Happiness is a warm statistic….
Oh sure, if you’re married to Carla Bruni then it’s easy to argue that happiness matters. “I’m a short guy in a low-paying profession in a country that was last considered a dynamo at the time of Montgolfier brothers first balloon flight,” you think, “but my wife is chaud, chaud, chaud and in my country ...
“I’m a short guy in a low-paying profession in a country that was last considered a dynamo at the time of Montgolfier brothers first balloon flight,” you think, “but my wife is chaud, chaud, chaud and in my country everybody gets five weeks off and all the pain chocolat they can eat. Bien sur we need a new way to keep score.”
So, if you’re Nicolas Sarkozy, president of a country that knows something about little men who want to change the world, of course you embrace a new report from a group of economists led by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz that argues that we ought to be measuring the progress of countries by how happy their people are.
But what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to make of this crazy idea that there is a better way to measure the economic success of a country than GDP growth? Something more important than a tally that primarily measures the value created by a country’s businesses? Something more important than a measure that can be strongly positive while inequality grows and the few are cashing in on the labors of the many?
How very French. But come to think of it when we live in an age when China’s is flashing nearly double digit growth in the middle of a recession while we’re busy trying to convince all the girls that 2 percent is the new 4 percent, maybe Sarkozy is on to something. (Certainly the new approach would make the concept of a global depression that much more accurate.)
Oh, that what Stiglitz and company are recommending is a metric that is more aligned with the interests of people than businesses and would offer governments a measurement of success that actually reflects the aspirations of their citizens … well, that’s easy to dismiss because happiness doesn’t seem that serious, does it? I mean, after all, didn’t our founders specify that the purpose of our country was to guarantee the right of all of us (well, white men anyway) to life, liberty, and the pursuit of constant growth in “the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation’s borders during a given period (usually 1 year).”
Even better than any redirecting of our priorities that might come of shooting for a different set of goals is the fact that totally extraneous things might conspire to raise our national level of happiness even while other economic measures are faltering, thus making us feel better at the times we most need to feel better (like now). Thus, while it might take a while for Barack Obama’s economic reforms to restore growth to America his mere arrival on the scene would almost certainly have accounted for a net rise in terms of our gross national happiness (to use the accepted Bhutanese metric.) Heck, just mentioning the Bhutanese metric does it for me because it reminds me of a post this site had over the summer on Bhutan which was written by my very happy-making eldest daughter. (Both my daughters would make me a huge contributor to America’s well-being by these new measures. Although come to think of it, they are making a not insubstantial contribution to GDP growth as it is.)
Or you could pick up a paper and read the right kind of story and bing-bing-bing, our collective score rises. Like it did today while reading Obama was on Wall Street pushing for long-overdue financial reforms. Or better yet, because he called Kanye West a “jackass.” Or — because sometimes all it takes is a goofy story about nutty officials — when I read about Evo Morales’s plan to nationalize the Bolivian national soccer team because it didn’t make the cut for the World Cup. Or when I read about Venezuela’s announcement of its new nuclear program. (I know, that doesn’t sound so great. But I’ve been predicting this problem for so long that it gives me a little lift even if it is a potential calamity for millions of others. Take note: that’s what narcissism makes possible.)
On the other hand, the happiness pendulum could swing in the direction of the usual litany of disasters and indefensible policy moves. We could say, extend the Cuba embargo for one more year — as Obama just did — and trigger a near-depression (recession?). It’s a good example of the kind of pathetic failure of imagination that passes for an excuse to keep repeating our mistakes. But I guess that was the point Sarkozy and Stiglitz were trying to make … and why their effort, even if it is utterly unrealistic, makes me so dang happy.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images