October 26, 2006 4:32PM

Growing Well

Robert Frank has an excellent column on happiness, well‐​being, and economic growth in today’s New York Times. Frank rightly notes that the fact that self‐​reported life satisfaction does not increase with economic growth does not imply that growth is optional.

Many critics of economic growth interpret this finding to imply that continued economic growth should no longer be a policy goal in developed countries. They argue that if money buys happiness, it is relative, not absolute, income that matters. As incomes grow, people quickly adapt to their new circumstances, showing no enduring gains in measured happiness. Growth makes the poor happier in low‐​income countries, critics concede, but not in developed countries, where those at the bottom continue to experience relative deprivation.

All true. But these statements do not imply that economic growth no longer matters in wealthy countries. The reason, in a nutshell, is that happiness and welfare, though related, are very different things. Growth enables us to expand medical research and other activities that clearly enhance human welfare but have little effect on measured happiness levels.

Frank is right. Happiness is a component of welfare or well‐​being, but well‐​being includes much more than happiness. Health, longevity, opportunity, the realization of potential, and meaningful work are aspects of well‐​being that go beyond how good we feel. Growth promotes all those things. But there is also some decent evidence, which I report in this Prospect article, that economic growth has about as strong a positive correlation with self‐​reported happiness as anything else. Furthermore, I say:

The fact that average self‐​reported happiness has not risen with average incomes does not imply that there is no point in becoming richer. A steady rate of growth may be necessary to keep happiness and other good things at a high stable level. (Imagine a guillotine, on which a kitten is strapped, connected to a bicycle that must be pedalled ever more quickly to keep the blade aloft. Slow down, and the kitten gets it.) In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argues that steady economic growth “fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy” — a list I doubt any politician would come out against.

Frank also mentions Friedman in this regard, to good effect. In short, the evidence clearly points to the fact that economic growth is incredibly good for well‐​being, as Frank explains so well, and that it correlates positively with happiness as strongly as almost any other variable. (Life‐​expectancy or economic freedom look even better, depending on the study you consult.) There is no good happiness‐​based case against growth, and there is an exceedingly strong well‐​being‐​based case for growth.

October 26, 2006 2:07PM

Crime Map

The Washington, DC Police Department has launched a new crime‐​mapping tool on its web site. This tool will allow anyone to create a map of a section of the city and then see what crimes have happened there over the past year.

I ran a check on crimes happening around the Cato Institute and got this result for thefts.

I tried to check on drug offenses in the neighborhood, but the police department does not map drug crimes at all. I guess the “crime” that overwhelms the cop on the beat would also overwhelm the web staff at the department and just make the folly of drug prohibition even more obvious to web surfers.

We at Cato have a crime‐​map too. Our map tracks the government. In particular, drug raids where the police break into people’s homes without abiding by the Knock and Announce doctrine. To check it out, go here.

October 26, 2006 12:38PM

Be Careful What You Wish For…

A couple of people over recent days have asked my opinion on the prospects for reform of agriculture policy should Democrats take over the House and/​or the Senate. My usual reply is to lament the depressingly bipartisan nature of support for farm subsidies and trade barriers, and to also point out that the recent farm bill (implemented by a Republican congress) has been one of the most expensive in history: $23 billion last year. In a nutshell, I had thought that the prospects for reform could not be any worse under the Democrats than under Republicans.

It turns out that I may be wrong (yes, it happens occasionally). In a recent press release from Texas A&M University, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee (and probable chairman of that committee should the Democrats regain the majority in the House), Colin Peterson (D‑MN) seems to support extension of the current farm bill, egregious though it is, but with yet more pork added.

Rep. Peterson would implement permanent crop disaster relief (I have blogged on this idea previously), and was indirectly quoted as calling renewable energy derived from crops “the most exciting development in agriculture in his lifetime.”

Rep. Peterson does seem to have a point about the scope for the addition of expensive and agriculture‐​irrelevant rider amendments to ad‐​hoc disaster relief bills, but describing a permanent disaster relief program as a way to “save taxpayer dollars” is disingenuous, to say the least.

Rep. Peterson seems to have no truck with the idea that agriculture should contribute to deficit reduction, either: “I reject the idea that because we have a $9 trillion deficit, we have to get rid of farm programs. We didn’t cause that problem. In fact, agriculture was the only government initiative that actually spent less than was projected, $13 billion less so far. Besides, if you got rid of all agriculture programs, it wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit. So we need to do what’s right for agriculture, and that’s where I’m coming from.”

On ethanol, which my colleague Jerry Taylor has blogged about here, Rep. Peterson wheeled out the old “foreign oil dependency” issue and put his full support behind investing significant resources (that’s your resources) into more research into bio‐​fuels, describing the profits that investors are making currently from ethanol as “obscene.”

You said it, sir.

October 25, 2006 8:27PM

Staying the Course: 2006

At one point, we needed to stay in Iraq to establish a beachhead of liberal democracy in the Arab world. Today, if you listen to some of the war’s strongest supporters, our goals are considerably less inspiring. Here’s Frederick Kagan from today’s Washington Post:

The presence of American troops is vital to restraining Iraqi soldiers — the Iraqis know not to participate in death squad activities when Americans are around. The fact that large numbers of U.S. troops are not embedded with the Iraqi police is a main reason for the participation of those forces in the killings. When the U.S. troops go, the Iraqi army will probably go the same way.

And here’s Reuel Marc Gerecht writing in the Weekly Standard:

staying in Iraq ought to be a compelling choice.… We – not the Iraqis – need to lead a major effort to break the Sunni insurgency. We – not the Iraqis – must police the Shiite‐​dominated security services to ensure they don’t slaughter the Sunnis, especially as we and a Shiite‐​dominated army with an important Kurdish contingent make a more serious effort to control Baghdad, Ramadi, and the centers of Sunni resistance. We need to keep building up a Shiite‐​dominated Iraqi army and slowly deploying it in ways that it can handle – with integral American involvement, as at Tal Afar. We should expect a few Iraqi governments to collapse before we start seeing real progress. Yet our presence in Iraq is the key to ensuring that Shiite‐​led governments don’t collapse into a radical hard core.

This may be too much for the United States now. It certainly appears to be too much for the Democrats. We would have all been better off if President Bush and his team had done what Senator John McCain advised back in 2004, when the insurgency started to rip: Tell everyone that the war would be long and hard, and pour in more troops. If we no longer have the stomach for this fight – and it’s going to be ugly, with few sterling VIP Iraqis who will make us proud – then we should at least be honest with ourselves. Leaving Iraq will not make our world better. We will be a defeated nation. Our holy‐​warrior and our more mundane enemies will know it. And we can rest assured that they will make us pay. Over and over and over again. (Emphasis added).

We’re no longer fighting to create a democratic Iraq that will be an example to the Muslim world. Now we’re supposed to fight to put down the Sunnis while using the other hand to hold back the Shiites from doing it an overly zealous and gory fashion. In the best‐​case scenario, what rickety government we keep standing will not be one to make us proud, as Gerecht puts it. These are the war’s supporters. This is the case for staying. Not something I’d want my kid or yours to die for.

But any other course, Frederick Kagan declares, would be “morally contemptible”: “Both honor and our vital national interest require establishing conditions in Iraq that will allow the government to consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance.” Which is a bit cheeky. One might wish for a little less moral bombast and a little more humility when being lectured on matters of honor and vital national interest from one of the people who helped lead us into the biggest foreign policy disaster in three decades.

But put that aside. We need to stay, Kagan says, to help the nascent Iraqi government “consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance,” a phrase that comes just three paragraphs after Kagan tells us we need to stay because the Iraqi police forces are carrying out sectarian murders and the Iraqi army would quickly turn to “death‐​squad activities” but for our supervision.

“Civil peace.” “Good governance.” Through what method of social alchemy are our soldiers going to transform the army and the police force into institutions that even aim at providing those goods, let alone institutions capable of providing them? How long will that transformation take, and can that goal possibly be achieved? If it can’t, how moral is it to ask more Americans to die for it?

October 25, 2006 4:23PM

The FDA’s Record on Folic Acid

However the kerfuffle over the Food and Drug Administration’s handling of Vegemite pans out, my passionate Australian colleague Sallie James is right to be suspicious. The FDA’s record regarding folic acid has been anything but sensible — or humane. As I wrote in 1998:

[I]n 1992, the federal Public Health Service (PHS) recommended [that] all women of childbearing age consume 0.4mg of folic acid daily. The PHS estimated this could lead to a reduction in spina bifida, a crippling birth defect that partially exposes the infant’s spinal cord through a hole in the backbone, of about 50 percent (i.e., about 1,250 cases per year).

However, the FDA would not let producers of foods rich in folic acid (oranges, leafy green vegetables, etc.) inform expectant mothers of this preventive medicine until 1996. From PHS estimates, it may be reasonably postulated that the FDA’s four‐​year suppression of this health claim caused as many as 5,000 infants to be unnecessarily stricken with spina bifida.

The federal government itself recommended that women of childbearing age consume more folic acid, yet the FDA refused to let food manufacturers get the word out for four years. As if to shine a beacon on its prior stupidity, in 1998 the FDA required manufacturers to fortify enriched cereal grain products with folic acid.

If the FDA can tolerate 5,000 preventable cases of spina bifida, it’s reasonable to conclude that the agency wouldn’t bat an eye over severing one’s emotionally crucial link to the motherland.

That is, unless Australians have a more powerful lobby than newborns do.

October 25, 2006 2:19PM

Smoking Ban — without Government

A Washington Post Food column notes that going smoke‐​free pays off for restaurants. Which raises again the question of why we need a one‐​size‐​fits‐​all government ban, when customers are fully capable of sending signals to entrepreneurs.

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE, THERE ARE SEATS FREE: Being the businessman that he is, restaurateur Tony Stafford doesn’t like the sight of vacant tables in his sprawling Bonefish Grill (6315 Multiplex Dr., Centreville; 703−815−7427). Yet plenty of booths in the chain seafood restaurant’s 50‐​seat bar routinely go unused when customers notice cigarette smoke there. “They turn down immediate seating,” sometimes waiting an hour or longer for a table in the dining room, the managing partner reports. As a result, the establishment is going smoke‐​free Nov. 1. With winter on the horizon, and hoping to retain regulars who smoke, “I’ve promised to buy them a heater for the patio outside.”

October 25, 2006 12:07PM

Mbeki Banned in South Africa

Not President Thabo Mbeki, of course. But his brother, the outspoken political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, turns out to be one of nine people banned from the airwaves by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which is, in the words of the Washington Post, increasingly “reverting to its apartheid‐​era roots as a tool for government propaganda.”

The new top news executive at SABC, Snuki Zikalala, is a former spokesman for the African National Congress‐​dominated government who “received his journalistic training in Communist Eastern Europe.” A new report says that he is responsible for the ban on nine government critics.

In the last days of apartheid, some libertarians pointed out to South Africa’s rulers that if they left a government broadcasting operation in place, they would one day regret the way a different government would use it. Looks like that day has come.

Meanwhile, you can’t hear Moeletsi Mbeki on South African radio and TV. But you can read his thoughts in this Cato Foreign Policy Briefing.