Friday, May 07, 2010

Inequality Makes Rich Liberals Unhappy

The Easterlin paradox, as we noted yesterday, finds that above the midpoint, more money does not make people happier.

The complementary macrosocial finding is that inequality in society is not closely correlated with overall happiness. Nor are poor people normally unhappy in unequal societies. Indeed, some of the happiest people in the world, according to Carol Graham's studies in Happiness Around the World, are in sub-Saharan Africa, which are very unequal societies.

Yet happiness studies at the macrosocial level almost always have a big concern with opposing inequality. Where does this concern come from, if not from the actual data on happiness?

From the guilt of rich liberals, especially in rich societies, Graham concludes.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Easterlin Paradox - The Foundation of Macro Happiness Studies

I am working my way through the mountain of research in the past generation on happiness. Half of it is micro work done by psychologists. The other half are macro studies done by economists. We sociologists have some catching up to do.

The foundation of macro happiness studies is Richard Easterlin's finding that richer nations are happier, but the richer people in them are not.

When you plot income against happiness, the curve goes up steeply to about the mid-point, then flattens out, kind of like a small r. This curve is the same for individuals within a nation, and for nations as a whole.

Some researchers I respect say that there isn't really a paradox, because the curve does not flatten (as much) if you measure percentage change in income, instead of absolute increases. I will ponder over those claims hereafter.

The basic finding of the Easterlin paradox makes sense to me. From poor to average, more money really does make your life easier and opens other options. From middle to the Gatesian stratosphere of income, though, more money does not add big increments of happiness. Richer nations are happier because the people who are relatively poor live decent lives, materially, whereas the poorest people in desperately poor nations are really badly off.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Happiness Correlates Hold in Non-Rich Countries, Too

Getting richer doesn't make you happier above the average income. Chronic health problems make you unhappy. Unemployment makes you unhappy. Divorce makes you unhappy. These are strong findings from across the rich countries of the world.

Carol Graham, in Happiness Around the World, added her own study of Latin America, Russia, and Afghanistan, and collected other studies of sub-Saharan Africa. The result: the same relationships hold in middle-income and poor countries, too.

The happiest people were sub-Saharan Africans, among the poorest people on earth. Their absolute wealth is low, but personal happiness is tied more to having enough to live, and then having good family and friend relationships.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Obesity as a Poverty Marker - for White People

Many Americans are fat, including many poor Americans. Carol Graham, in Happiness Around the World, reports that poor white Americans feel worse about being fat than poor black or Hispanic Americans do. Her reading of this fact: poor white Americans think other people see their being fat as marking them off as poor, whereas being fat is spread among all classes of black and Hispanic Americans enough that obesity is not taken as a poverty marker.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Blocked Ascendants and Frustrated Achievers

Carol Graham, in Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Unhappy Millionaires, found that the poor people who stay poor are often happier than people who are rising out of poverty. She notes, as many happiness researchers have found, that happiness rises as income rises up to a midpoint, then flattens out at the higher levels of income. In her surveys of many developing countries, Graham found that the least happy were those she called "frustrated achievers." These are people who are rising educationally and economically, but are stymied. In developing economies there are many people with more education and ambition than the economy can absorb. They have a broader view of the possibilities of advancement than the peasants, so it bothers them more than they can't reach their (new) goals.

I was reminded of one of the interesting ideas that came of the massive studies of worldwide religious fundamentalism that Martin Marty and his associates conducted in the 1990s. They found that a fertile field from which to recruit fundamentalists was among people with modern education who were nonetheless unable to find a place in the modern sector of the economy. The Marty team called such people "blocked ascendants."

It makes sense to me that frustrated achievers and blocked ascendants - who appear to be the same people - are both unhappy with the way their society is organized, and open to a suggestion that things would be better if society were restored to a previous, God-given order. I don't know if fundamentalism makes people any happier, but it would make their lives feel more meaningful.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The New Form of Government for the PC(USA) is Still a Good Idea

A new Form of Government was proposed for the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the General Assembly in 2008. Predictably, it was sent back to the church for study until the next assembly, which meets in July. I think the great majority of Presbyterians have no idea that a new Form of Government has been proposed, nor that there is a consequential debate going on. This is pure polity wonk material. As a polity wonk, I feel a duty to weigh in.

The Presbyterian Church, like every big Christian denomination, has always had a range of theological views and religious practices under the big tent of the Bible and traditional theology. Presbyterians takes a specifically Reformed approach, which has some particular consequences, but this picture is true of every large denomination.

For the past long generation in the PC(USA) we have had a continuous theological and cultural struggle. One important front in this struggle has been over the precise wording of the Form of Government (FOG), the portion of the church's constitution that regulates who does what in the church. We don't usually have fights over the part of the constitution about how worship services are to be conducted. While we have a few large disagreements about what we confess theologically, the church made the portion of the constitution that is full of theological confessions merely advisory in the 1960s. So, ever since then, nearly all fights have been about the Form of Government. As a result, the FOG has grown from a short, practical set of regs that commissioners brought to presbytery meetings in their breast pocket, to a fat rulebook.

The idea behind the new Form of Government was to make the denomination-wide FOG a slimmer set of general operating principles. The governing bodies of the church - the local sessions, the presbyteries, the synods, and the General Assembly - would create their own manuals of operations within the general constitution. The different governing bodies could be a little different from one another. The big principles of the church would apply to all. That way, the church would not have to spend every single assembly fighting over amending the by-laws to suit one side of the culture war or the other.

In the upcoming assembly there are a few overtures to shelve the nFOG. The ground of their objection is that, in the words of Central Washington Presbytery,

the proposed changes to the Constitution of the PC(USA) are so vast and foundational, that they are not simply changes to our current communion, but would go so far as to functionally constitute the creation of a new denomination. As such, we believe that many who have taken ordination vows to a vastly different constitution would no longer believe that their vows were still in force. We believe the potential chaos of both intentional changes and unintended, unforeseen consequences will not serve to advance the mission of the church and will only escalate the level of strife and distrust that already exists.
They object to nFOG because it might have unforeseen consequences. That is true. That is true of every change to the constitution.

They object to nFOG because it would let presbyteries have somewhat different rules from one another. That is also true. But that has always been true of the Presbyterian Church, and every large denomination that has ever existed.

The great gain of adopting the new Form of Government is that the inevitable diversity within the Presbyterian Church could be contained within the overall order of the church, while allowing some variation at the local level. The attempt made by both extremes in the church's culture war to force everyone to comply exactly with the views of one wing or the other damages the church unnecessarily. They force the other extreme out. Worse, the endless skirmishing so disheartens the vast loyalist center that they just withdraw from the denomination altogether.

End the war. Allow local variation. Pass the FOG.