Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Paradox of Happiness

Disciplines are always most interesting when they cross with other disciplines and the economics of happiness is no exception. Talking to some of my friends the other day (one versed in anthropology and another in psychology), we noted how much people value a sense of genuine accomplishment and is probably why, in some cases, wealthy people aren't as happy as less wealthy people. (Setting aside the lower mortality rates in poorer societies.)

For example, the people of the indigenous tribe that must work every day to get a meal are going to be happier (assuming they are successful) than the middle management who, while isn't concerned about getting his next meal, has no sense of accomplishment and feels as though his life is wasted. (This, by the way, is how many mid-life crises take root.) Indeed, people who have the option to leave their tribe in favor of modern life tend not to take it (I know this is very common among the Amish, and I'm sure a similar story can be told for other groups).

However, I argue that the wealthier, accomplished person will be happier than the less wealthy accomplished person ("accomplished" being defined as the standard of the society...for example, getting a book published in the wealthier society versus bringing home a kill in the less wealthy one). Some expressed doubt to the claim, so here's my reasoning.

First definitions: p (probability of achieving an accomplishment); S (happiness from achieving survival); s (happiness from surviving); A (happiness from achieving something else); and a (happiness from that something else). This draws the distinction, for example, between the sense of achievement from a book published and the royalties received from getting a book published. Note I'm also assuming it's equally likely to achieve something in a rich society and in a poorer society. This is primarily to make the math easier.

A person would be indifferent between two societies if:

p(S+s) = p(A+a)+s,

where the right-handed side is the wealthier society (they get the benefits of survival without trying) and the left-handed side is the indigenous society. Simplifying reveals:

S-A = a+((1-p)/p)s

In other words, there must be a larger sense of accomplishment from surviving than from other accomplishments to make a person indifferent. To make a person prefer the less wealthy societies (which I strongly doubt), the premium (S-A) would have to be greater than a+((1-p)/p)s, which I doubt since both values are positive and a might well be quite large.

Now consider the scenario when p=1, or when you are comparing people in each society who have made achievements (either in survival or in something else). The equation becomes:

S-A = a

If we think of such individuals in each society as sharing common traits (intelligence, drive, etc), then this means that more capable people are less likely to prefer modern society compared to less capable people--it all depends on the additional satisfaction derived from achieving survival versus achieving something else. While I imagine this premium to be quite small, the fact that this (simple) model predicts "stronger" people are more likely to prefer an environment that is more dangerous seems to be quite the paradox.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Value of the Original

The Original of Laura, the last novel of Vladimir Nabokov, was published last week. Normally, a new novel doesn't get a lot of media attention but this one's a little different: Nabokov didn't want it to be published. In fact, he wanted it burned.

It was in his last will and testament that all unfinished works of his should be destroyed. When Nabokov died in 1977, his family didn't carry out this wish. They were emotionally distraught and procrastinated the decision, putting the work in a bank vault. For thirty years, a battle of what The Times called "the demands of the literary world versus the posthumous rights of an author over his art" worn on. Eventually, the literary world won...sort of. The novel, apparently, isn't very good (at least in the state it's in).

According to the author's son, destroying the manuscript was something he never seriously considered. Such an attitude makes me nervous; not only did his son fail to follow an aspect of his last will and testament (as did his wife, who died in 1991), it has the potential to shrink the number of good novels.

Nabokov, like many writers, clearly didn't want works published that fail to live up their standards: even after death (the idea that you leave a part of yourself behind after you die is, I'm sure, a motivation for many writers). Suppose the standard attitude of posthumous publishing becomes "ignore last requests and publish anyway." I guarantee you, some aging authors will be less willing to even start a novel in fear that they won't be able to complete it before their death, even if it turns out they could. This can cost the literary world something very valuable. While suffering from tuberculosis, and certainly concerned he might die soon, Orwell worked on 1984, which was only published a year before his death. Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Jules Verne (to name a few) also published several works near the end of their lives.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Quick Logic Lesson

Earlier today, I published a post exploring the idea of America exiling its prisoners instead of incarcerating them (specifically to Madagascar). I don't seriously endorse the idea but given the burden our prison system is under, I thought it was interesting to explore. However, I decided that it needs to be thought about more carefully so I unpublished it and saved it for a later date.

In the brief time it was up, a commentator wrote (and I'm paraphrasing because I forgot to copy/paste) that Hitler wanted to send Jews to Madagascar (I think we chose the same island) and he/she hoped I wasn't planning something like that. That doesn't work.

The ethical problem with Hitler's plan was not that he wanted to exile a group from a country. It is that he wanted to treat a group of people differently from everyone else on immaterial grounds (ie, religion). Ignoring the nature of the crime for the moment, treating prisoners differently from non-prisoners is not unethical; we do it everyday when we send them to jail. The Hitler analogy is false.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Tea Party History

With the "Tea Party protests" so popular among some Americans as a way to defy big government, a history lesson from one of my favorite books seems appropriate.

Most believe that the original Boston Tea Party was a protest against taxes on tea. In reality, the Americans weren't drinking that much British tea; local merchants have been boycotting it for five years, relying on smuggled Dutch tea instead. So, the British decided to remove some of the taxes on British tea in an attempt to make it competitive with Dutch tea.

Loyal British merchants would be granted the right to sell this cheap tea, effectively running the American merchants out of business. That's what the tea party was all about and why those merchants threw their competition into the ocean. (Granted, this would grant a monopoly on British tea to Loyalists, but the problem with monopolies is they increase price and restrict outputs which wouldn't be an issue here, given it has to compete with Dutch tea.) The famed party wasn't a protest of tariffs, it was a protest for a lack of tariffs, as bootleggers supported Prohibition and drug dealers benefit from the DEA.

The Tea Party wasn't celebrated in the colonies, either. The systematic destruction of private property highlighted Massachusetts' reputation as a place for warmongers and Benjamin Franklin demanded that the protesters pay full restitution to the owners of the destroyed tea.

As much as I empathize with the concerns of the modern protesters, this probably isn't the thing you want to be referencing to get your point across.