“In much wisdom there is much grief . . .”

Conservative pundit Arthur C. Brooks has been discussing his book Gross National Happiness in a number of venues, including the NYT Freakonomics blog. Having criticized the progressive Robert H. Frank for using such data to support egalitarianism, I’ll now question Brooks’s subjectivism (which has led him in exactly the opposite direction as Frank on the inequality question).

Brooks is happy to report that his political allies are “winning the happiness game hands down.” He gives several hypotheses for conservative joy; stronger religiosity, more time with family, a preference for “simplicity” over “complexity,” and less likelihood to see oneself as a victim. Brooks occasionally concedes Mill’s argument that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” But he appears most amenable to the view that liberals are likely to be whiny, complaining, resentful people, while conservatives resolutely consider themselves in control of their fate and satisfied with their lives.

Brooks’s research raises a number of interesting policy questions. First of all, what’s his root concern–happiness or virtue? We might map the classic tension between freedom and virtue to the present case: is it good action or the subjective feeling (Brooks alleges) it creates the desideratum here? If the latter, why not just provide people with soma? If the former, it’s a bit odd to introduce the “happiness evidence” as a reason for being, say, conservative, or good. Who’s Brooks’s audience? Exhausted hedonists just on the brink of giving up their Don Juan days to find more lasting pleasure at anti-tax rallies?

Brooks concedes that political extremists on both ends of the political spectrum are happier than moderates. Is their good feeling an indication of the truth of their beliefs, or their opioid quality?

I’m surprised reviewers haven’t yet connected Brooks’s work to Myrna Blyth’s Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. As one unsympathetic (but accurate) reviewer of that book puts it,

Blyth argues that the magazines turn women into victims because of the emphasis [they] put on stress, health, men, the environment. Victims, she says, are what liberals need to enact their policies. . . .

In attempting to explain his happiness data, Brooks similarly suggests that liberalism seduces losers with the siren song of victimhood. Never mind that the “economic freedom” his political allies promote often leads to situations like these:

[M]any corporations have cut costs by violating wage-and-hour laws. Managers at Wal-Mart, Pep Boys and Family Dollar . . . secretly erased hours from employees’ time records because of fierce pressures to minimize costs. At many companies, managers strong-arm employees into working off the clock; hourly employees who clock out at, say, 5 p.m., are ordered to work an hour or two extra unpaid. . . ..

[M]any companies also squeeze workers by treating them with a shocking lack of dignity. A Wal-Mart cashier in Kansas City told me that managers were so stingy about bathroom breaks that some cashiers ended up soiling themselves. RadioShack had the gall to fire 400 workers at its Fort Worth headquarters by e-mail, the message saying, “Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.” Corporate executives told Myra Bronstein, a software engineer in Seattle, that as long as the company did well and she worked hard – she put in many 14-hour days – she would have a job. But one day the company suddenly fired Bronstein and 17 other engineers. . . .

The biggest squeeze has been on wages and benefits. During the economic expansion that began in November 2001, corporate profits soared, while productivity per worker rose more than 15 percent. Nonetheless, hourly wages for the typical worker have inched up by just 1 percent since then, after inflation, while median income for working-age households has fallen nearly $2,400 to $54,726 since 2000, according to the most recent Census Bureau report on poverty and income.

Perhaps some of these workers “win the happiness game” by, say, wearing Depends to work and just being satisfied they can get to the bathroom at lunch time. Perhaps they whistle through their 14-hour days while the sword of Damocles that is employment-at-will swings over their heads. If that blithe “pleasure wizardry” happens to correlate with conservative political beliefs, the relationship tells us very little about the latter’s ultimately validity. As Carl Elliott would remind us, “On Prozac, Sisyphus might well push the boulder back up the mountain with more enthusiasm and more creativity.”

PS: As for the title; here’s Ecclesiastes.

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