Towards an economics of unhappiness

For at least the last decade, there has been a boom in work on the economics of happiness. But following Tolstoy[1], I’ve always wondered why we don’t study the economics of unhappiness instead: after all, there’s so much more data.

For the last year or so, I’ve been planning a paper in which I took off from this point and made the case for unhappiness as a driver of economic activity and particularly of economic change (including ‘growth[2]’). But, as usually happens[3] with my thoughts along these lines, it looks as if someone has beaten me to it.

Chris pointed me to this piece by Stefano Bartolini, which argues that people strive to increase their wealth as a response to the negative externalities generated by positional externalities[4] and the destruction of social capital.

I’ve also been reading a translation of Sedlacek’s Economics of Good and Evil, a surprise hit in the original Czech, which discusses many of the same issues, focusing on the contrast between the economics of the ancients and that of Adam Smith.

I have a more positive take on unhappiness. It’s possible, I think, to want something better than what you have (for many different values of “better”) without being actively miserable. In a world where change, both good and bad, is inevitable, cultivating a position of stoical detachment seems to me to be something of a copout[5}

fn1. Tolstoy had his own economic ideas, which drew (not surprisingly for the time, and for a dissident landowner on Henry George)

fn2. Growth, like GDP is a tremendously unsatisfactory and misleading concept when dealing with complicated economic aggregates, some components increasing and others decreasing. But that’s another post.

fn3. Often by a fair stretch of time, as I’m very slack about reading the literature. I was very pleased with my discovery of Ramsey’s Rule of Saving until I discovered that Ramsey had got there first.

fn4. To translate from the economese, the fact that some social benefits depend more on your relative position than your absolute wealth means that if one person becomes better off, others are worse off.

fn5. Does this useful slang term have an equivalent in formal English? I can’t think of one that isn’t a paraphrase.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

64 thoughts on “Towards an economics of unhappiness

  1. @David Fitzpatrick
    This immiseration is the current choice of both Australian political parties David. We, in Australia are nowhere near the point of Karl Marx’s mass immiseration of workers due to oppressive production, even if many other nations are much closer.

    This immiseration of Australian people is solely the fault of our feeble governments and their feeble policy choices, and I make no distinction between either Labor or Liberal because there is no distinction to make.

  2. no just allergic to sub-clinical paranoiacs. where’d you study economics by the way?

  3. @Alice
    You nailed the colours of “equality of opportunity” to the mast well and truly, Alice! Good take on it. [Amazing how prescient “1984” was, when it came to “Doublespeak”.]

  4. @Alice
    Actually you raise a very serious point: a side effect of de-institutionalisation (aside from the bastardisation of yet another English word, that is) is to leave acutely mentally ill, eg suffering a psychosis now, without any means of getting protective assistance and with no guarantees of medical assistance either. Afterall, if an Emergency Department at a local hospital is all that is available, how the Hell do these people get there? Once there, the care is often limited to the purely medical and revolves around freeing up their bed as soon as feasible, rather than about holding the patient in “custody” until the psychosis fades and a proper assessment can be done. The more old ward psychiatrist has to make a judgement call not only about the patient before them, but also about the bed they are taking up – not that the Dr would ever say that out loud. It is an insane system for all concerned.

  5. Happiness is probably anti capitalist. One of the reasons that Indian people were imported into Fiji to do the work was because in the local economy there was time for fishing and gardening and weaving and creating a good life but it didn’t require a lot of additional work as people were happy with their way of life. The British hated to see people enjoying themselves when there were fortunes to be made. These unhappy people made yet more people unhappy but also made serious money.

    Any marketer today will say that they try to make people discontented and that the product that is being marketed will answer that dissatisfaction.

    The pokies are interesting to examine in this happiness/unhappiness equation.

  6. @Donald Oats
    @Donald Oats
    Don – you ask ” if an Emergency Department at a local hospital is all that is available, how the Hell do these people get there?”

    You dont want to know the ugly facts but for the mentally ill (I have a girlffriend still in the font line of mental health which now includes drug addiction problems) it often involves a medical history of multiple admissions, and being collected possessionless from the gutter or elsewhere in whatever condition by an ambo, a couple of days of drugs in hospital and a too hasty dicsharge into the care of relatives if they are lucky enough to have rels who care, with little to no follow up treatment until the next admission. That is the reality for a lot of mental health patients Don.

  7. @Donald Oats
    It gets even worse. The “poor old ward psychiartrist” is not poor and has been now feted and funded for years by drug companies with overseas trips and conferences to dispense their brand of psychotrphics…talking to the patients is passe these days.

    There are drugs that Im sure make patients talk reasonably to themselves.

  8. @Alice
    You paint pretty much the picture I thought might apply. If there is one way to become more insane it is to be admitted to hospital as an emergency case, it seems. I was in the Adelaide RAH back in January, and the treatment I received was excellent, no complaints out all about the people. The system is another story though.

    I witnessed the disruption that a single psychologically-impaired individual can cause, while I was there. The patient was presumably psychotic, although it could have been schizophrenia, or even a response to illicit drugs, so the first problem for staff was clearly to identify what the flippin’ heck was going on. Not easy with a non-compliant individual; makes one ask just how she made it to the hospital – was she dropped off, maybe? Once it was established (I know not how) that it wasn’t illicitndrugs, it was psychological – psychosis was what the staff said in earshot, the next question was whether a staff psychiatrist would be available with X hours time. [The “X” is that funny unknown quantity from primary school algebra.]

    I went in and out of consciousness so I didn’t catch the entire drama, but that was just one patient for a short period of time, and they were soaking up plenty of resources. Personally I felt a bit embarrassed about taking up a bed for my own (prescribed) medication reaction, but once admitted into the system it is whoosh to a bed for the battery of tests for the admission profile. I guess that they can’t take any chances, but it does seem awfully expensive to do it this way.

    Sorry to be OT.

  9. @Donald Oats
    I once let a man in reluctantly past visiting time many years ago in a London ward Don on the basis that his friend “was a dear close friend”.

    The patient was a documented multiple admission serious drunk with the diagnosis PFO (pissed and fello over) with mental problems going back years. Dont be shocked. There is a standard treatment for PFO which involved hourly nerological observations despite his state of sleeping through it.
    Well after what seemed like half an hour behind closed curtains to say hello to his “dear friend” I realised the visitor was also pretty pissed and it was taking him a too long time to rifle through his friends clothing for money…until I called security and had him thrown out.

    Such is life on the wards around the corner from emergency Don.

  10. @Donald Oats
    Don dont ask me about the two under twenty year olds at North Shore hospital that realised in the 1970s after reading Carlos Castaneda that what was growing in one of their parents backyard, commonly known as angels trumpet, and highly hallucinogenic is also called Datura in Castaneda’s hippy era book.

    So the two youngsters boiled themselves up a cup of tea didnt they?

    Approximately 16 hours later they finally had the sense to realise they were in a hospital emergency department with the staff wondering whether they would every go back to normal. Those two boys managed to cause quite a bit of disruption too and a great deal of concern – it was not known how bad this hallucinogenic was and they may as well have been totally blind on appearances – no response to the normal world – and worse we had no idea at all what it was.

    It took me so long to get them into pyjamas in between their running around. I found one trying to put both his legs into a single pyjama sleeve and telling me he was fine in the odd few seconds of lucidity between major ravings that were indecipherable and incomprehensible and unreachable.

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