Are They Happy in Bangladesh?

It appears that happiness is a topic unfit for fact-checkers. You can apparently say whatever you like! For instance, Bae Myung-bok, the international affairs editor of Korea’s JoongAng Daily (which is apparently distributed by the IHT/NYT), writes:

Whenever I live or travel abroad, there is something I feel anew: That material possessions are not in proportion to happiness. When it comes to gross domestic product, Americans should be tens of times happier than the Vietnamese but this is not so, at least in my experience. On the contrary, Americans seem to lead harder lives and live in less comfort. Surveys also show that the happiness index of Bangladeshis is higher than that of people in advanced nations like the United States and European countries. Economic abundance is only one component of happiness.

It’s true: economic abundance is only one component of happiness; and material possessions are not proportionate to happiness. People who are ten times wealthier are not ten times happier. But, then again, no one has ever even suspected that that could be true.

Now, Vietnam. Kim Kahn, Ai Nu, Bich Lan, and Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese refugees who stayed in my family’s basement for a few months in Marshalltown, Iowa when I was a kid, would, I suspect, be quite surprised to discover that they had moved into a harder, less comfortable life. Say what you will about Marshalltown, Iowa, but “hard and uncomfortable” aren’t going to leap to mind. (You can live like a king in a large, well-appointed house with a big yard there on well less than the median American annual income. As an aside, this house—well-known in Marshalltown—really is a mansion, with 8 bedrooms 5.5 baths and about 9000 sq. ft. The same price—1/2 mil.—will get you maybe 2000 sq ft in a neighborhood just past the borderlands of gentrification in DC. Trade offs! Here is a more typical Marshalltown house, and price, in the neighborhood I grew up in. Mortgage much less then my half of the rent in a cheap house in DC. But boy do I digress.)

The last I heard of them (we’ve lost touch) they were doing quite well by Iowan and American standards, which means they were doing very well indeed. I recall asking them when I was a kid whether they wanted to go back to Viet Nam. They said they missed the rest of their family, but would rather bring them to the U.S. than move back. (I’m pretty sure they did succeed in bringing a number of family over.) So there’s a data point for you.

Now, Bangladesh . . . These surveys are available to anyone with an internet connection. For instance, here is some world values survey data. Here is the subjective well-being rankings of 82 societies. [doc] I’m not sure exactly how the scale works on this one, but the high score is 4.62 (that’s Puerto Rico! — Rico in happiness! The italics on the list denote the “Latin bonus.”). The low score is -2.40 (that’s Indonesia). The U.S. scores 3.47, comfortably in the “High” category. And Bangladesh? 0.54, on the low end of the “Medium-Low” category.

Clearly, the U.S. could bring up its happiness score a bit by finally making Puerto Rico a state. And look at Mexico! Here’s my public policy idea for maximizing average SWB in the U.S.: build a wide, wide bridge over the Rio Grande! Make it 12-lanes, one-way. So, clearly, the money isn’t everything. But Bangladesh, Mr. Myung-bok, doesn’t even come close. Consider yourself fact-checked.

Now, Myung-bok also discusses Friedman’s Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, and seems sympathetic to its point, which I’m glad to see. But he seems confused about the application. After observing that Vietnam’s high rate of growth seems to have done them good, he says:

But a high growth rate like that in Vietnam cannot be expected of a country like France that has already entered a stage of maturity. If this is the case, where should people in advanced countries look for happiness? I think they should find it in establishing fair game rules by removing social discrimination and expanding transparency.

Friedman’s thesis just is that goals like removing discrimination and expanding transparency are more socially and politically feasible when growth rates are healthy and steady. True, France is an already developed economy, and isn’t likely to see 7% annual growth rates. However, the French are in the bottom quarter of OECD countries growth-wise, and could certainly improve by following the lead of Ireland, cutting taxes, freeing up labor markets, repealing onerous regulations, etc. And, if Friedman is right, that’s what they need to do in order to ease the social unrest they’re experiencing.

Myung-bok writes, in conclusion:

If everyone in a society could accept that he or she did not lose in competition because of a difference in skin color, religion, race, gender, region or school, wouldn’t the sense of happiness in that society increase even if its economic growth were slow?

And the response is that this kind of acceptance is least likely when growth is slow, and it therefore seems to many that they are competing just to keep their portion of a shrinking pie. Tolerance for mobility from below—and for difference and equality—is greatest when people have a sense that things are getting better all the time and that there’s more than enough to go around.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy. Please post your comments there.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center