July 13, 2006 9:21AM

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.