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The Happiness Manifesto

I made Nic Marks’ “The Happiness Manifesto” my second-ever Kindle single. I’m basically in agreement with what he has to say, but like with most writing on this subject the problem is that the most insightful point comes in the form of quoting a Bobby Kennedy speech that’s over 40 years old:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product — if we judge the United States of America by that — that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Over the long run, I’d say the quality of our children’s education does feed back into GNP/GDP in a pretty clear way. But besides that quibble, this is dead on. What’s less clear is how far we’ve advanced from this point to thinking up smart policy implications. The problem with underplaying the importance of growth in rich countries is actually well indicated by this quotation from Marks who says we ought to:

Create good work … Create a well-being economy based on good work, good work in the right quantities. Unemployment has terrible effects on the well-being of the unemployed, and job insecurity affects everyone. Work can profoundly affect our well-being by providing us with purpose, challenge, and opportunities for social relationships; it is a meaningful part of our identity. Some people have little or no work; they need support to help find more work. Others overwork and need to be encouraged to reclaim their time for other purposes that would bring them more happiness. Governments should systematically promote well-being at work, highlighting best practice and helping to redistribute work throughout the economy more evenly.

The problem is that as long as technology continues to improve, then some workers will find themselves able to produce more goods and services than is currently the case. This will lead to some job losses. If it also leads to economic growth, then it will also lead to job creation and over time you have no increase in unemployment but you do have an increase in material living standards. Absent growth, however, technological improvement will only lead to idleness. Even if work-sharing can be made to work as a solution (and I think there are real limits to this strategy) you really are going to start running low on work. The right solution to this is to organize society along the lines of a utopian commune where people engage in hobbyist production and possessions flow “from each according to his ability to each according to his means.” But nobody’s been able to make small voluntary communes stable and efforts to use coercion to organize large-scale non-market on an enduring basis have not exactly had utopian results.

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I think this is an issue worth taking seriously. Owen and Fourier were on to something. But nobody’s really worked it out. For now capitalism + social insurance + quality public services + macroeconomic stabilization seems to be about the best we can do.