Happiness an Issue in Pittsburgh

People leave Pittsburgh. They always have, although out here, in the Sunday Los Angeles Times, Andrew Bender tells us it’s a wonderful place:

Nonstop canapés on gold-rimmed porcelain cocktail plates at diplomatic soirees. After a while, they get to be just a bit of a yawn, don’t you find?

So I cheered at the announcement that the G-20 summit would take place this week in Pittsburgh. Anyone puzzled about why it was selected hasn’t been here recently. President Obama noted that Pittsburgh has “transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation – including green technology, education and training, and research and development.”

But the rest of the item is about food – like those huge Italian sausage or pastrami sandwiches stuffed with a half a pound of sweet-and-sour coleslaw and then several layers of thick-cut French fries. It’s a Pittsburgh thing, but you know what they say – never eat anything bigger than your head. And such food might be an indication of widespread and quite deep existential despair. One of those sandwiches with an Iron City Beer, or three or four, indicates you believe there is no tomorrow, at least for you. There’s a fine line between good times and screw-it-all utter hopelessness. Such food can kill you. But you give the Gene Wilder response. When?

One alternative to screw-it-all utter hopelessness is, of course, to leave – in this case to leave the city that was once a hard-working steel town, the center of what built America in the early and middle twentieth century, but is now one third the size it once was, and filled with the old, the remains of those times, and some yuppies doing high-tech in the corners. Go some place where people are neither walking around emptied of everything nor driven to make something, anything, of what’s left, and where one can savor life, tastefully of course.

Paris will do nicely – Gertrude Stein was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Oakland, but ended up in Paris. Andy Warhol grew up in Pittsburgh, did his best work in the Village, but had his fancy flat on the Left Bank, on rue du Cherche-Midi. Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant got out too – ending up out here pretending a sound stage in Culver City was Paris. At least it wasn’t Pittsburgh.

Place matters. As a general rule it’s best to end up where things feel right, where you feel happy. It’s not the weather or the food or the view from your window, or the traffic. It’s just the feel of the place. Thoreau had his pond. Doctor Johnson had his London. Hemingway had his Paris, his moveable feast. No one thinks of Pittsburgh like that.

The question is where to go. Where can you be happy?

Well, in July 2006, the University of Leicester produced the first-ever World Map of Happiness – no kidding.

That was discussed in these pages at the time, and of course the issue was how you measure happiness, as the study was rather conventional:

Further analysis showed that a nation’s level of happiness was most closely associated with health levels (correlation of .62), followed by wealth (.52), and then provision of education (.51).

The three predictor variables of health, wealth and education were also very closely associated with each other, illustrating the interdependence of these factors.

And there was this curious tidbit:

There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people. However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher GDP per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy.

So cut-throat winner-take-all screw-everyone-else capitalism was pretty good – it led to fine healthcare and high productivity and lots of schools for everyone. But oddly, Americans weren’t the happiest folks, nor America the Happiest Place on Earth, save for Disney’s few acres in Anaheim. Denmark was, followed, in order, by Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Finland, Sweden, Bhutan, Brunei and Canada. That was the top ten. The United States came in at 23 on the list, Germany at 35, the UK at 41, France at 62, and Russia at 167 – so the economic system, and its cultural and religious underpinnings, didn’t seem to matter that much. Bhutan – at the eastern end of the Himalayas between India and China and next to Nepal, and rather obscure – made the top ten. Would you be happy there?

No, you’re an American. And you don’t believe that our form of capitalism leads to unhappy people, in spite of that low happiness ranking and Michael Moore’s new movie. You believe in rugged individualism and personal responsibility – you make on your own and get to keep what you made by your own efforts. That’s freedom in America – you can be just what you want to be, and no one can take your stuff. And you’re one of those neo-Calvinist evangelical Christians – having lots of stuff is a sign that God likes you, and those who have little are those God finds tiresome. That’s a moral law. And that’s where real happiness is – total self-sufficiency.

If so, it would be wise to ignore the latest paper of the Netherlands, in NRC Handelsblad International:

Moral laws were not invented by religions but taken over by them, after they had evolved for social animals, including man. These rules promote teamwork and mutual support within a social group. They act as a social contract imposing many restrictions on the individual.

Darwin’s moral psychology (1859), consequently, was not based on an egotistical competition between individuals but on social involvement within the group. During the course of evolution, the benefit of helping each other developed from the loving care exhibited by parents towards their offspring. This was then expanded to apply to others of their kind according to the principle: do unto others, as you would have others do unto you. At a certain moment sympathizing with the other became a goal in itself. Finally, this product of millions of years of evolution turned into a cornerstone of human morality that was recently, a couple of thousand years ago, incorporated in religions. It is thus rather cynical to ascertain that having a common enemy is the strongest stimulus for community spirit, a mechanism that many world leaders have exploited.

Okay, you simply won’t believe that teamwork and mutual support define who we are, and predate religion. If you believed any such thing you’d be in favor of a single-payer healthcare system, one that got rid of our for-profit insurance system and replaced it with something where everyone chipped in and everyone got medical care, with the government paying the private providers, or taking things one step beyond that, socialized medicine, where the government of the people operated clinics and hospitals and pharmacies for and by the people. Nope, you’re happy with a system where you get what you pay for, even if you have to fight your insurance company for every little thing, or you do without. The survey said the Danes were the happiest folks. What do they know?

Such questions will of course make the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh interesting. In the last two year the world’s economy has come close to collapse and the question now is how to manage some sort of recovery, and how to do what can be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Do we all agree to unleash totally unregulated free-market capitalism and have Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand do its thing, with pure, individual greed and no rules weeding things out and providing the greatest good for the greatest number at the lowest cost, due to competitive forces? That might mean explosive growth, and certainly another big crash. Would that be worth it? Or do we develop lots of new rules to keep things from spinning out of control, and international rules at that? That might mean little or no growth, but would provide some safety.

And underlying it all is an even more basic question. Is it true that having lots of stuff really makes people happy? Should we rethink this? If we get each nation’s GDP goosed up to some incredibly high level, and everyone can afford an SUV and a second home, what have we accomplished? Governments exist to provide for the security and well-being of their people. But what would provide something like happiness? And how do we arrange things so some level of happiness is possible? That’s pretty basic.

So, Pittsburgh is getting ready for the summit:

In addition to many businesses, the city’s public and Catholic schools will be closed along with most city, state and federal offices, cultural centers like the Carnegie museums, many bank branches, and most colleges and universities in the area.

But if President Barack Obama spills food on his tie, Macy’s says its downtown department store will be open to sell him a new one.

Amtrak trains will pass through Pittsburgh, but passengers will be allowed only transfer to other trains; no boarding or disembarking here. Greyhound, the bus company, is temporarily moving its city operations to McKeesport, about 10 miles away.

Commuting uncertainty, fear of protests like those that rocked April’s G-20 in London and fear of the unknown are all fueling the momentum to stay away, said Robert Arnoni, president and CEO of Specialized Security Response Inc., based in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

At the meeting in London, anti-capitalist demonstrators tried to storm a bank; one man died from internal bleeding after he was pushed to the ground by an officer when he was caught up in demonstrations near another bank.

It’s odd. People take these questions very seriously. And, thinking of Stein and Warhol and the rest, this is amusing – Sarkozy Wants Happiness Used as Economic Indicator.

No, he’s not kidding:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked world leaders to join a “revolution” in the measurement of economic progress by dropping their obsession with gross domestic product to account for factors such as health-care availability and leisure time.

In a speech on the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Sarkozy said the financial crisis has shown the need for a better way of calculating a country’s economic health.

His own country, known for its leisurely meals, long vacations and labor protections, could outshine more profit-focused economies if nations act on new recommendations in a report headed by two Nobel economists commissioned 18 months ago.

Sarkozy will bring up that report in unhappy Pittsburgh – there are all sorts of things you can look at when making policy. It’s time to think about that. Henri Guaino, a special advisor to Sarkozy, gave the Associated Press a heads-up. It’s on the agenda.

But of course no economist wants to rethink GDP and come up with a new statistical index, and such talk makes other world leaders queasy. Things are dicey enough as they are, without this nonsense.

But Sarkozy is up for it:

“A great revolution is waiting for us,” Sarkozy said. “For years, people said that finance was a formidable creator of wealth, only to discover one day that it accumulated so many risks that the world almost plunged into chaos.”

“The crisis doesn’t only make us free to imagine other models, another future – another world. It obliges us to do so,” he said.

So he has his report from the two Nobel economists – look at household income, consumption and wealth, not national production. You want to track actual material living standards, and even non-market activities like house-cleaning. And pay attention to the distribution of income and wealth, and access to education and health. And you might want to track whether countries are over-consuming their economic wealth and damaging the environment and so on. This GDP thing is useless.

But you need to consider the source:

U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the 2001 Nobel economics prize and a critic of free-market economists, co-authored the report. “GDP is an attempt to measure one part of what is going on in our society which is market production. It is what I call GDP fetishism to think success in that part is success for the economy and for society,” he said.

Advising Stiglitz was Armatya Sen of India, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for work on developing countries, and helped create the U.N. Human Development Index, a yearly welfare indicator designed to gear international policy decisions to take account of health and living standards.

Stiglitz said France’s ranking would rise in comparison to the U.S. because of better access to health care and because it has a lower percentage of people in jail. Active prison business boosts GDP figures but isn’t a sign of economic health, he said.

The new system would also credit leisure time – which France has a lot of, he said.

The item goes on to cite other economists saying they get the point, but it’s hard to see how they could replace GDP – governments need to make decisions on how to allocate resources, and the GDP index has worked well enough.

But this is nothing new. From the New York Times, October 2005, there’s this:

What is happiness? In the United States and in many other industrialized countries, it is often equated with money.

Economists measure consumer confidence on the assumption that the resulting figure says something about progress and public welfare. The gross domestic product, or GDP, is routinely used as shorthand for the well-being of a nation.

But the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying out a different idea.

In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan’s newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation’s priority not its GDP but its GNH, or gross national happiness.

Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals.

Now Bhutan’s example, while still a work in progress, is serving as a catalyst for far broader discussions of national well-being.

And there were discussions:

The founding fathers, said John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as a balance of individual and community interests. “The Enlightenment theory of happiness was an expression of public good or the public welfare, of the contentment of the people,” Mr. Saul said. And, he added, this could not be further from “the 20th-century idea that you should smile because you’re at Disneyland.”

For more of the discussions, read on. There’s lots of fascinating detail. And now Sarkozy will bring Bhutan to Pittsburgh, so to speak.

Joshua Keating comments:

Skeptics can (and will) look at this new innovation as a ploy for France to “juke the stats,” since its short workweek and social benefits look a lot more impressive than its GDP growth. That aside, the transformation of Sarkozy’s economic message has been pretty astounding. The president came to power promising privatization and economic modernization and was lambasted by French left-wingers for his attachment to “Anglo-Saxon” economic models. But since the economic crisis (and his own popularity crisis) he’s made a habit of attacking the Anglo-Saxons for their free-market orthodoxy and consulting with market-skeptics Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz on new economic indicators.

Where have you gone, Sarko l’Américain?

Ah, he rejoined the human race. But we’ll fed him one of those one of those four-pound killer sandwiches, and have him down a few Iron City beers, and he’ll get back in touch with his innate existential despair. We are talking Pittsburgh here.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Happiness an Issue in Pittsburgh

  1. raymond mcinnis says:

    alan, very clever juxtaposition of several documents, all pivoting on pittsburgh’s g-20 conference, especially nobelers joseph stiglitz and armatya sen

    wrestling with the very subjective, “happiness”, does indeed pose a problem, because people, regardless of their location, are literally “all over the map’, in many cases being unsure whether they are, themselves, “happy” or “unhappy”

    in america, the rightwing plays up “fear” very successfully — whether its communism or terrorism — and sort of submerges happiness under a different rubric.

    however, the rightwing and fear notwithstanding, fear also enters into the equation of hunger, loneliness, and other forms of desperation, harbored by many subcultures in the united states, which america, in general, is quite successful at ignoring.

    because i hold such thoughts, i have been charged with being a “self-loathing white male”, which — as a subjective claim by someone else — in itself must say something about some american conservatves, something one of your lines addresses:

    And there was this curious tidbit:

    There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people. However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher GDP per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy.

    So cut-throat winner-take-all screw-everyone-else capitalism was pretty good – it led to fine healthcare and high productivity and lots o school for everyone.

    But oddly, Americans weren’t the happiest folks, nor America the Happiest Place on Earth, save for Disney’s few acres in Anaheim. Denmark was, followed, in order, by Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Finland, Sweden, Bhutan, Brunei and Canada.

  2. Arthur says:

    I’m 80 years old and I remember that up to 30 to40 years ago, the strength of our nation was measured by the “standard of living.”
    With the rise of the conservative domination of the media and Reagans pro-business attitude, this measurement was dropped in favor of the GDP.
    Most people agree that money alone doesn’t make people happy, so why did this change happen?
    My theory is that big business has come to dominate our lives and they have come to realize that through their control of media, they can control how we think.

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