April 01, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: DENNY DIMWIT ON SUPPLY AND DEMAND


Goat Rope is once again pleased to welcome another learned commentary by Professor Denton "Denny" Dimwit. Dr. Dimwit is director of the Goat Rope Farm Entrepreneurship Center, which is not directly affiliated with the WVU Entrepreneurship Center but has made significant progress in that direction since last week.

This is part of our continuing and tireless effort to provide fair and balanced coverage of the issues of the day, elevate the level of discourse, and promote civility.

THE DIMWIT DISPATCH

Jeez, what kind of morons write for this blog during the week? Lucky for you guys I'm here to set the record straight.

OK. Let's start with the basics. Check out the picture. You see that handsome guy on the left?
That's me. And get this--check out what's next to me. You know what that is? That's a BIG hen. Yeah man...I mean she's huge. I couldn't pick her up with a fork lift. Yowza!

This is a basic law of economics. Check out the BIG hen. That's supply. Got it? Check out me. That's demand. Like all the time. That's the beauty of the free market, see? The balance of supply and demand.

I can prove it scientificologically. OK. Here goes: a+b=c where a is me, b is a BIG hen and c is HELL YEAH! Got it?

That's the truth. You bet your cloaca.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: AS BIG AS DENNY'S BIG HEN

March 31, 2006

THE ECONOMY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, PART V (THE INCONCLUSIVE CONCLUSION)

The question remains, what does social science say about the economy and happiness? The answer is pretty commonsensical: riches may not make you happy but poverty can make you miserable. This is true of both absolute poverty, which literally threatens survival, and relative poverty, which is about one’s economic well-being in relation to the society in which one lives.

As University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt summarizes research in The Happiness Hypothesis, “at the lowest end of the income scale money does buy happiness: People who worry every day about paying for food and shelter report significantly less well-being than those who don’t. But once you are freed from basic needs and have entered the middle class, the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes smaller.”

Ending extreme poverty on a world scale is well within the realm of possibility, as economist Jeffrey Sachs demonstrates in The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time. And, since misery loves company, reducing it might be a good step towards a more secure, peaceful and happy world.

Domestically, the steps are pretty obvious: raise the minimum wage and promote living wage policies and job security across the board. Support the right of workers to organize to improve their conditions without fear of retaliation. Guarantee universal and comprehensive health care to all people. Defend the social safety net, including Social Security and supports for employment such as the earned income tax credit.

It might be nice to replace kleptocracy with (very) old fashioned civic virtue at the federal level. This means investing more in infrastructure and education at all levels, including quality early childhood education, rather than giving more tax breaks to people who don’t need it.

If we did all this, would that mean that more people would be happy? It would at least improve the odds. Thinkers as diverse as the Buddha and Sigmund Freud recognized that a certain amount of suffering is built into the human condition and civilized life. However, a lot of “surplus” misery could easily be eliminated given the will.

As Haidt notes, positive psychologists view happiness as the result of a combination of factors, including heredity, life conditions and voluntary activities. According to “the happiness formula,”

H=S+C+V

where H or happiness is the result of the combination of S or one’s set point or biological disposition, C or conditions of life, and V or voluntary activities. Changing conditions would help in one of three variables. The other two will take some luck and effort.

So happy trails…and good luck.

(Coming attractions: weekend special with gratuitous animal pictures)

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

March 30, 2006

THE ECONOMY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (BUDDHIST STYLE), PART IV

Last year, Oct. 4 to be precise, an interesting article appeared in the New York Times titled “A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom.” It described how they measure the good life in the kingdom of Bhutan, a largely Buddhist Himalayan country moving towards constitutional democracy.

According to the article, rather than focus on gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress and welfare, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided in 1972 “to make his nation’s priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H. or gross national happiness.”

“Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government.”

Leave it to the Buddhists to put the “enlightened” back in enlightened monarchy. “Right livelihood” has been a feature of Buddhist teaching since the wheel of dharma first turned 2500 years ago. This is usually interpreted to mean that one’s way of making a living should be consistent with one's spiritual practice, as in nonviolence, not taking what is not given, not deceiving others, etc.—can you imagine a world economy based on that?

Probably the best known semi-Buddhist approach to economics was E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, published in 1973. In general, more and more Buddhists around the world are committed to “engaged Buddhism” which focuses on peace and social justice.

Meanwhile, back in Bhutan, household income is low, but life expectancies jumped by 19 percent to 66 years between 1984 and 1998. Some characteristics: tourism is limited, 60 percent of the land must remain forested, and hydropower is exported to India. This being samsara, the Buddhist realm of suffering, birth and death, there are still problems even there.

Whatever the quality of life may or may not be in Bhutan, they are on to something in dethroning GDP as the sole measure of well being. GDP measures goods and services produced, not whether the goods are good or the services serviceable. Lots of things don’t show up on GDP, such as the unpaid labor of women who raise children and keep families going.

Lots of things that do show up on GDP can be pretty negative. For example, Hurricane Katrina probably contributed by GDP due to all the resources spent on the inadequate cleanup and rebuilding. If your roof falls in and you have to pay to get it fixed, you contribute to GDP although you’d probably rather it never happened to start with. If a loved one dies, funeral expenses contribute to GDP. You get the idea.

Other countries are starting to look for different ways of measuring well being, an idea first attempted in Europe during the Other Enlightenment in the 1700s. These measures might include health, living standards, free time, family, volunteerism, etc.

A bigger problem than measuring happiness, however, is making it more widely available and reducing needless misery.

(Next time: summing up and what does social science say about money and happiness?)

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: HIMALAYAN

March 29, 2006

THE ECONOMY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, PART III

"We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.”

Those opening lines from the Declaration of Independence are very well known, although people are not always clear on what they mean or even where they came from. On more than one occasion, I have heard them attributed to the Bible, which itself indicates that these words have acquired the quality of holy writ.

It is all too common to bash the founders for not solving all the problems of their day or ours, but this is hardly fair. Those of us living in the 21st century have yet to solve the problems of the 19th (or even 14th). They did pretty good.

The idea of un- or in-alienable rights is a powerful one, implying that some basic human rights are so fundamental that not only can they not be legitimately taken away by others but that we can't even surrender them ourselves. And, significantly for these ramblings, the pursuit of happiness is among them. But what did it mean at the time?

One thing it did not mean to those makers of a still incomplete revolution is chasing after passing gratifications or pleasant states, as important as that may be in a limited way. They were as aware as modern psychologists and biologists of what has been called the “hedonic treadmill,” the endless pursuit of desires that don’t give lasting satisfaction even when gratified.

Whereas some Enlightenment era thinkers as different as John Locke and Jeremy Bentham focused on happiness as pleasure or the absence of pain, the founders drew strongly from the ancient classical tradition of which Aristotle is a part (see previous post).

As Darrin McMahon argues in the recent book Happiness: a History, historians have increasingly become aware of the ancient roots of the revolution going back to the classical Greek legacy and its revival in the Renaissance: “these historians draw attention to a ‘classical republican’ tradition that had great influence in eighteenth-century America” which viewed liberty “in more active terms as direct public participation… classical republicans understood happiness, with strong Stoic inflections, as civic virtue.”

According to McMahon, in the classical republican tradition, “liberty emerged from active devotion to the public good (civic virtue). And from civic virtue emerged happiness, both individual and social. Frequently demanding self-sacrifice, denial, and pain, civic virtue had little to do with pleasure. In fact, in the classical republican analysis, the happiness of modern societies was gravely threatened by the egotism, luxury, and corruption that turned individuals away from the pursuit of the larger social good. Private pleasure corrupted civic virtue and hence the happiness of individuals and society as a whole.”

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there…Today the public sphere has become a shopping mall where the workers don’t have health care or a living wage and where consumers, often the same people, have to buy on credit.

We have sunk from a very rich tradition to a point where “happiness” is thought to consist of worshipping the market god, buying the next thing we don’t really need and probably can’t afford, accepting what “leaders” say without question, and submitting anything we have left to the poison of authoritarian ideologies, religious or otherwise.

What better example of the perversion of civic virtue and the classical republican tradition can there be than a regime that showers luxury and tax cuts on the wealthy and powerful while sending the working class to fight its unnecessary war?

Sometimes, the best innovation consists of transmission and the most radical act is to conserve and revive ancient traditions.

(Next time: towards reweaving the connection between economy, the public sphere, and happiness)

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

March 28, 2006

THE ECONOMY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, PART II

It's really not fair, but some of the coolest things ever thought or written were done so long ago by the ancient Greeks. This is also a good place to start when considering the question of happiness in public and private life, including economic life.

On the temple of Apollo at Delphi were inscribed the words gnothi sauton and meden agan, usually translated as "know thyself" and "nothing in excess." The first of these did not mean know yourself personally but rather realize the limits and possibilities of the human condition, i.e. that while we have great capabilities other animals don't we are not not gods and shouldn't pretend to be. According to writer and critic Erich Fromm, "'Know thyself' is one of the fundamental commands that aim at human strength and happiness."

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher whose writings embody this tradition in a way that still sheds light today. He argued that happiness (eudaimonia) was the chief goal for humanity because "we always choose it for itself and never for any other reason." By contrast, we tend to want other things, like health, respect, a decent living, etc. in order to be happy, whereas we want happiness for its own sake.

Happiness, however was not the same as simple pleasure or passing emotions; it involved the active and full development of human potentiality over the course of a lifetime: "the good for man is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind." By virtue, Aristotle means excellence or well roundedness. This takes work and requires the formation of good habits.

A virtuous person in this sense would pursue an active physical, social, emotional, political, intellectual, and spiritual life. Humans have basic needs like plants and animals which must be satisfied, but a life that consisted only of meeting those needs would not be fully human.

A basic idea here is that of telos, which means completeness, potentiality, or the goal or end of things. An acorn is a potential oak; a human being is potentially a well rounded person who actively engages in all aspects of human life over the course of a lifetime. Similarly, each person has his or her own unique potential.

Happiness in this sense is social and political. Aristotle coined the phrase that humans are political animals, arguing that to live alone "one must be either a beast or a god." And happiness is the main goal of politics or community life: "a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only..." And economics, as a minor aspect of political life, exists for the same purpose.

There are a lot of things about Aristotle that we find offensive today, such as his acceptance of slavery and belief in the inferiority of women. But one would imagine that the things we say today might look bad 2,400 years from now, if there are any people left. Meanwhile, there are a lot of things to keep here. Some are pretty revolutionary.

If happiness in the sense of the full development of the potential of each person is the goal of political life, it provides a pretty strong standard by which to measure policies and institutions and should lead us to challenge anything that thwarts people from developing their human and unique potential.

(Next time: what did Jefferson et al mean by "the pursuit of happiness" anyway?)

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

March 27, 2006

THE ECONOMY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, PART I

In the next few postings, El Cabrero is going to try to follow a thread of thought through the labyrinth regarding the connection-- or lack thereof--between the economy and human happiness. For the last 200 years, people have often noted the disconnect between the two, as when Thomas Carlyle referred to political economy as "the Dismal Science" in 1849.

The most striking thing about the modern and postmodern economy is that, while it is made by people, it dominates them. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his Poems, published in 1847,

"Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind."

Hardly a day goes by when we don't hear that layoffs, recessions, budget cuts, lowered wages and living standards, and other regrettable events are desired by no one, yet forced on us by "the economy" or "the market." The Economy is spoken of as if it was an entity separate from and superior to the people who make it and could presumably change it. What was intended to be the servant of humanity has become its master.

As Marx and Engels put it in their Manifesto of 1848, "Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange, and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells." While Marx's status as a prophet of the future has suffered, his descriptive abilities are widely acknowledged.

Even more pathetically, like the idolators ridiculed by the Hebrew prophets, many people today who can see and hear and think worship a market god that can't.

A challenge for our time is to try to dethrone the idols and rebuild the connection between the economy and human happiness and well being. Jesus shocked the conventions of his time and place by saying "the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath." He shocked them even more by acting accordingly. We need to say "The economy is made for people and not people for the economy" and act upon that.

(Coming next: the question of happiness. Also, don't forget to scroll down for the weekend's gratuitous animal picture and latest Dimwit Dispatch.)

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED