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.

“We Don’t Have a Colonial Office in the United States”

Go to any event on nation building in Washington these days, and you’ll hear endless bickering about whose fault it is Iraq hasn’t gone better. Maybe it’s DOD’s fault for commandeering the planning process. Maybe it’s the State Department’s fault for not letting Ahmed Chalabi be more involved. Maybe (this is the current favorite) we need a new Goldwater-Nichols Act to unify the bureaucracies behind the sorts of nation-building missions we find ourselves in in Iraq.

During a recent event at the US Institute of Peace, both Marine Corps Major Ben Connable and Matt Sherman, a former CPA official, blasted the State Department for not providing sufficient personnel for the mission in Iraq. As it happened, Bob Deutsch, the deputy senior adviser to Secretary Rice for Iraq policy was in the audience, and, well, let’s just say the sparks flew. A rough transcription of part of Deutsch’s comment is below:

We don’t have a colonial office in the United States. And the kind of—when I hear the criticisms of the civilian side of the government, that the State Department doesn’t have a whole bunch of police trainers that we can send out, that we don’t have a whole bunch of people who know how to run electricity companies, who know how to run oil companies. The Department of Energy doesn’t have people to send out to run oil companies. We don’t have a colonial office. And if we are going to do nation building, in Iraq or elsewhere, we’re going to need one. And I agree that that is a decision—that Secretary of State has made some decisions that we’re going to move the foreign service in directions with our transformational diplomacy in that direction. But it would have to be a larger U.S. government decision that we’re going to do that—which has all sorts of bureaucracy and fiscal implications that I’m not sure we’re prepared to buy off on.

I’m not sure whether to be reassured by the senior adviser’s tepid invocation of “bureaucracy and fiscal implications” that he’s “not sure we’re prepared to buy off on” as the primary obstacle to setting up a colonial office, or alarmed by the fact that he suggests that Secretary Rice has “made some decisions” that the foreign service is going to be “moved in that direction.”

At any rate, it’s sure a great time to pick up Chris Preble’s and my Policy Analysis on the topic of building a nation-building office into the State Department.

Fraudulent Identity Fraud Statistics

Slate has a great piece up on the use and misuse of statistics by reporters.

The magic number for journalists covering the identity theft beat has been $48 billion—the estimated annual losses suffered by identity theft victims—which carries the Federal Trade Commission’s imprimatur. … Fred H. Cate, a law professor and director of Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, notes that if the estimate were accurate, it would wipe out up to half of the banking industry’s $103 billion profits in 2005. “If those numbers were true, we’d have a banking crisis on our hands,” he says.

When I worked on the Hill, I came to recognize a similar dynamic at play: There were things everyone believed and no one questioned. I called them “political facts” because the source of the fact was consensus rather than any measurement or observation. Repetition of political facts in Members’ speeches and floor statements just made them all the more true.

A political fact relating to identity fraud is that it is a stranger crime, often a product of data breaches, that is conducted mainly over the Internet. It sometimes is, but in my book, Identity Crisis, I point out the results of an actual study showing that:

[M]ore than a third of individuals who had been impersonated in a true identity fraud knew … who the perpetrator was. And in more than half of those cases, the perpetrator was a family member or other relative. Other prominent perpetrators of identity frauds are people in companies or financial institutions with access to personal information, as well as friends, neighbors, or in-home employees of impersonation victims. So much for the Internet being the cause of identity fraud, though it certainly plays a role in some cases.

Alas, … my source was a Federal Trade Commission study.

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.