Topic: General

Vanuatu: Islands of Fire or Heaven on Earth?

There is an egregiously dumb “study” out today that reports that Vanuatu—best known as a place to hide money from the taxman and the site of “Survivor: Vanuatu - Islands of Fire”—is the world’s happiest country. The real travesty is that this study is being reported by reputable news outlets as if it wasn’t just the product of a few ideologues making stuff up. Bloomberg’s headline says, “Vanuatu, Pacific Islands, Lead U.S., World in Happiness Ranking.” UPI’s headline reads, “Pacific’s Vanuatu ‘happiest country’.” Sounds sort of official, no? Here’s the start of the Bloomberg article:

Vanuatu, a group of South Pacific islands populated by fisherman and farmers, is the world’s happiest place, according to a study published today.

The U.S. and U.K. are among the world’s least happy countries because of their higher consumption of natural resources such as oil, according to an index compiled by the New Economics Foundation, a London-based researcher. The biggest malcontents were in Zimbabwe, ranking bottom.

So, if you consume oil, you are therefore unhappy? Who is this New Economics Foundation? What’s the methodology here? Bloomberg:

The New Economics Foundation is a research group that organizes campaigns on environmental and economic issues such as debt relief. It was set up in 1986 to question the agenda of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations.

The Happy Planet Index covers 178 countries by multiplying life expectancy by life satisfaction, and dividing it by environmental impact in each country, including carbon emissions. The index was compiled over two months, using United Nations life expectancy figures from 2003, World Database of Happiness statistics from 2005 and the World Footprint Network’s research on consumption and environmental impact.

The NEF from this description looks to my jaundiced eye like a front for hyper-ideological activists out to oppose the creation of wealth. Maybe they are. But they also have a very nice website. And they have partnered with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the U.K. So maybe editors are duped by the luster of intellectual legitimacy.

But really! Multiply life expectancy by life satisfaction and divide it by environmental impact? That is, to be over-charitable, completely arbitrary. This is an index of, at best, the New Economic Foundation’s ideological preferences. It is a totally intellectually vacuous product meant to garner headlines, and it worked, to the shame of the Bloombergs and UPIs of the world.

Furthermore, it cheapens the work of real social scientists attempting to measure happiness and well-being. I worry that much of the happiness work is ideologically loaded, but most of it is at least an honest attempt study human welfare empirically. Too much of it, however, is stuff like the NEF’s index, basically an attempt to persuasively define something like “happiness” so that it comports with a statist, anti-growth agenda. This is sheer politics brazenly posturing as social science. If the Cato Institute published a study that, say, mutliplied life satisfaction by the rate of economic growth and then divided it by government spending as a percentage of GDP, and called it “The Happy World Index, ” would editors think twice? I hope they would. In fact, I bet they would. So why did this trash get through the filter?

The NEF is no doubt ideologically irritated by the fact that, say, carbon emissions per capita and reported life satisfaction are positively correlated. Here, for illustration, is a graph from Nation Master. If you’re concerned about “environmental impact” why not divide life satisfaction by life expectancy? Dead people don’t use fossil fuels!

More seriously, the NEF’s program to define wealth, happiness, and progress along their narrow ideological lines is an attempt to circumvent serious debate about human well-being by building substantive judgments about the relative priority of competing values into the project of measuring things we all care about. It’s a too-easy trick to simply define “happy” as whatever it is you think is important, and then show that places that best exemplify what you think important are the “happiest” ones. They present it as a significant finding that “Self appointed world ‘leaders’ – the G8 - score generally badly in the Index.” But they designed it so that the world’s wealthiest countries would come out poorly. Yes, the most productive economies use the most energy. But that doesn’t get headlines. This sort of thing does not advance human knowledge one iota. It’s certainly not newsworthy.

By the way, a denizen of Vanuatu can expect to live a full decade less on average than an American. And GDP per capita there is $3,346 a year, compared to $41,399 in the U.S. Now, the happiness data show very clearly that self-reported happiness increases sharply as a function of income up to around $10-$15,000 a year, when it begins to level off. I can’t actually find data for Vanuatu in the World Database of Happiness, the cited source. But unless the Islands of Fire is a massive outlier, Vanuatuans could become significantly happier by tripling or quintupling their wealth. Becoming happier by becoming wealthier—by growing the size of the surplus from economic cooperation—would very likely require an increase in Vanuatu’s energy use, and that would cause them to plummet down the NEF index. (It must be admitted, however, that the Vanuatu Statistic Office has a truly awesome website. Welcome to 1997!)

NEF is selling a “sustainable development” agenda. The point they’d really like to get in the papers from their study is this: “Overall, we are over-burdening the Earth’s currently available biocapacity,” which is a bit surprising in a study ostensibly about happiness. Now, sustainable is good and unsustainable is bad, but the biocapacity stuff is mostly nonsense. I guess they needed a “new economics” because the old economics didn’t fit their agenda. For an “old economics” tonic, check out Jerry Taylor’s excellent 2002 paper, “Sustainable Development: A Dubious Solution in Search of a Problem.” Here’s a snippet from the abstract:

[T]he fundamental premise of [sustainable development]—that economic growth, if left unconstrained and unmanaged by the state, threatens unnecessary harm to the environment and may prove ephemeral—is dubious. First, if economic growth were to be slowed or stopped—and sustainable development is essentially concerned with putting boundaries around economic growth—it would be impossible to improve environmental conditions around the world. Second, the bias toward central planning on the part of those endorsing the concept of sustainable development will serve only to make environmental protection more expensive; hence, society would be able to “purchase” less of it.

Or look at Jerry’s Julian Simonesque essay “The Growing Abundance of Natural Resources”:

That [overburdening or “overshooting”] argument, however, is in direct contradiction to every possible measurement of resource scarcity and the march of recorded history. If overshoot occurs when we use resources faster than they are created by nature, then the world has been in accelerating “overshoot” for the last 10,000 years, or ever since the development of agriculture. Moreover, our best “feedback” on scarcity—market prices—tells us that resources are expanding, not contracting.

There is simply no non-crazy sense in which Vanuatu is the world’s happiest country. And there is no credible empirical reason for docking countries on any kind of index of human well-being for producing a lot of wealth. The evidence says that the happiness of poor populations like Vanuatu’s would skyrocket with swift economic growth. But growth is exactly what NEF is trying to limit. Their pseudo-study encourages us to be complacent about the poverty of Vanuatu, which is, after all, the “happiest” place on our “happy planet,” on the basis of the fact that they use almost no energy. If you really care about the well-being and happiness of the world’s poor, then agressively misleading publicity stunt studies like this one, and the people who author them, deserve nothing but our scorn.

Bush Administration’s Reputation for Truth-in-Medicare Sinks. Even. Lower.

I just received a blast email from our friends at the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The subject line reads:

Medicare & Medicaid Spending Projections Are Down Again

Medicare spending is down? HUZZAH! A joyous day for taxpayers, one and all. Wait…what’s that you say? Go beyond the press release and read the actual report the administration released? Okay:

At $2.696 trillion, outlays for 2006 are now estimated to be $12 billion lower than the level estimated in February, accounting for 10 percent of the reduction in the 2006 deficit. The lower estimate of 2006 outlays results primarily from reductions in the projected growth rates for Medicare and Medicaid, particularly estimates of the cost of Medicare’s new prescription drug benefit program… However, in the traditional Medicare fee-for-service programs, projections of increased spending outstrip these savings in the long-term and as a result, total spending in the Medicare and Medicaid programs continues to grow at unsustainable rates.

What? Projections of increased spending outstrip these savings in the long-term? Sometimes I get this wierd feeling that the Bush administration is trying to mislead me.

(My colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale will evaluate the Bush administration’s claims about Medicaid spending in a subsequent post.)

Here’s an Idea: Sue for the Children in Failing Schools!

Tomorrow, a lawsuit that could revolutionize educational equity litigation as we know it is scheduled to be filed in Chancery Court in Newark, NJ. Instead of seeking the standard equity remedy—pushing so much new money into supposedly poor districts that a mile-long caravan of Wells Fargo trucks couldn’t carry it all—the plaintiffs in Crawford v. Davy want to give parents with kids in failing schools the right to use public funds to move their children to institutions that actually work, public or private.

Imagine that: Instead of rewarding educrats in failing district with tons of new cash, it would be the children—the people who are actually doing the suffering in the state’s broken schools—who will get the relief!

As this case unfolds, what will be particularly interesting to see is the reaction of the educational equity crowd, which so far has only clamored for ever bigger sums of money to be lavished on bad districts. Will their magnanimity now extend all the way to seeking “justice” for families, not just the public school establishment? We’re looking at you here, Education Law Center, for a sign.

New at Cato Unbound: Ted Galen Carpenter Replies to Gerecht

Today at Cato Unbound Cato’s own Ted Galen Carpenter argues that Reuel Marc Gerecht’s strategy of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities may be harder than advertised and that “thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.” Such an attack might trigger a “massive regional crisis,” Carpenter says. “America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations,” he writes, “but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result.” Carpenter argues that the U.S. should try to persuade Iran to give up its nuke program by offering a “grand bargain,” and if that doesn’t work, should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence, that, while “nerve-wracking,” has proved effective against deadlier and more fanatical regimes.

Don’t miss replies to Gerecht on Friday from Edward N. Luttwak and on Monday from Anthony H. Cordesman.

Bring Back the Baggage, Please

This is well past its purchase-by date, but Dafna Linzer had a Washington Post Outlook piece in March on the National Security Council’s “Sesame Street Generation.” Not as sneering as the title implies, the article describes the first generation of NSC officials to come of age in an era of American unipolarity. If the article is any indication, my exceedingly low expectations for my generation may have been a touch too optimistic.

In one particularly breathtaking passage, Meghan O’Sullivan, the president’s point person for Iraq on the NSC, describes her intellectual heritage and how that shapes her approach to policy:

For many of the generals with whom O’Sullivan consults in her current job, the painful experience of Vietnam permeates their thinking on Iraq. Not for O’Sullivan. “We are the first post-Vietnam generation, without the baggage of Vietnam, which doesn’t mean we don’t try to learn some of the lessons from there about counterinsurgency and so forth, but it’s not my first frame of reference and I think that’s a good thing,” said O’Sullivan.

Actually, having a pessimistic view of counterinsurgency would probably be a good thing. The new Army field manual on counterinsurgency is only the latest indication that the sunny optimism of the Bush administration was a mistake, and that counterinsurgency is much, much harder than administration officials thought it was before we went in to Iraq.

After the first Persian Gulf war, President George H.W. Bush famously exclaimed “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It appears his son, and the Sesame Street Generation at the NSC—the Best and the Brightest, if you will, of Generation X—are doing their level best to bring it back.

“Tyranny is defined as that which is legal for the government but illegal for the citizenry.”

That quote, commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, comes to mind when contemplating yesterday’s vote in Congress to ban Internet gambling.

It passed, 317-93. What’s interesting is that Rep. John Conyers introduced an amendment that would have removed the exemption the bill grants to allow states to put their lotteries online. That amendment overwhelmingly failed.

Which means that a good number of Congressmen, most of them Republican, voted to ban Internet gambling sites operated by private citizens, but voted to allow them when operated by the government.