Towards an economics of unhappiness

by John Quiggin on April 12, 2011

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.

{ 105 comments }

1

Chris Bertram 04.12.11 at 10:36 am

Glad you’ve posted on this John. There’s a bit more to Bartolini’s piece though, isn’t there. The idea seems to be, as I read him, that (as you say) people respond to the destruction of social capital, and the natural environment by seeking to increase their private wealth so as to build a sort of protective cocoon for themselves and their families. But a lot of this is self-defeating, because of the positional aspects. It is also socially self-defeating because of the feedback effects on the natural and social environment. The pursuit of wealth and the building of private cocoons damage the natural and social environment in ways that further spur people to act in these fearful self-protective ways (with further damaging consequences, and so the cycle goes on).

(Example: you fear for your kids in the free public education system, so you pay for them to be educated privately, but the withdrawal causes further deterioration and so more people are driven to pay …. etc)

There’s a further side to Bartolini’s paper too. People have to build the private cocoons (my phrase) and pursue increased monetary wealth because goods that were once available to them for free cease to be so because the process of growth colonizes these for the market. Shades of the enclosures …. and more reason to resist the encroachment of the market in those areas that still provide people with goods for free (health and education, to some extent).

2

John Quiggin 04.12.11 at 10:48 am

That’s absolutely right. I was a bit telegraphic in my summary, but the whole thing is worth reading.

3

Barry 04.12.11 at 11:07 am

The slang term for goods which are positional-dependent might be ‘status’. Probably taboo among economists, but with proper mathematicalization and a total change of meaning, it might become acceptable :)

4

andrew_m 04.12.11 at 11:12 am

fn5: “abdication of responsibility”

5

Nick 04.12.11 at 11:17 am

It is an interesting theory, Bartolini’s, but I am not sure if it is very well empirically supported. For example, what is the evidence for a trade-off between market relationships and GDP growth, and other voluntary social institutions that represent social capital? It doesn’t seem obvious: http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/big-government-and-the-%E2%80%98big-society%E2%80%99-are-not-partners-%E2%80%93-they-are-competitors

Wouldn’t we expect societies with poor social capital (or diminishing social capital) to grow faster on this account? Is that demonstrated anywhere?

I also agree that a critical distance from aggregate measures like GDP is important (it can miss out very significant features of well-being), but my understanding is that the idea that well-being has only a tenuous relationship with economic growth (even as traditionally defined) is being substantially revised, and that there is actually a fairly close link in many circumstances: http://ftp.iza.org/dp3654.pdf

It might be more plausible to say that social capital is a complement to personal capital rather than a substitute.

6

Tim Worstall 04.12.11 at 11:50 am

“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. “

Indeed….we could make, say, the pursuit of happiness one of the cornerstones of the rules about our society.

Although I fear that, once again, someone’s beaten us to this idea.

7

Andrew 04.12.11 at 12:13 pm

I was somewhat confused by Bartolini’s article. Where are the differential equations and functional analysis? How can he expect us to understand an economics article written in English? I gave up by the third paragraph of well-formed sentences.

You also write:
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}

I agree with this, but I wonder whether what you’re describing here is really captured by the term unhappiness. And if not, perhaps no one has beaten you to the punch after all.

8

Straightwood 04.12.11 at 12:33 pm

Science and engineering are grounded in measurement. Money is easily measurable, while happiness, virtue, justice and other important social “goods” are not. Economists, like the drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamp post because the light is better there, prefer to study easily measurable phenomena. This preference is encouraged by financial institutions and those who value money above all else.

As a result, an advanced industrial society knows the price of everything dollar denominated and the value of nothing that is not price-tagged. That is why our social capital account is badly depleted and even “successful” people feel like rats in a maze. People are drugging themselves with money-denominated “goods” because they are deprived of the undervalued esteem, dignity, companionship, security, and tranquility that are increasingly elusive in a money-dominated society.

9

John Quiggin 04.12.11 at 12:33 pm

@Andrew I can do a translation for you – much easier than translating Sedlacek from Czech.

10

Nick 04.12.11 at 12:41 pm

“As a result, an advanced industrial society knows the price of everything dollar denominated and the value of nothing that is not price-tagged. That is why our social capital account is badly depleted and even “successful” people feel like rats in a maze. People are drugging themselves with money-denominated “goods” because they are deprived of the undervalued esteem, dignity, companionship, security, and tranquility that are increasingly elusive in a money-dominated society.”

Ok, so where are the countries/regimes that have all those things in place of money measurable goods? On some accounts, it is the development of commerical societies that permitted non-economic relationships (like friendship) to become widespread in the first place: http://www.jstor.org/pss/2780332

11

chris 04.12.11 at 1:04 pm

Ok, so where are the countries/regimes that have all those things in place of money measurable goods?

Well, if you allow “in place of” to be replaced by “in addition to”, Europe. More time off = more time for companionship and tranquility, greater workers’ rights w.r.t. employers = more dignity. “Security” is pretty broad but economic security, at least, is far greater in a country where they don’t see how “medical” and “bankruptcy” can possibly belong in the same sentence, and without as much of an underclass they have less crime too.

On the other hand, social democratic countries in Europe are undisputably still “advanced industrial societies”, so maybe this isn’t really what Straightwood meant.

12

Peter T 04.12.11 at 1:14 pm

Nick

and are those account remotely plausible? Any perusal of the literature of pre-commercial societies – widely available in cheap translations – would show friendship to be a commonplace. Try the Penguin Classics.

But the point you contest is overstated. It’s not commerce itself that is corrosive, but the primacy accorded commercial values, coupled with a too-dominant utilitarianism. One could note the irony that the ideology of the market is triumphant even as less of the actual economy is run on market principles.

13

Nick 04.12.11 at 1:35 pm

“It’s not commerce itself that is corrosive, but the primacy accorded commercial values, coupled with a too-dominant utilitarianism.”

With that modifier, I agree. I would also suggest that emphasis on commercial values (i.e. an obsession with what people and objects are “worth”) tends to diminish with increased economic prosperity.

And there is rather a lot more going on in a comparison with Europe and the US than just economic policy. Very different histories and starting points (the US with its comparitively recent legacy of mass slavery, for example) with implications for social capital. It is hard to say what exactly a Europe with US economic policies would look like, but it might well not look anywhere near as unsociable, or violent, as elements of US society.

14

conchis 04.12.11 at 1:38 pm

It’s possible, I think, to want something better than what you have (for many different values of “better”) without being actively miserable.

Indeed. I believe some people call it “hope”, and there’s even econometric evidence to back up its importance to happiness. (Google e.g. Claudia Senik).

15

Chris Bertram 04.12.11 at 1:49 pm

With respect, Nick, I’m not sure that the label “social capital” is carrying all the right connotations here – it is part of the story but not all of it. The issue is about the extent to which people have access to certain goods as free commons (and those can include parts of the natural world) and the extent to which they have to provide those goods (or substitutes for them) privately, for which they need to earn cash. How catastrophic for a person (and their family) are the consequences of not being able to earn a decent wage? In some societies, not so catastrophic, since there’s lots of free stuff to enjoy, extended family will provide stuff, your kids will still get a decent education, and you’ll get treated if you get sick. In other societies: you’d better earn – by working very long hours if necessary – if you don’t want life to be shit.

16

John 04.12.11 at 2:02 pm

The nearest formal word for cop-out I can think of would be abdication.

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William Timberman 04.12.11 at 2:03 pm

In the U.S., finding a supply of social capital sufficient to offset a modest income appears to be much more difficult than it is in Europe. At present, living near rich people is by far the best way. In California, for example, it’s definitely better to live in Palo Alto than in Bakersfield, assuming you can find enough hedges to clip, or dogs to walk.

Happiness in any event requires introspection rather than invidious comparisons with the neighbors, friends rather than admirers, and leisure more than money. We don’t know this, of course, most of us — which is why we now leave the study of happiness to economists.

18

dictateursanguinaire 04.12.11 at 2:11 pm

“On some accounts, it is the development of commerical societies that permitted non-economic relationships (like friendship) to become widespread in the first place”

errr…what? find me a sociologist, anthropologist, historian or student of classical literature how will claim that non-economic relationships were not “widespread” (what do you mean by widespread, anyways? like some enclaves of people had them but others didn’t?) until the development of commercial society.

19

dictateursanguinaire 04.12.11 at 2:19 pm

*who. and a further addendum,

“With that modifier, I agree. I would also suggest that emphasis on commercial values (i.e. an obsession with what people and objects are “worth”) tends to diminish with increased economic prosperity.”

I mean, I know we’re on a blog, here, but with something that seems so counterintuitive, and, well, wrong-on-its-face, I have to ask where you got this idea. Take America, for example. I’m going to assert that it’s one of the most commercially-minded societies on Earth, and you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s more so (maybe Singapore, which really only supports my point.) It’s also one of the most economically prosperous (well, at least in GDP terms). Can you give some insight as to how exactly you came up with this idea and what, if any, evidence you have for it, anecdotal, thought-experiment or otherwise?

20

Sev 04.12.11 at 2:23 pm

“unhappiness as a driver of economic activity and particularly of economic change”

As an American who briefly lived in Canada(and England in my youth) and occasionally visited, I used to think about the contrast in social policies this way: Canadian social policy (was) aimed at giving a decent life to the person a bit below average income, while American law and policy aimed at helping the owner of property. There’s not much genteel poverty in the US, if there ever was. Instead it is corrosive, cannibalistic.

#5 “Wouldn’t we expect societies with poor social capital (or diminishing social capital) to grow faster on this account?”

Well, the US has generally grown faster than Canada in GDP, though not in recent years, and I don’t know if one could tease this out as a factor. Here’s a thought: a bit of unhappiness may be a spur, but in recent decades US is well off into “Crier Curve’ territory, where the misery at the lower end is just too overwhelming.

21

Nick 04.12.11 at 2:30 pm

@18

I pushed the point too far. What I should have claimed was that relationships divorced from economic concerns were much harder to maintain for those from all but the richest backgrounds before the development of commerce, and the development of seperate work relationships. That primary relationships were much more likely to be forged out of material concerns. I.e. the most consistently important people in your life would be a spouse (often chosen for economic ties), a head of household, or lord of the manor.

22

Nick 04.12.11 at 2:37 pm

“Take America, for example. I’m going to assert that it’s one of the most commercially-minded societies on Earth, and you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s more so (maybe Singapore, which really only supports my point.)”

I am afraid I haven’t got too many data points. No American has ever asked me how much I earn. Indians (I am told) don’t think twice. When I was in Cuba, everyone I encountered was trying desperately and transparently to get hold of foreign currency by selling any goods or services they could get hold of.

23

chris 04.12.11 at 2:50 pm

@Nick: Manors were *after* the development of commerce (indeed, it’s hard to picture anyone building a manor without having commerce with lots of people). When you say “before the development of commerce” I picture hunter-gatherers, and while “let’s go hunt the antelope together” is, in a sense, an economic relationship, it’s not (IMO, but I’ve never been a hunter-gatherer) incompatible with social goods in the way that employer-employee relationships are.

And friendship is clearly present in related *species*, so I don’t think its existence can be contingent on particular social innovations of the last 10,000 years (although it certainly can be interfered with by those institutions).

24

Nick 04.12.11 at 2:51 pm

“In some societies, not so catastrophic, since there’s lots of free stuff to enjoy, extended family will provide stuff, your kids will still get a decent education, and you’ll get treated if you get sick. In other societies: you’d better earn – by working very long hours if necessary – if you don’t want life to be shit.”

I see. In which case we are looking for evidence of that trade-off or, at least, substitution between economic growth in that society and the provision of those sort of goods socially or publicly. My feeling is that you are much more likely to see good provision of public services following economic growth, than economic growth following a destructions of these public services. You are more likely to see them associated than disassociated.

You can deploy the US/Europe comparison and there is probably some truth to the claim. But I am not sure how strong this trade-off can be considered when within Europe it is advanced and flexible market economies (like say Switzerland and Denmark) that seem to have fairly good non-market assistance too.

25

piglet 04.12.11 at 2:57 pm

unhappiness as a driver of economic activity and particularly of economic change

Come on, if you say “dissatisfaction” instead of unhappiness, that is pretty much standard economic wisdom.

Bartolini: “Why do people strive so much for money if money cannot buy happiness?”

Good question. Old question.

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Nicholas Gruen 04.12.11 at 3:10 pm

John,

When I saw your headline, I thought you were headed somewhere a bit different. I thought “well he’s beaten me to the punch”. I’ve been doing some work on indexes of wellbeing lately and I had one of my moments where I expect something to be in the literature it’s so obvious, and it turns out to be hard to find.

It seems to me that one response to the flattening out of ‘satisfaction’ or happiness as income goes up is this. If you want ‘happiness’ to go up in these circumstances perhaps the best you can do is focus on trying to reduce unhappiness. So in constructing an index of wellbeing you could do worse than Net National Income (as you say, better than GDP) plus any other elements you may wish to include like health, education, environmental amenity etc and then subtract GNU (Gross National Unhappiness).

You then go looking for that in all the things we know generate unhappiness and try to figure out which of these indicators of unhappiness can be influenced by policy – and go and try and influence them.

27

ajay 04.12.11 at 3:14 pm

friendship is clearly present in related species

Such as? Cooperation, reciprocal trade, kinship bonds, yes. But friendship?

Take America, for example. I’m going to assert that it’s one of the most commercially-minded societies on Earth

I’m going to assert that it isn’t.
Do schoolkids in America dream of going into commerce when they’re older? No (except in the very loose sense that every sort of lifestyle is commerce, ie exchanging goods and services for legal tender). They don’t dream of becoming traders or entrepreneurs or CEOs or salesmen, they dream of becoming musicians and athletes and fighter pilots and astronauts.

28

ajay 04.12.11 at 3:15 pm

Compare that with, for example, 1990s Russia, where polls found that the most popular careers for schoolkids were black marketeer, import-export agent and hard-currency prostitute. Now that’s a commercially-minded society.

29

zosima 04.12.11 at 3:20 pm

If we’re going to be completely thorough, we should look at the economics of laziness too. Three primary determinants of behavior are pleasure, pain, and effort. Energy conservation is the least recognized of the three, but just as important. For example, the reason TV is so popular is not because it is wildly pleasurable, but because it is mildly pleasurable and low effort.

30

R.Mutt 04.12.11 at 3:34 pm

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky showed in 1918 that at the end of times there will have been 10^15 times as much happiness as unhappiness in the universe, making the latter negligible.

31

dbk 04.12.11 at 3:49 pm

“If we’re going to be completely thorough, we should look at the economics of laziness too.”

Hmm, yes – seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and exerting minimal effort in doing so. The American cinema has produced at least one cult classic illustrating this creed, to wit the life and times of The Dude. And as an interesting aside, we recall that The Dude was one of the authors of the (original) Port Huron statement, which had a thing or two to say about human dignity, self-respect, participatory democracy … might these have something to do with “happiness” as broadly defined, or at least with “less unhappiness”?

32

Zamfir 04.12.11 at 3:52 pm

@ Ajay, isn’t the “hard currency prosititute” an indication of a problem there? I presume the hard currency was the attraction of the job, and likely of the other two as well. But in the US, all jobs are hard currency jobs by mid-90s Russian standards. The same goes for Nick’s Cuba example. Those are cases where a glitch in the system is making trading extremely attractive for a while, not cultures that value trading as a particularly laudable thing compared to alternatives.

I am not that sure if the US that much into commrece, as mythical virtue. US commerical myths tend to be about ‘entrepeneurs’, people who build a new business and get rich from being the first. Below the commerce, there is a lot of emphasis on the creative part as justification for the wealth. Dutch national myths on the other hand are really about merchants, traders who buy and sell without any indication of creation as necessary component. My primary school books about our war of independence proudly explained that ‘we’ sold the necessary guns and supplies to the Spanish armies, making us rich and them poor.

33

ScentOfViolets 04.12.11 at 4:23 pm

Glad you’ve posted on this John. There’s a bit more to Bartolini’s piece though, isn’t there. The idea seems to be, as I read him, that (as you say) people respond to the destruction of social capital, and the natural environment by seeking to increase their private wealth so as to build a sort of protective cocoon for themselves and their families. But a lot of this is self-defeating, because of the positional aspects. It is also socially self-defeating because of the feedback effects on the natural and social environment.

How uniform is this response throughout the population? What about churches?

34

mc 04.12.11 at 5:04 pm

Nicholas Gruen,

You say:

“Perhaps the best you can do is focus on trying to reduce unhappiness. So in constructing an index of wellbeing you could do worse than Net National Income (as you say, better than GDP) plus any other elements you may wish to include like health, education, environmental amenity etc and then subtract GNU (Gross National Unhappiness). You then go looking for that in all the things we know generate unhappiness and try to figure out which of these indicators of unhappiness can be influenced by policy – and go and try and influence them.”

This strikes me as pretty sensible. It also strikes me as pretty close to the animating philosophy of the non-ideological, non-idealistic element of the (British) Labour Party – the element perhaps best represented by Denis Healey, who summed up the latter part of it, following Kolakowski, as “eroding by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering”.

35

Matt 04.12.11 at 6:10 pm

“Why do people strive so much for money if money cannot buy happiness?”

Well, not happiness, maybe, but if you have enough money you can buy a very nice bottle of wine, and while that may not be happiness, I’ve come to find that it’s a pretty good substitute.

36

chris 04.12.11 at 6:27 pm

Money may not be able to buy happiness, but poverty can damn sure destroy it.

…actually, I think whoever said money can’t buy happiness must have been pretty comfortable, money-wise. It certainly does have a point at which the happiness return on more money is close to zero, but lots and lots of people are nowhere near that point.

37

alph 04.12.11 at 6:49 pm

“copout” in formal english = “evasion”?

can be made more precise as e.g. “cowardly evasion”, though perhaps then we’re moving towards circumlocution.

ah, yes: oed gives “cowardly compromise or evasion”. okay–we agree.

38

Myles 04.12.11 at 8:27 pm

US commerical myths tend to be about ‘entrepeneurs’, people who build a new business and get rich from being the first. Below the commerce, there is a lot of emphasis on the creative part as justification for the wealth.

Quite true, actually.

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Myles 04.12.11 at 8:35 pm

My primary school books about our war of independence proudly explained that ‘we’ sold the necessary guns and supplies to the Spanish armies, making us rich and them poor.

Are you serious? That’s hilarious.

40

yeliabmit 04.12.11 at 9:10 pm

@Matt:

…if you have enough money you can buy a very nice bottle of wine, and while that may not be happiness, I’ve come to find that it’s a pretty good substitute.

A bottle of wine drunk alone, or shared with friends?

41

Myles 04.12.11 at 9:12 pm

A bottle of wine drunk alone, or shared with friends?

Money gives you the freedom to determine the choice among either. Personally, I prefer the latter.

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dictateursanguinaire 04.12.11 at 10:20 pm

“What I should have claimed was that relationships divorced from economic concerns were much harder to maintain for those from all but the richest backgrounds before the development of commerce, and the development of seperate work relationships. That primary relationships were much more likely to be forged out of material concerns. I.e. the most consistently important people in your life would be a spouse (often chosen for economic ties), a head of household, or lord of the manor.”

This seems more plausible but I’m still fairly skeptical. Also, some points: one, the spouse thing (i.e. that it’s now less common [but still occurs regularly, of course] that people marry to move up socially or economically) is more a product of changing views about marriage and human beings than economic needs. I suppose you could make a materialist argument to the effect that those views changed because economic conditions changed, which would be interesting. But still, I think the point is that norms changing is certainly as big of a deal as economic conditions. One huge thing would be the idea that women are equal to men and not property or slaves. And – before you go there – the large majority pre-agricultural societies have relative gender egalitarianism, so that can’t be chalked up entirely to commercial development.

Just one last point, as well – you mention a number of feudalistic or slave-holding relations (“a head of household, or lord of the manor”). As a history and anthro geek, I have to point out – the large majority of human history has been lived in hunter-gathering groups. Even after those groups largely declined, there were still pastoralist groups among the agricultural groups. These societies, as many problems as they do have, avoid many of the pitfalls of agricultural societies and generally don’t have feudal relations – there simply isn’t the necessary surplus of goods to create the huge social inequalities that result in those sorts of relations. I think you’re seeing the world as dichotomous, with capitalist societies on one side and slaveholding/feudalistic societies on the other side. This just isn’t historically accurate, I’m afraid – there is a much larger story there. In fact, material abundance was what originally created feudalism and lords in the first place. It took the Enlightenment and the development of liberal/socialist thought to ameliorate some of the problems that go along with material abundance. In a word, it’s like MLK’s famous line about the arc of history. It may be bent towards justice in the long run, but there are a LOT of detours/pitfalls/tradeoffs in between. I think the view of human history as one of strict linear progress is very problematic.

43

dictateursanguinaire 04.12.11 at 10:30 pm

“I’m going to assert that it isn’t.
Do schoolkids in America dream of going into commerce when they’re older? No (except in the very loose sense that every sort of lifestyle is commerce, ie exchanging goods and services for legal tender). They don’t dream of becoming traders or entrepreneurs or CEOs or salesmen, they dream of becoming musicians and athletes and fighter pilots and astronauts.”

Determining a society’s character based on the dreams of children is pretty narrow, I think. I’m not convinced by your argument. Commercially minded doesn’t have to refer strictly to commerce as a method of earning money. If one writes a commercial movie, s/he is technically not engaged in commerce by your definition but s/he is still certainly looking to make a profit. See definition three :http://www.thefreedictionary.com/commercial “having profit as its chief aim”…

I’m going to turn your example on its head: think about the fact that all of those careers are not commercial in the very-limited sense but they are all still fairly lucrative. Astronauts, less so, but pilots, musicians and athletes make piles of money. Maybe kids don’t dream about becoming merchants or CEOs but it seems a funny coincidence that they still want jobs that pay off well. I can remember as a young child wanting to be a police officer and my dad telling me openly that they don’t make very much money.

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dictateursanguinaire 04.12.11 at 10:34 pm

Final comment:

“Such as? Cooperation, reciprocal trade, kinship bonds, yes. But friendship?”

How are these any different from friendship? Don’t go thinking too highly of humans, there. You say that “friendship” in these species always has a material basis, i.e. that it’s not really friendship because human relations can be between people who aren’t kin or who don’t need material things from the other. But we’re still friends largely with people of our same social and material status. None of us with the luxury to comment on this page are bosom buddies with the homeless, I’m assuming. Why not? Some of them are remarkably engaging and interesting. Because it would destroy your social capital. If material relations determine animal relations, that certainly extends to humans.

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dictateursanguinaire 04.12.11 at 10:42 pm

@Nick, just realized that my response to you basically mirrors Chris’ from above. Sorry, didn’t see that/mean to beat a dead horse. Especially sorry given that you seem remarkably polite/civil given internet standards; I probably put a bit much vitriol into the original response. Anyways, you do have a fair argument, kudos.

46

Peter T 04.13.11 at 12:23 am

Coming back to Nick’s point on friendship, my dips into anthropology left me with the impression that gift exchange is pretty basic – and an early material signifier of friendship (Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bordieu have explored this). This implies that friendship is the foundation of commerce, not the other way round. And, if you look around, the connection is still strong enough to be exploited – the stores that offer you a small gift are trying to move the relationship towards a kind of friendship – as friends don’t look too closely at the equality of the exchange.

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Mozzie 04.13.11 at 12:49 am

How about artifice for cop-out?
In this context only, though.

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Sandwichman 04.13.11 at 1:01 am

Sometimes it is just as well that someone has beaten you to it. Especially if you have done the research only to find that your results have already been replicated by that someone else. A few days ago Henry Farrell linked to a post by Mark Blyth citing Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy:

Hirschman pointed out that conservative arguments come in three distinct theses. First is the “Perversity thesis” where any well meaning reform produces its opposite outcome: ‘welfare makes you poor’ – that sort of thing…

Well, I had a database chock-a-block full of perversity, futility and jeopardy (over 500 entries) without even knowing it! Now I have a tidy conceptual framework to tuck them into and an authoritative source to footnote the apparatus to. The Hirschman schema also dovetails nicely with Bartolini’s thesis as the latter could be classified as a progressive instance of the perversity argument — the commercial ‘pursuit of happiness’ ends up making us unhappy.

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Nicholas Gruen 04.13.11 at 1:40 am

Thanks MC.

A nice quote which I will put to good use!

50

Nicholas Gruen 04.13.11 at 1:41 am

Alas MC, I can’t find the quote in Google – can you give me any help with the reference?

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Gene O'Grady 04.13.11 at 1:52 am

Do kids of dream of going into commerce? Well, my son went out for Halloween when he was five as an investment banker because he wanted to be really scary. (I am not making this up.)

Next year he went as a juke box, to accompany his older sister who was a waitress.

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ScentOfViolets 04.13.11 at 2:15 am

Has anyone read this guy’s stuff:

This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

Poverty and wealth, by this logic, don’t just fall along a continuum the way hot and cold or short and tall do. They are instead fundamentally different experiences, each working on the human psyche in its own way.

Mark Thoma seemed quite taken by this line of attack on the problem a year or so ago.

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Myles 04.13.11 at 2:20 am

Well, my son went out for Halloween when he was five as an investment banker because he wanted to be really scary.

Approximately what era was this? Investment banking as a profession was more or less completely absent from the general American consciousness before the financial collapse. If you went around a normal high school (outside the NYC suburbs) and told people that you wanted to be an investment banker, people would just sort of stare at you in mute incomprehension.

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Myles 04.13.11 at 2:29 am

Investment banking, by the way, is still insignificant numerically as a profession in America (This is why the competition to get into the investment banking graduate schemes is so unbelievably vicious in America; there just aren’t enough spots. For a very long time, investment banking in America worked heavily on the entry-job-for-client’s-son principle rather than the professional-track one. If I correctly remember the numbers someone once told me, there are about about double to triple (probably different nowadays) the number of relevant investment banking entry jobs in NYC as there are in London, but the relevant economic bases are not as comparable.)

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bad Jim 04.13.11 at 3:16 am

Children do dress up as pirates.

Among the hippies of the 60’s generation a very common ambition was to work for one’s self, typically as an artisan. The People’s Republic of Berkeley turned out to be a hotbed of entrepreneurism. (I had no ambitions along those lines back then, so of course that’s the way I wound up.)

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geo 04.13.11 at 3:35 am

Myles @53: Investment banking as a profession was more or less completely absent from the general American consciousness before the financial collapse

The blockbuster movie Wall Street, featuring the phrase that prompted a million op-eds and sermons, “Greed is good,” came out in 1987, twenty years before the financial collapse.

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Myles 04.13.11 at 4:04 am

The blockbuster movie Wall Street, featuring the phrase that prompted a million op-eds and sermons, “Greed is good,” came out in 1987, twenty years before the financial collapse.

Professor, yes but I think the mental awareness of “Wall Street” (as in the eponymous movie, Wall Street Journal, the markets metonymically) never translated into a comparable impression of “investment banking.” I think for most Americans, Wall Street before the financial crisis was just a place where loud, aggressive men in flash suits and Italian ties did million-dollar deals about…something. Probably (insider) stock trading. But investment banking, of course, is much, much more than trading stocks (even by the generic use of the word; technically investment bankers don’t trade stocks at all).

You see this, for example, in the movie American Psycho. Bateman dressed in expensive suits, went to fashionable restaurants, and was generally a nasty piece of work. But what did he actually do? No one knows. It was mostly abstract. I think most Americans were deeply shocked that so much stuff in their daily lives were related to Wall Street in some way (cars, houses, their jobs depending on the whim of earnings analysts); most sort of just thought that Wall Street was full of people selling and buying stocks. The fact that Wall Street (in the generalized sense, as this was Philly) could trade things as possibly obscure as frozen OJ, for example, is part of the punchline of Trading Places.

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.11 at 4:13 am

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Emma in Sydney 04.13.11 at 5:12 am

Myles, how on earth would you know what any phrase, let alone one as metonymic and flexible as ‘Wall Street’ meant ‘for most Americans’? How would anyone know? Do you have any evidence whatsoever, or is it just pulled straight out of the ether?

The plot of Steinbeck’s East of Eden rests on the immorality of trading in futures, and that was written in 1952, and made into rather a popular movie. Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Prime Minister, has a vulgar caddish character who trades in futures ruin himself and end up under a train. Published 1876.

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Myles 04.13.11 at 5:42 am

Myles, how on earth would you know what any phrase, let alone one as metonymic and flexible as ‘Wall Street’ meant ‘for most Americans’?

I don’t know it, obviously, insofar as you can perfectly know something like this. But Americans outside educated Northeasterners genuinely tended to have (before the crisis) very little clue what investment banking is, or who investment bankers even are. If people asked you what you wanted to do, and you answered “investment banking,” it would be rare if no looks of puzzlement resulted. It was actually more obscure than if one answered astrophysicist or OB/GYN, because the latter were simpler to explain. This was, of course, especially prevalent outside the East Coast.

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zamfir 04.13.11 at 6:03 am

How is investment banking hard to explain? “Help businesses get their financing”. The rest are the kind of details most people don’t care about, except for your granny who loves to hear you talk whatever you say.

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hellblazer 04.13.11 at 7:05 am

Myles, if you “don’t know it”, then how can you claim “Americans outside educated Northeasterners genuinely tended to have (before the crisis) very little clue what investment banking is, or who investment bankers even are”? I’m prepared to believe that you got this off a survey, or read it in a book, rather than doing an anthropological road trip of the States; but if so, why not say where you saw/read this?

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hellblazer 04.13.11 at 7:05 am

Or are you just bullshitting?

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Anarcho 04.13.11 at 7:27 am

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

Tolstoy was heavily influenced by Proudhon (War and Peace was named after a book by Proudhon). Tolstoy considered Proudhon’s “property is theft” as “an absolute truth” which would “survive as long as humanity.”

As with other anarchists, Tolstoy recognised that under capitalism, economic conditions “compel [the worker] to go into temporary or perpetual slavery to a capitalist” and so is “obliged to sell his liberty.” This applied to both rural and urban workers, for the “slaves of our times are not only all those factory and workshop hands, who must sell themselves completely into the power of the factory and foundry owners in order to exist; but nearly all the agricultural labourers are slaves, working as they do unceasingly to grow another’s corn on another’s field.” (The Slavery of Our Times)

So Tolstoy may have been influenced by Henry George, but he was far more radical — he advocated the anarchist critique of property and wage-labour.

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Myles 04.13.11 at 7:29 am

How is investment banking hard to explain?

Try explaining to people that neither part of the phrase “investment banking” means what they think it means. Insofar as most people (that I’ve met) had any guesses, they thought the investment part of investment banking referred to investment management, sort of like financial advisers or mutual fund managers. Well, no. Also, the concept of a bank that doesn’t take deposits can be pretty unfamiliar.

I’m prepared to believe that you got this off a survey, or read it in a book, rather than doing an anthropological road trip of the States; but if so, why not say where you saw/read this?

Alas no, no such source. Only armed with the experience of being lengthily resident the U.S. I know, Applebee’s Bobo sociology on the cheap, I know. But do you really need a survey to figure out that a good portion of Canadian kids play hockey? Perhaps actually growing up as a Canadian kid would be sufficient?

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ajay 04.13.11 at 8:07 am

I’m going to turn your example on its head: think about the fact that all of those careers are not commercial in the very-limited sense but they are all still fairly lucrative. Astronauts, less so, but pilots, musicians and athletes make piles of money. Maybe kids don’t dream about becoming merchants or CEOs but it seems a funny coincidence that they still want jobs that pay off well.

No, they want jobs that give them fame and status and, well, creative fulfilment; some (but not all) of these jobs are also extremely lucrative at the top end, just as almost all other jobs are lucrative at the top end.

But given the choice, I suspect, they’d choose fame and status – if you gave high-school kids the choice between a summer job with an local accounting firm that would pay $2,000 a month, and a summer job playing on tour with a local rock band that paid $400 a month, which would they go for?

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Zamfir 04.13.11 at 8:27 am

@ Myles, how is that different from most other office jobs? People don’t know what most jobs actually do beyond some vague impression. Unless they have had some interest in doing it themselves or if they happen to know someone who does it. And in the latter case, only if that person is good at explaining to non-specialists, which is a skill not everyone has or cares to have.

The difference between an investment banker and a fund manager might be very large to those people, but why should outsiders care much about it? “I work in finance” is good enough for nearly all social purposes, just like “I work at the steel mill” covers a range of different jobs. If someone says they are an astrophysicist or an Ob/gyn, people just mentally file that as “scientist” and “doctor”.

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mc 04.13.11 at 8:51 am

Nicholas Gruen,

I read it in Healey’s autobiography, ‘The Time of My Life’, pp 472-3, where he is describing a speech he gave in late 1979, after Labour had lost the election, and before Healey stood for the Labour leadership and lost. He doesn’t give a reference for the original Kolakowski quote.

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Emma in Sydney 04.13.11 at 9:07 am

Could be Friedman sociology. Maybe Myles talked to (n>1) taxi drivers. Who happened to ask him what investment bankers do and didn’t understand the answer. Or pretended not to understand so his customer would shut up and let him drive. I think hellblazer and I have come to similar conclusions.

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hellblazer 04.13.11 at 10:16 am

But Americans outside educated Northeasterners genuinely tended to have (before the crisis) very little clue what investment banking is, or who investment bankers even are…

Only armed with the experience of being lengthily resident the U.S. I know, Applebee’s Bobo sociology on the cheap, I know

Gordon Bennett, this is like pulling teeth (in this case, mine). Which parts of the States? Minnesota? Houston? Austin? Bloomington? Portland? Or are your statements about the U.S. “outside of educated Northeasterners” extracted from your deep well of knowledge as a (supposedly) educated type in the Northeast?

Investment banking as a profession was more or less completely absent from the general American consciousness before the financial collapse.

To square this with your later remark

The fact that Wall Street (in the generalized sense, as this was Philly) could trade things as possibly obscure as frozen OJ, for example, is part of the punchline of Trading Places.

it would seem that you need to insert “for several years” before your “before the financial collapse”.

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Random lurker 04.13.11 at 10:26 am

People who apparently agree on the “economy of unhappiness” theory:
1) Karl Marx, who says that early capitalist expropriated most commons with force in order to create their initial capital, thus creating a group of landless guys who later had to became proletarians; Marx also believe capitalism to be mor productive than older systems.
2) Right wing people, who say that welfare causes unemployment because people are lazy and stay on welfare instead of getting a job.
Apparently, the two theories are the same, just with a different spin.

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dictateursanguinaire 04.13.11 at 10:35 am

@ajay

If one is a professional athlete or professional musician, one IS at the top end of their profession. There’s not much of a middle ground between “I play sports/music for fun on the side” and “I make a lot of money off it.” How many mediocre-ly paid athletes do you know? Or musicians (and, let’s be real, children don’t dream about being starving musicians on an indie label, they dream about being Beatles-big)? I don’t think your point about fame/status contradicts mine; after all, money has no value in itself. So why do people want it? To buy material stuff, and to acquire fame/status. Your point about artistic fulfillment would work if children actually wanted to do those jobs for those reasons but I’m not sure that you’re right. All of this is besides the point. We both are being amateur sociologists, here; guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point for lack of data.

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ajay 04.13.11 at 11:49 am

If one is a professional athlete or professional musician, one IS at the top end of their profession. There’s not much of a middle ground between “I play sports/music for fun on the side” and “I make a lot of money off it.” How many mediocre-ly paid athletes do you know? Or musicians

This is a misconception – there are a lot of professional athletes who don’t make very much money. The median salary is about $81,000 according to BLS, about the same as “administrative service managers”.
I don’t know any professional athletes but I know quite a few full-time professional musicians and none of them would describe themselves as “making a lot of money off it”. “Scraping by” to “modestly comfortable” covers most of them.

(BLS doesn’t give an annual median salary because so few musicians are on an annual salary, but it gives the median hourly wage as being $22 – a bit less than “tax examiner and revenue agent”).

In both cases, your perception’s being skewed by the existence of a few very highly paid and highly visible outliers; all the middle- and low-paid musicians and athletes who make up the bulk of the industry are comparatively invisible.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.13.11 at 12:12 pm

I’ve begun to put together a syllabus and if I find the time later I’ll comment on a few of the items therein:

Jon Elster’s “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Elster and Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism (1989). [discusses, among other things, declining marginal utility and the fact that the pleasures of consumption become jaded over time in conrast to the economies of scale in self-realisation]

Andre Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason (English tr., 1989)

Robert E. Lane’s The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000)

A couple of books by Juliet B. Schor

Tibor Scitovsky’s The Joyless Economy: The Psychology of Human Satisfaction (1976, revised ed., 1992)

Amartya Sen’s “Conceptualizing and Measuring Poverty,” in David B. Grusky and Ravi Kanbur, eds., Poverty and Inequality (2006). [largely for the discussion of relative deprivation]

Werner Sombart’s essay, “The Sociology of Capitalism” (date?)

Nicholas Xenos’ Scarcity and Modernity (1989)

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Straightwood 04.13.11 at 12:50 pm

There is an insufficient appreciation of the OCD (Obsesssive Compulsive Disorder) component of aggressive money-seeking. Curiously, our society views OCD behavior focused on anything other than money as an illness, but regards obsessive pursuit of wealth as a virtue. Thus, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that many of the most powerful people in a capitalist society are praised and admired because they are mentally ill. I don’t believe that a mentally disturbed person can be considered “happy.” For a stark depiction of the phenomenon I am describing, see the film “There Will Be Blood.”

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ajay 04.13.11 at 12:54 pm

I don’t believe that a mentally disturbed person can be considered “happy.”

I don’t see why not. Especially if you’re simply classifying people as mentally disturbed because you disagree with their motivations.

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dictateursanguinaire 04.13.11 at 12:56 pm

ajay, you’re missing the point, dude. As I said, children don’t KNOW that that’s the case. When they say “musician or athlete”, they mean Michael Jordan. They mean The Rolling Stones. The kids are not aspiring to be Single A baseball players. They want to be in the MLB, which is where the dough is at.

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Chris Bertram 04.13.11 at 1:26 pm

Patrick thanks! Further suggestions: ch.11 of G.A.Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History and some of Philippe Van Parijs’s stuff (Real Freedom for All, “In Defence of Abundance” in Marxism Recycled). Hirsch, Polanyi … Maybe ch.33 of Vol. 1 of Capital (remarks about the Swan River settlement). (Cohen also references Mishan Costs of Economic Growth and some remarks by Galbraith in New Industrial State that I’ve been meaning to follow up when I have some time.)

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chris 04.13.11 at 1:38 pm

In both cases, your perception’s being skewed by the existence of a few very highly paid and highly visible outliers; all the middle- and low-paid musicians and athletes who make up the bulk of the industry are comparatively invisible.

Yes, but so is the perception of the kids aspiring to the profession, and that’s the point. Kids aspire to be the next Michael Jordan, not the next guy who warms the bench until Jordan fouls out. They probably don’t even know who that guy is, which is why he plays so little role in their thinking about basketball as a profession. (Let alone the guy who played some college ball but wasn’t quite good enough to be offered a contract by the NBA, which is even more common — those people typically exit the profession altogether and may or may not have much of a Plan B, which is why parents are so prone to wet-blanketism about aspiration to be a professional athlete/musician/actor/etc. In a sense, everyone actually in the profession is an outlier from a larger distribution of also-rans.)

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.11 at 1:55 pm

Kids aspire to be the next Michael Jordan, not the next guy who warms the bench until Jordan fouls out.

That last guy is paid absurdly well. Failing in the NBA is a big financial win.

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david 04.13.11 at 2:11 pm

Marshall Sahlins, the Sadness of Sweetness, for a potted history of scarcity a motivating cultural concept.

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Zamfir 04.13.11 at 2:30 pm

That last guy is paid absurdly well. Failing in the NBA is a big financial win.
How much do kids want to be an anonymous NBA bench-sitter? Presumably a lot less than a superstar, but how would it compare to their interest in similarly paid jobs? Especially compared to a similarly paid top-dog job elsewhere like, say, being the top sales agent of a company?

I really don’t know. Do kids in general want to be sports superstars because would like being superstars, or because they would like to be paid well to play sports? There is clearly a lot of competition for the job of NBA backbencher. And even for minimum-wage artist jobs, pop musician or otherwise.

But the adults and young adults competing there are only a small subset of the kids who dreamt of being stars. Have the rest given up, or were they mostly interested in the superstar part?

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James Kroeger 04.13.11 at 2:38 pm

FWIW, here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote that seems especially relevant to the topic that John introduced.

“…The intent of most of these strategies is simply to avoid the emotional pain that is inflicted by disapproval. But our fundamental need is not just to avoid the pain of disapproval but also to enjoy the pleasure of approval. From within the individualistic perspective that dominates our culture, those who have perfected their use of these strategies end up being perceived as ‘Winners’ on the emotional battlefield. Upon noticing that some people are Winners and some people are Losers in emotional exchanges, our Imitation Instinct encourages us to ‘get close to’ the Winners and figure out what it is that has enabled them to become winners. They become valued as models to emulate. To emulate The Winners is to identify with them and celebrate their successes (because you hope to achieve the same status for yourself one day). Thus are even Bullies able to receive something that seems to approximate approval. But is it really approval?

“The ‘approval’ that bullies receive from their followers is related to the type of ‘approval’ sought by those who seek to elicit the envy of others. When envious people exhibit smiles of approval after being exposed to the possessions/circumstances of The Envied, their approving feelings are usually not intended for the envied individuals themselves, but rather for the ‘special experiences’ that The Envied get to experience. Being able to ride around in a $250,000 automobile looks like it might be a fun experience. Having the freedom to not work and spend your time instead on experiencing all different kinds of novel experiences sounds desirable. Of course, we approve of these things/situations because we think they might be desirable. But these feelings of approval do not extend to the people who currently have the opportunity to experience them regularly. Indeed, hatred is the emotion that envious people are more likely to feel for the people whom they envy.

“At the root of envy is our very fundamental and instinctive urge to experience any experience that another person seems to be enjoying. We are programmed to want to imitate those people who have smiles on their faces or who seem to be having their curiosity satisfied in a non-threatening way. Hatred becomes a part of the Envy Experience after the Anger Instinct becomes involved. The Anger Instinct is triggered whenever we perceive 1) an enemy that seems responsible for the pain [or threat of pain] we are experiencing, or 2) an enemy that seems to be responsible for depriving us of some pleasure that we’d like to experience. When envious people hate the people they envy, it is because their Anger Instincts have assumed—sometimes accurately, sometimes not—that The Envied are responsible for the need-deprivation they are experiencing.

“Experiencing feelings of envy is not a sin. (Responding to those feelings with violent anger is.) Much worse is the sin of intentionally seeking to elicit the envy of others. Efforts to elicit the envy of others are driven primarily by a desire to experience the approval of others. Since these efforts are often rewarded with disapproval instead, it would seem that the wise individual would want to avoid situations that might make others feel envious. A far more intelligent way to elicit the sincere approval of those who are less fortunate than you is to earn their gratitude—an especially satisfying form of approval—through acts of generosity. The risk of hearing disapproval when you’ve acted generously is almost zero.

“Our instincts also encourage us to pursue indirect methods of eliciting expressions of implicit approval. If one member of a group is singled out for ridicule, then all those who were not included in the indictment are able to infer that they are approvable in the eyes of the victimizer. They intuitively realize that when they join in the victimizer’s ridicule, they are indirectly praising themselves. It provides them with a powerful incentive to participate in victimizing orgies of ridicule (especially if they otherwise risk being ridiculed themselves). This ‘strategy’ provides few payoffs, however, if all the members of a group are equally skilled in waging emotional warfare. If there are no easy victims available for them to exploit, then the victimizers will find their group environment far less enjoyable, since they will be ‘taking it’ as well as ‘dishing it out…’

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mrearl 04.13.11 at 2:42 pm

Copout=evasion, yes. But, in the context above, more specifically=shirking?

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.11 at 2:56 pm

How much do kids want to be an anonymous NBA bench-sitter?

Depends on what you mean by “kid”. Certainly some of the high-schoolers who entered knew they were going to be warming the bench, and of course for some kids wearing the uniform is enough.

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Bruce Baugh 04.13.11 at 3:10 pm

Straightwood: I’m close to people with OCD, some very intensely, and they are as capable of genuine happiness and sorrow as anyone else.

I do agree, though, that OCD is a factor in some accumulating of wealth, and would add it to it the problem of sociopathy. About 4% of the population at large turns out to be more or less incapable of forming normal emotional attachments or engaging in empathic identification with anyone else, and what they’re left with is social interaction as competition, scored according to whatever game rules they settle on. They have a genuine advantage in fields that glorify and reward acting as though one were sociopathic.

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Myles 04.13.11 at 3:32 pm

Maybe Myles talked to (n>1) taxi drivers.

No.

it would seem that you need to insert “for several years” before your “before the financial collapse”.

I think you better elaborate. I’m a bit confused.

“I work in finance” is good enough for nearly all social purposes, just like “I work at the steel mill” covers a range of different jobs.

I think it’s important to note that “finance” means something different in the U.S. than in most of the rest of the English-speaking world, as least in normal conversation.

Gordon Bennett, this is like pulling teeth (in this case, mine). Which parts of the States?

The coasts. I am premising this on the fact that few people on the coasts knew, and I think we can at least presume the same for the rest of the country.

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chris 04.13.11 at 3:46 pm

There is clearly a lot of competition for the job of NBA backbencher.

This seems somewhat misleading to me. The competition is *for* the job of NBA star; the top 20 or so actually become stars, the next 100 or so become starters with more moderate levels of media/fan attention, and the next couple hundred become backbenchers. But they weren’t competing to become backbenchers, any more than anyone runs a race intending to place third. (Byzantine chariot teams aside.)

The rest of the distribution, probably most of it, don’t get NBA jobs at all; unless basketball has minor leagues, they’re probably coaching at some middle school or switched to a non-sports-related career altogether. This makes them nonsalient, so if you’re not thinking carefully about it, you might think that warming the bench is the worst possible outcome.

Probably the median NBA-derived salary of people who tried to get into the NBA is $0, because the median such player didn’t get into the NBA at all.

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Salient 04.13.11 at 4:33 pm

Come on, if you say “dissatisfaction” instead of unhappiness, that is pretty much standard economic wisdom.

Ok, but dividing “dissatisfaction” from “suffering” is the most obvious first step toward developing a theory of economic justice, as people are morally entitled to amelioration of their suffering but not to mitigation of their dissatisfactions. ‘Unhappiness’ is the ambiguous case we have to parse in order to tease out what we owe our neighbors: for what intensity of unhappiness is one morally entitled to redress from the community?

The economic impulse to accumulate one’s right to goods and services from the community, to address one’s own dissatisfactions and whims, needs to be balanced with the need to distribute the right to goods and services among the community, to mitigate suffering.

I like the Tolstoy reference, that’s where I found a first hint that people’s exhibition of formal rationality could be directly proportional to the unmitigated suffering they are enduring. Kinda quixotic and something that’s been bugging me for a long time: behavior in the pursuit of whims are most irrational, obviously, but it’s closely followed by the irrationality people exhibit in attempting to address their (material and immaterial) dissatisfactions through market means. By comparison a suffering person is intensely economically rational, at any scale — a suffering population’s empiric economic behavior is more theoretically predictable and by simpler models.

I don’t know if that’s true, just a hunch backed by some almighty anecdata.

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Substance McGravitas 04.13.11 at 4:45 pm

The competition is for the job of NBA star

At a certain point, though, most people lose the ideals Willy Loman had. That is not all mail-room clerks have CEO aspirations.

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Kenny Easwaran 04.13.11 at 5:35 pm

As one anecdatum in support of Myles, I’ll say that when I was an undergrad at Stanford, and classmates were telling me they were interested in jobs in “I-banking”, I had no idea what they meant – I assumed the “I” stood for “international”. Maybe I had higher standards for what it took to count as “knowing what investment banking is” than most people do, but I’d venture to guess that I count as relatively well-educated (even when I was only a year or two into undergrad), and I grew up in the northeast. So even some of those people didn’t know what it was ten years ago.

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engels 04.13.11 at 6:05 pm

I would have assumed that iBankers were over-priced, over-hyped and liable to pack up after only a few years.

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Myles 04.13.11 at 6:40 pm

I’ll say that when I was an undergrad at Stanford, and classmates were telling me they were interested in jobs in “I-banking”…and I grew up in the northeast

That’s pretty odd. But then, for most of the American postwar period investment banking was genuinely servile to domestic big business, and it simply didn’t have a significantly individual character as a profession. It (in America) genuinely was very much a “let’s hire the client company president’s son” industry rather than a professional line of work.

I think Yves Smith pointed this out in her Naked Capitalism blog. She laments the fact that it is no longer servile to domestic business, unlike when she started out. Of course, being a servile business, it offered then very little opportunity to people who weren’t sons of company presidents, or indeed people who planned on its being a permanent career. The employment of Nick Carraway as a bond dealer in Great Gatsby, as if it were just something one did out of Yale, belonged to the pre-Great Crash era.

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Salient 04.13.11 at 6:40 pm

I would have assumed that iBankers were over-priced, over-hyped and liable to pack up after only a few years.

And if you find an apparent defect in their performance, their spokespersons will tell you that it must be your fault, for engaging them with insufficient care and delicacy.

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Straightwood 04.13.11 at 6:41 pm

Bruce @86

You are correct in adding the sociopaths to the OCD wealth-seekers. Those who find it practical to have these people leading businesses, and increasingly controlling governments, neglect the fact that the collateral damage unbalanced people are willing to inflict on society and the environment is becoming extremely serious. Deep water oil drilling, junk food marketing, and power plant sales are not best left to people desperate for quick riches.

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Bloix 04.13.11 at 7:04 pm

#73. “If one is a professional athlete or professional musician, one IS at the top end of their profession. “

Rent a movie sometime. You might enjoy Slap Shot. Or Bull Durham. Or Crazy Heart.

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ScentOfViolets 04.13.11 at 7:19 pm

At a certain point, though, most people lose the ideals Willy Loman had. That is not all mail-room clerks have CEO aspirations.

Innit one of those big problems you’re talking about here? How to have the right set of aspirations? If you were to ask most of my relatives what they “aspired” to, they’d answer something along the lines of wanting to have piles of money. Just what they’d do to get this big stash of moolah seems to be incidental . . . as long as it doesn’t involve anything as effete as a kolledge education.

Bang! America’s big problem in a nutshell.

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tom 04.13.11 at 8:58 pm

I remember that at some point in “Sour Grapes” Jon Elster quotes Bertrand Russell. If I remember correctly, Russell says something such as: we are not happy if we have everything that we desire; being happy requires, among other things, a sense of pursuit of something that we think is missing.

I think that Elster contrasts this more “modern” and dynamic sense of happiness with the “pre-modern” one where happiness is a state of achieved perfection.

I do not have Elster’s book with me and can’t check the exact quote but I remember liking Russell’s idea. It seems related to your positive take on unhappiness.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.13.11 at 11:58 pm

tom,

Elster does in fact argue that “frustration may be part of happiness and to that extent the object of preference planning, but it cannot be all of happiness.” He later proceeds to quote from Russell in the following provocative passage:

“I am not basing my argument on the idea that frustration in itself may be a good thing. I believe this to be true, in that happiness requires an element of consummation and an element of expectation that reinforce each other in some complicated way. In fact, ‘To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.’ But a utilitarian would then be happy to plan for optimal frustration.[!] My argument is that even more-than-optimal frustration may be a good thing if it is an indispensable part of autonomy. Nor am I arguing that the search for ever larger amounts of material goods is the best life for man. There certainly may come a point beyond which the frustrating search for material welfare no longer represents a liberation from adaptive preferences, but rather enslavement to addictive preferences. But I do argue that this point is not reached in the early stages of industrialization [This calls to mind the contention that only those who have experienced affluence are capable of renouncing the temptations of conspicuous consumption, in other words, that some sort or degree of satiation is a prerequisite to deliberate renunciation of the pursuit ever-increasing standards of material welfare or what Rudolf Bahro termed an appreciation of the newly attained role of ‘surplus consciousness:’ ‘Today we have for the first time in history a really massive “surplus consciousness,” i.e., an energetic mental capacity that is no longer absorbed by the IMMEDIATE necessities and dangers of human existence and can thus orient itself to more distant problems.’]. Only the falsely sophisticated would argue that the struggle for increased welfare was non-autonomous from its very inception. The Rawlsian emphasis on primary goods as a means–in itself neutral–to realization of a chosen life plan seems to me absolutely correct, as does also his observation that at some stage further increase in material welfare becomes less urgent. Whether it comes to be experienced as less urgent is another and very different matter.”

Chris Bertram: Wonderful stuff (I was going to get around to Cohen…)! I especially like the mention of Galbraith, who often seems forgotten or ignored these days…and was prescient in many respects (at least with regard to his profession).

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tom 04.14.11 at 2:16 am

Thank you, Patrick. Only one suggestion as to your syllabus. One could also include part three of The Theory Of Justice, e.g. section 63 where Rawls offers a definition of happiness.

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nanobot 04.14.11 at 3:03 am

Adam Smith Was Not Happy:

Courtesy of Brad DeLong:
http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2011/04/what-is-human-nature-two-views-from-adam-smith.html

What Is Human Nature? Two Views from Adam Smith:
But in Book III things change. Humans are no longer naturally sociable beings with a propensity to trade seeking material comfort. Instead, they are creatures of “rapine and violence,” desperate for “power and protection,” vain and seeking luxury, unwilling to take pains to pay attention to smalls savings and small gains, loving to domineer, mortified at even the thought of having to persuade his inferiors.
This is a different “Adam Smith problem” than is usually posed. And, I think, it is in many ways more interesting than the standard Adam Smith problem:
Adam Smith, from Book III of the Wealth of Nations:
According to the natural course of things… capital of every growing society is, first, directed to agriculture, afterwards to manufactures, and last of all to foreign commerce…. But though this natural order of things must have taken place… it has, in all the modern states of Europe, been, in many respects, entirely inverted. The foreign commerce of some of their cities has introduced all their finer manufactures, or such as were fit for distant sale; and manufactures and foreign commerce together have given birth to the principal improvements of agriculture. The manners and customs which the nature of their original government introduced, and which remained after that government was greatly altered, necessarily forced them into this unnatural and retrograde order….
It seldom happens… that a great proprietor is a great improver. In the disorderly times which gave birth to those barbarous institutions… [h]e had no leisure to attend to the cultivation and improvement of land. When the establishment of law and order afforded him this leisure, he often wanted the inclination, and almost always the requisite abilities…. To improve land with profit, like all other commercial projects, requires an exact attention to small savings and small gains, of which a man born to a great fortune, even though naturally frugal, is very seldom capable…. The elegance of his dress, of his equipage, of his house, and household furniture, are objects which from his infancy he has been accustomed to have some anxiety about….
The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen.

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ajay 04.14.11 at 9:29 am

77: ajay, you’re missing the point, dude. As I said, children don’t KNOW that that’s the case. When they say “musician or athlete”, they mean Michael Jordan.

Well, that isn’t actually what you said, sparky. You didn’t say anything about kids’ perceptions; you said that there was no such thing as a moderately-paid professional musician or athlete.

It’s not surprising that kids dream of getting to the top of their chosen profession; this is exactly what you’d expect, whatever the profession. But the question I’m trying (probably not very well) is: do kids dream of being Michael Jordan because he is rich or because he is famous, high-status and popular?
Or, to put it another way: George Soros is far, far richer than Alex Rodriguez. Which one do US schoolkids want to emulate?

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zamfir 04.14.11 at 5:01 pm

@ajay, in my experience kids (especially young kids) can be very direct. If richer is better and Soros is richer even if he stops working, than being Soros is better. Wouldn’t work for fans of baseball, but for lots of kids playing baseball is not a particularly attractive job. You have to train lots, you get sweaty, people get mad at you if you make mistakes.

Also, there are lots of childish things that Soros can afford but Rodriguez could not. His own 747. A castle in the middle of New York. A Hollywood movie especially for him. Alex Rodriguez.

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Nicholas Gruen 04.15.11 at 6:07 am

Thx muchly MC.

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dictateursanguinaire 04.15.11 at 3:05 pm

@ajay

1. Yes, I stated that in a way that was wrong, I concede that. What I was trying to say was that the average child is not aware of that fact, which is the salient point.

2. Most kids don’t know who Soros is or what he does. And when kids get older and find out what he does, many of them DO want to be him vs. A-Rod. After all, how many people entering college plan on being A-Rod? How many plan on doing something, if not what Soros does, then something similar to what he does or something at least closer to his job than A-Rod’s?

3. Like I said, it’s a combination. They want to A-Rod’s job because it’s fun but also because it’s glamorous and pays well. I guarantee the number of kids who idolize professional athletes would steadily decrease if Congress decided to pass (what would be a stupid) law to decrease professional athlete pay. Just because they don’t want to be someone who’s even richer doesn’t mean that the pay that the athletes receive doesn’t factor in.

4. This is still all incredibly tangential and based on your dubious assumption that armchair child psychology can determine broader social facts about a given country.

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