001, he was alarmed because he could only think four moves ahead but he continued an active mental life until his death in 2003. Autopsy showed that his brain was riddled with the plaques and tangles that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Most people would have been reduced to a state of total confusion. This does not mean that cognitive abilities fail to decline with age. After all, at any given age, an athlete is better off for training. But however hard you train, your times will get slower as you age.

The brain is much more like our muscles than we had thought, even in the sense that specialized exercise affects different parts of the brain. Autopsies show that the brains of London taxi-drivers are peculiar. They have an enlarged hippocampus, which is the brain area used for navigating three-dimensional space. Here we see spatial abilities being developed without comparable development of other cognitive skills. To develop a wide variety of cognitive skills you need a wide variety of cognitive exercises.

I wonder what blogging is doing to my brain. More importantly, I think pretty persuaded by the Dickens/Flynn account of the brain-environment-brain-environment, etc. reciprocal causation feedback loop. But I look forward to seeing what Linda Gottfredson, who is more of a genetic determinist, has to say. Anyway,  check it out.

Trudie vs Prudie Advice-Off!

If you'll be in DC on November 15th, come to Cato to catch Tyler Cowen talk about Discover Your Inner Economist with comments from Emily Yoffe, author of Slate's “Dear Prudence” column. Here's the setup:

In Discover Your Inner Economist, the economist and blogger Tyler Cowen provides quirky and insightful advice for life based on his signature urbane style of economic reasoning. On his blog,, Cowen offers economic advice in his periodic “Dear Trudie” posts. Presumably Cowen offers good economics. But dare one take an economist's advice? Emily Yoffe, author of Slate's popular “Dear Prudence” advice column, will advise. Please join us for an advice-off, as Trudie meets Prudie to discuss the practical benefits of economic reasoning (or lack thereof) in everyday life.

I'll be moderating. Register here.