Let's Measure Meaning!

That's the upshot of my short piece today at Culture 11.

Here's a crazy bit that introduced a few too many issues, so I left it out. Enjoy!

“I don't know why we are here,” Ludwig Wittgenstein, the grimly mystical Austrian logician, once confessed, “but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”  I'm pretty sure Wittgenstein is correct. Evolution by natural selection–the only credible non-fiction story about “why we are here”–tells us that we exist “in order to” make copies of our genes. In the typical case, we enjoy genetic recombination a lot, but to enjoy ourselves is not what we are for. To enjoy ourselves is not why we are here. 

But knowing why we are here, or what we are for, turns out to be terrifically useless in guiding our choices or framing our lives. It doesn't matter why we are here. Should I learn that I had been designed by bioengineering performance artists from Alpha Centauri to savagely exterminate kittens, it would not validate my taste for ripping the heads off tiny whimpering calicos. Knowing my function would not tell me what it is for my life to go best, from my point of view. Were I to fight my instincts and lovingly cuddle kittens instead of wantonly destroying them, that would be my otherworldly creators' failure, not mine. Should I find a hollowness, a gnawing absence of kitten corpses at the center of my life, I might be right to think that my life would, in some sense, mean more to me were I to give in to my biological imperatives. But I would be wrong to think that a more meaningful life, in that sense, would be better. The value of meaning would remain an open question.  

The Measure of Meaning

[Originally published at Culture11.com, October 29, 2008]

One of the most annoying tropes of modern intellectual life is that the material abundance of liberal market societies has come at the cost of increasing unhappiness and unease — the “paradox of prosperity,” I call it. Over the past half-decade, a raft of books has been devoted to our allegedly paradoxical ennui. Examples include The Progress Paradox, by Greg Easterbrook, The American Paradox by David Myers, and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. But the paradox of prosperity is a myth. The multidisciplinary field called “happiness research,” from which all these books draw, now shows that, other things equal, prosperity makes us happier. Wealthier individuals tend to be happier. Wealthier societies tend to be happier. Average happiness tends to rise in places where average wealth is rising.

For the paradoxicologists, these are inconvenient truths indeed. The point of substituting measures of psychological well-being for crude economic measures was to show that a society that delivers the goods doesn't thereby deliver the good life. The happy-seeking heart craves the solidarity and egalitarian comfort of Northern European social democracies. So freaking what if the socialists got completely drubbed in last century's fight over which socioeconomic system best creates material prosperity? Material prosperity is overrated!

Except, it isn't. Live by data, die by data.

Of course, one may always choose to impugn the data when it gives the wrong result. Anyway, isn't it ridiculous to try to measure happiness, of all things? What cold caliper can span the infinite soul!?

I have questioned the reliability of the data myself, at length, and recommend measured skepticism of findings based on the prevalent survey-based methods–even of the findings I like! But, no: it isn't ridiculous to try to measure happiness. There is little agreement on what happiness is, exactly, which might seem to pose a problem. But whatever you think the elements of happiness are — second-to-second pleasure, a sense that life is going well overall, a feeling of engaged self-efficacy, whatever — we can try to measure that. And we're only going to get better at it. The empirical study of the seemingly intangible is only beginning to flower. The labcoats are putting divines in the FMRI and college kids the world over are having their moral intuitions scraped. If you haven't heard, trust can be nasally administered.

A more thoroughly empirical study of happiness is so worthwhile because we might actually learn something from it. It becomes possible to discover an ideologically incorrect or socially unacceptable fact that may change the way we frame our personal or political choices. Take, for example, the finding that children tend to make us slightly less happy than we would be without them. Each extra kid only makes it worse, up until about the fifth. It comes as no surprise that many parents, for whom it was too late to take this exciting discovery into account, consider this the wrong answer. Some family-flogging pundits predictably impugned the data and defended the warm unfathomability of happiness against the chill of “scientism.”

More interesting, and much more compelling, were those who chose to admit the evidence, but argued that happiness isn't everything. Sure, family can be a pain, but it's meaningful. Indeed, the Newsweek article that imparted the unhappy news to a broad American audience noted that “parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who've never had kids.” If meaning an excellent reason to have children (and I'm not saying it isn't), perhaps it is also at least as good as happiness as an argument for generous child tax credits. And with meaning firmly in hand, perhaps happiness mavens disappointed by the numbers can jump from one paradox of prosperity to another.

Appeals to meaning are nice, but they just push the lump in the rug. What's so great about meaning, anyway? For that matter, what is it? How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can't just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need get started on measuring meaning. There are many questions. How much is meaning worth to us in terms of happiness? How much is happiness worth in terms of meaning? There are no doubt many and varied sources of meaning. With science on our side, we are sure to discover that some them are corrosive to other of our cherished values while some enhance them. Then we'll be well-situated to say goodbye to toxic meaningfulness. Goodbye national identity? Goodbye God? Who knows what we might find? Science is a source of excitement as well as wonder.

I don't anticipate the new field of “meaning research” will be warmly received by those with a refined taste for meaning. Many of these fine folks say that the very attempt to measure happiness scientifically — not to mention the effort to put meaning itself under the microscope — saps life of… meaning. But how do you know? Anybody can say this. You can say it while waving a copy of The Closing of the American Mind. You can say it smoking a pipe. But it doesn't help.

There is certainly more than one way of winning an argument, but there's just one way of knowing: the empirical way. If there's a way of knowing something about meaning–including whether measuring meaning threatens meaning–that's the way. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of happiness. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of meaning. But there is more than a little something wrong in blind pursuits when the means to enlightenment are at hand.

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.

The Crucible

Casey Mulligan's important post on the relative separability of the performance of the financial and non-financial sectors of the economy (among many other refreshing and illuminating posts) highlights what I think are some of the great neglected facts of the ongoing discussion about the implications of the financial crisis.

First, financial markets are a necessary instrument to wealth creation, but are not a fundamental cause of increasing prosperity. It is a tremendous problem of economics journalism that journalists and opinionators don't really understand the mainsprings of economic growth. Financial innovation affects growth at the margin by more efficiently allocating capital to its most efficient uses, but this is obviously secondary to developments in the real economy that increase capital's productivity. Derivatives can make us a bit richer, but productivity-enhancing technologies make us rich.

The conditions for entrepreneurial discovery, and therefore scientific and technological and organizational innovation, and therefore productivity growth, and therefore increasing prosperity and welfare remain very, very strong. Yes, if the flow of capital to would-be innovators dries up, then innovation and growth dries up. But there is in our system enormous ongoing potential for innovation, and therefore for increasing returns to capital. And there is an enormous amount of capital, the owners of which continue to want a nice return. The magnetic force between capital and innovation is so strong, and our overall institutional environment so sound, that we can be pretty sure innovation and growth will continue with barely a hitch. The financial crisis is not going to keep us from getting a hell of lot richer.    

I think it's pretty clear that our recent troubles are primarily due to a variety of misconceived U.S. government policies intended to promote home-ownership, and secondarily due to combined financial market irrationality and regulatory failure. Suppose you agree that the government screwed up in failing to regulate leverage. What does this imply about the feasibility of relatively free-market capitalism? What does it say about the desirability of government regulatory intervention into the non-financial economy–the part that actually delivers prosperity. Very little.

What does it say about the alleged dangers of free market ideology? Again, very little, if anything. I think Ross Douthat put it extremely well in his reply to Jacob Weisberg's silliness:

[A]rguing that a single bad economic contraction following a long period of growth permanently discredits an ideology that can be implicated in both the growth and the contraction is like arguing that, say, Weimar Germany permanently discredits partisans of democracy.

Past and furture Treasury Secretary Larry Summers does understand a something about the deeper sources of economic prosperity, and thus in his FT op-ed titled “The Pendulum Swings Toward Regulation,” he says almost nothing about regulation (just leverage, really), and concentrates on the ways government subsidies might at once soften recession and enhance the productivity of the real economy.  

So there is a need to ensure that the pressure to increase spending is directed at areas where it will have the most transformational impact. We need to identify those investments that stimulate demand in the short run and have a positive impact on productivity. These include renewable energy technologies and the infrastructure to support them, the broader application of biotechnologies and expanding broadband connectivity, an area where the US has fallen behind.

I happen to think Summers is making a mistake in believing that government has adequate information or motivation to do a very good job at identifying growth-enhancing investments (in energy, biotech, broadband, or otherwise), but the implied broader point is that financial markets are a sideshow. The real economy is where it's at, and the best the government can do is to promote the enabling conditions of innovation and growth. The contemporary debate was and continues to be whether government spending can complement or enhance relatively free markets, not whether we will be better off if those markets are more heavily regulated and relatively less free.

Indeed, I think the evidence points to overregulation of the economic uses of many forms of “intellectual property.” More generally, the evidence that dominant firms support regulation that increases the cost of entry into their markets remains overwhelming. Thanks these sorts of regulations, we've foregone a lot of innovation and growth.  At a smaller scale, regulation of small business — most notably the businesses poorer people are likely to start — continues to suppress a lot of welfare-enhancing entrepreneurship. Libertarians continue to lead the way in emphasizing all this, and continue to be right about all of it. We have witnessed nothing in the financial markets to reinforce the wisdom of this kind of welfare-reducing regulation.

Libertarians and other free market cheerleaders have made huge permanent strides in convincing the world of the importance of entrepreneurial discovery, competition-driven innovation, and the role of rent-seeking regulation in hobbling these. The prevalence of these ideas has made the world much wealthier, and stands to make it wealthier still. Larry Summers might not jump at the chance to admit this, but neither do I think he would disagree. He'll just emphasize that active government spending can nevertheless be growth-promoting. That's not much of a “pendulum swing” back toward a more regulated economy. If we're really in the middle of a PR nightmare for capitalism — if this is our big generational crisis of confidence — and the importance of things like infrastructure upgrades and subsidies for renewable energy is the upshot for the left-leaning economic policy establishment, then what we're going through amounts to the fire-tempering, the locking down, the consolidation of decades of libertarian-leaning economic policy gains.

The "Conservative" Moral Sentiments: Do We Need Them?

Via this week's Science Saturday on Bloggingheads TV, I find Jonathan Haidt's TED Talk (embedded below) on the difference between liberals and conservatives, and the synergy between the conservative and liberal dimensions of the moral sense. As Jon notes, many liberals wonder why the in-group, authority, and purity dimensions of the moral sense count as moral at all. Why doesn't harm/care and fairness/reciprocity just exhaust the moral field? With characteristic ecumenism, Jon cautions us against underestimating the function of the conservative sentiments in a successful society. “The great conservative insight,” Jon says, “is that order is really hard to achieve, it's really precious, and really ready to lose.” The conservative and liberal dimensions of the moral sense create a balanced unity, like Yin and Yang. Our conservative impulses secure stability and order in the face of liberal change. 

Frankly, I find this extremely unconvincing, and I daresay even pernicious. The lesson, it seems to me, is that it is dangerous to become too thoroughly liberal, for that way chaos lies. What Jon needs to show is that there is a threshold on the conservative channels of the moral equalizer below which social stability is threatened. In the talk, he barely gestures toward evidence to this effect. (He does metion the results of an experimental game demonstrating how the willingness to punish can help solve collective action problems, and he seems to characterize the disposition to punish as “conservative,” but what in the experiment points to more than a well-honed sense of reciprocity?)  Indeed, my sense is that the societies in which the space between high liberal settings and low conservative settings is the greatest–that is, the most imbalanced–are by and large the best places for human beings to live. 

My own view is that there is a distinctive form of liberal order achieved by extended market societies. As Hayek noted, the decisive shift in human history was the shift (in some places) between personal to impersonal exchange. And part of this is a shift from personal to impersonal mechanisms for achieving order. If the conservative dimensions are so important, Jon needs to explain why the people of the advanced market democracies are so much more liberal than they used to be, so much less conservative, and yet so much less disordered (i.e., less violence, less war, etc.) 

I think the answer is that in Hayek's “extended order,” the conservative sentiments play a relatively small and decreasing role. A more thoroughly liberal moral culture evidently not only sustains order, but sustains an order that leaves us healthier, happier, and orders of magnitude wealthier. If cranked-up conservative sentiments were necessary to sustain that order, then their decline would indeed endanger us, and could not constitute moral progress. But insofar as they have become superfluous, the failure to further suppress them is a failure of further moral progress. This is not a story of liberal/conservative Yin and Yang. This is a story of Yin devouring Yang. 

I admire Jon's anthropologist's impulse to take the variety of moral cultures seriously, and to take our own society's mostly intra-liberal moral pluralism seriously. But I think he's making a mistake if he think his work points toward the importance of the conservative sentiments. It's pointing me toward a clearer grasp of the ecological conditions under which those sentiments are functional and adaptive. And we aren't in them. When we recognize that, in the advanced world, those conditions have largely vanished–when we recognize that is partly what makes it the advanced world “advanced”–the question cannot be “Why do we need to respect tribalism, subordination, and moralized disgust?” The question is what to do with impulses that now hurt more than help, but are written into us anyway.      

What's Wrong With Energy Independence? David Henderson's Glad You Asked.

All my debate liveblogging cracks about the inanity of “energy independence” led some commenters to ask what's really so bad about it. I never conjured up the will to answer, but if you're still wondering, please read David Henderson:

One issue that has arisen in this campaign is the issue of “energy independence.” Both McCain and Obama believe that moving towards energy independence is a good idea. But, as I pointed out in this month's The Freeman, it's not. Energy independence is no more desirable than coffee independence, banana independence, or car independence. The case for free trade does not break down just because the good being exchanged is important, as oil is. It doesn't generally make sense, if your goal is the wellbeing of country A's citizens, for country A's government to impose tariffs or import quotas on a product from other countries. Even if we put the moral arguments against coercion aside, and even if we nationalistically care only about Americans (I don't care only about Americans), the gains to the domestic producers from reducing trade are less than the losses to domestic consumers. I won't repeat that argument here because you can go to The Freeman to read it. 

Read both the Freeman piece and the rest of the post.

Getting More by Letting Go

Kerry Howley reports on a new paper by the inestimable Michael Clemens examining a remarkable natural experiment in Fiji, the results of which further demolish “brain drain” arguments against skilled emigration. Kerry nicely captures the intuitive-once-you-think-about-it-a-second principle at work:

People locked in poor countries do not fail to invest years studying theoretical physics because they lack the appropriate imaginative capacity. If no one can afford to hire a cardiologist, no sane person is going to waste a decade studying to be one.  Migration increases the returns to higher education. It transforms a questionable investment into one worth making.

Equal Chances for Equal Talent

The first part of Rawls' Second Principle of Justice says, in Joshua Cohen's words, “people who are are equally talented and motivated are to have equal chances to attain desirable positions, so far as this is consistent with maintaining equal basic liberties…”

This has always thrown me for a loop.

First, what little I know of economic sociology tells me that access to economic opportunities is deeply network-relative.

Take two college grads of similar intelligence and discipline, Anne and Betty. Anne's best friend has a brother who just started a small technology company. He figures Anne would be a phenomenal project manager, and it turns out to be true. The company has a huge IPO and Anne ends up a rich executive in what turns out to be a glamorous firm. Betty doesn't happen to know anyone whose brother runs a promising start-up. Does she have anything approaching an chance equal to Anne's to get something like Anne's highly desirable position? Obviously not. But how could she.

Second, desirable positions aren't just boxes out there waiting to be filled. They are created, sometimes by the people who occupy them. And they may depend on contingencies of technology.

Let's say it's 1988. Robert gets into Yale as a legacy, goes on to Harvard Law, also like Dad, gets a clerkship on a district court, and gets a gig at a plush firm whose partners Dad sails with on weekends. Today he's a partner and a bit of a big deal in Massachusetts Democratic Party politics, having years ago been a summer associate in DC with, and now an informal advisor to, the Governor.

Sudeep gets an academic scholarship to a local state school in Northern California. His immigrant parents want him to go pre-med, but he's fascinated with computers and studies computer science instead. While in school, he designs some useful software for tracking inventories, and later starts a small business selling this software to stores. His business grows and grows until he sells it for $100 million in 1998. Since then he's become a successful tech venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and philanthropist, worth half a billion. Politics mostly seems like a nuisance to him, and he stays out of it.

Did Sudeep ever have any realistic chance of becoming a partner at Robert's firm, or an insider in state politics? No. But he's also orders of magnitude wealthier than Robert, and his venture capital decisions help determine the path of future technology, which, let us say, will affect standards of living more than the Governor of Massachusetts ever will. Did Robert–an equally talented and motivated guy–have an equal chance at Sudeep's powerful position? What would that even mean? Sudeep's position didn't even exist when Robert was clerking on the Fifth Circuit.

But, hey! There's a future in which Robert runs successfully for State AG, becomes number two at DOJ, and finally gets appointed a judge on the Federal Court of Appeals. There is no future in which Sudeep has anywhere near this capacity to affect the laws of the land, no matter how much money he might choose to spend on political advocacy. So what would it mean for policy to have equalized access to political power between Robert and Sudeep? Given the technological contingency and social network aspects of opportunity, I don't even know how to approach the question.

Maybe this is how you approach it, and I do wonder why we don't see more proposals like the following from those egalitarians who do tend to see the desirable positions as more or less fixed… How about a quota system for firms that limits hiring from high-status schools and mandates a certain number from low-status schools, so that it's better to be the best kid from the University of North Dakota than the median kid at Princeton? Radical high school-quality affirmative action quotas for college admissions. No Supreme Court justice can have more than one clerk from a top-ten law school. It is illegal ever to hire someone who is a relative, or a friend, or a friend of a friend. Randomized assignments to a vast network of national boarding schools. Combat self-reinforcing prestige by picking an athletic conference at random and then mandating that all Federal Reserve governors for the next ten years be professors at schools from that conference. (So Harvard and MIT econ depopulates as everyone rushes to Creighton and Indiana State. Etc.) Examples of this sort can be multiplied. So would these strategies be “consistent with maintaining equal basic liberties”? Are they necessary for maintaining equal basic liberties, but egalitarians are simply missing the real issue by going on and on about income redistribution?

That there be no systemic, structral discrimination that keep whole classes of talented, motivated people from attaining desirable positions strikes me as obviously desirable, and pretty feasible, too. We've made huge strides in just the past several decades. But that's a point about everybody having a good chance of making the most of their talent and motivation, not an equal chance. Indeed, that's a long way from the idea that people of similar talent and motivation ought to have something like an equal chance at a given position or office. That seems pretty obviously impossible, and I don't see the point of it anyway. All I know is that I want a entrepeneurial, innovative, high-growth system in part because that's the kind that increases the chances of landing a desirable position because new ones are always being invented and that diminishes the relative importance and power of many entrenched and exclusive networks. Elite networks can achieve only limited succeed in opportunity hoarding if new networks, new opportunities, and new hierarchies of prestige and status keep springing up.

We're Gonna Need a Montage

I'm ready to head to Siberia to chop wood and pull sleds full of stones in preparation for next weekend's big Economist debate on corporate social responsibility (Proposed: The Business of business is business.) No doubt my debate partner, Clive Crook, would be able handle both foes solo while one hemisphere of his brain naps, but I should probably prepare anyway… in Soviet Russia! But I need your help. Please, in the blessed name of Apollo Creed and American grit (and, um, hyperfluent English pugnacity), leave links to the best pieces ever on corporate social responsibility in the comments.


I mean, I really believe in the power of grit, but if John Ruggie and Bennett Freeman have that kind of science at their disposal, I'm frankly terrified.

[UPDATE: Link to debate info fixed.]

More on Voting Well

Brown political philosopher Jason Brennan chats with the Guardian the about what it means to vote well.

I owe a lot of my thinking on this to Jason, and we both owe a lot to Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter.  

I was just on the radio, News Talk Radio 580 CRFA in Ottawa, talking about this. I consider this my effort at civic engagement as a potentially future Canadian.