Robert Frank on Happiness and GDP

The fussy, hedged, inconclusive complexity of Robert Frank's latest NYT column about income and happiness shows just how hard it is for an intellectually honest guy to make a strong case against the income-happiness link, given the complexion of the evidence. In order to get as far as he does, which is not very far, Frank seems to me to nonetheless rely on a tendentious and, one would think, outdated interpretation of the happiness data:

This assumption [“that absolute income levels are the primary determinant of individual well-being”] is contradicted by consistent survey findings that when everyone’s income grows at about the same rate, average levels of happiness remain the same. Yet at any given moment, the pattern is that wealthy people are happier, on average, than poor people. Together, these findings suggest that relative income is a much better predictor of well-being than absolute income.

The first finding, the flat trend, is contested. Veenhoven and Hagerty argue it is not flat at all. In any case, there is plenty of reason to think that (1) the subjective criterion people use to report how happy they are changes somewhat as their expectations change, and so objective gains in real welfare are likely to be underestimated by survey methods. That is to say, the phrase “pretty happy” may not tracking the exact same feeling over five decades; “pretty happy” may refer to something a bit happier than it did 50 years ago, just like “pretty tall” refers to something a bit taller than it did 50 years ago. And there is plenty of reason to think that (2) comparing the bounded life satisfaction survey scale against the unbounded income scale likely leads objective gains in real welfare to be underestimated by survey methods. So, scale renorming plus a kind of methodological error leaves us with the conclusion that the extent of the absolute gains are likely concealed by the measurement method.
The second finding, that wealthier people tend to say they are happier than poorer people, on its face suggests that it feels better to be rich than to be poor. Part of this is surely absolute. Having a bit more money increases your sense of control and decreases your sense of anxiety. Have you ever had bill collectors calling you constantly? I have. It helps a lot to have enough money to pay your bills. And it's not just about avoiding poverty. If you've ever had the good fortune to move up one quintile from the middle, the reduction in economic anxiety is palpable. That's the effect of an absolute gain. Which is not to say that relative concerns are unimportant. It's nice to be doing better than the people you compare yourself to. But there is no evidence that people are uniformly comparative. That is, some people have a weaker or stronger “social comparison orientation” than others. And there is no evidence that, when people do compare, the relevant comparison class is the set of U.S. residents. The claim that the very strong within-society relationship between income and happiness is due primarily to a preference for higher relative income (within the U.S. distribution) is mainly bluff. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.
So how is it that these two finding taken together suggest relative income is a better predictor of well-being than absolute income? They don't.
Maybe Frank would like to explain the Deaton result. All the evidence for strong comparative effects are very local. It matters how I'm doing relative to friends, neighbors, and co-workers. As far as I know there is no evidence that the comparison class is global. I suppose you could try to take the fact that average national income is a strong predictor of average national happiness as evidence that the relevant comparison class is global, but that would just beg the question in the worst way while showing a weird determination to avoid the obvious importance of absolute income. Why not say something along the lines of happiness guru Ruut Veenhoven:

Another reason to doubt the Easterlin Paradox is the theory behind it, which assumes that happiness is “calculated” cognitively by comparing one’s condition with local standards of the good life. According to this theory, one can be happy in Hell if one does not know any better — or if one’s companions are in an even hotter spot. The available data fit better with the theory that happiness is “inferred” from the quality of affective experience, which reflects the gratification of basic needs. This “needs theory” of happiness fits a wider functional perspective on affective guidance in higher animals, and predicts that we will live happily in conditions that suit human nature well.

Now, I don't think this has to be an either/or thing (and I criticized Veenhoven for assuming happiness is necessarily evidence of “natural” environmental fit). But Frank here is overselling the evidence for the unimportance of absolute wealth, even though he knows too much not to hedge lot.
I was going to say something about GDP, but this blog post is long enough.

11 Replies to “Robert Frank on Happiness and GDP”

  1. This is beyond stupid. It is obvious you know NOTHING about copyright law.
    Fair use is a defense not a right. Fairey took an image and traced it out. Idee has confirmed that it is a virtual match with the AP picture.
    To top it off, it is not even clear that the AP owns the picture due to the photographer being a temporary hire.
    If Fairey infringed on the image, he needs to deal with the consequence. End of story.

  2. I don’t know (or really care) who you, Will Wilkinson are but after reading your ego centric post it’s pretty obvious that you don’t know what you are talking about. But then, that doesn’t surprise me when I find you are with the Cato Institute. I have a few Libertarian leanings my self but find, generally speaking, that libertarians are firmly lodged in the nineteenth century and, frankly, I prefer the twenty first century . That’s where you’ll find Shepard Fairey so it’s not surprising that you disagree.
    You use “no time flat” which was actually 20 years. You use “My guess is” which pretty much say’s it all and confirms that you don’t have a clue. You state,” Fringe protest is sexy, in certain circles, but it remains that only the people with power have power”.
    For the past two years preceding the Obama Hope image Shepard Fairey was already one of the most important emerging artists in the world. Now, with his image in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, he is definitely one of the most important artists in the world. That standing brings with it a certain amount of power and if you don’t see that then you should google “Shepard Fairey”, 5,740,000 listings. The fact that you are writing about him when up until recently you probably had never had heard of him also proves my point. You then add, “That’s why I consider … a regrettable failure of American grassroots culture-making,… in which you totally dismiss or are oblivious to the overwhelming popularity, respect and hope for the future of our country that has been inspired by Barack Obama coming out of the miserable, hateful and disingenuous eight years of the Bush/Cheney/Rove crime family and the disaster they perpetrated on the American people.
    Your Wikipedia entry which, I would imagine, you wrote yourself, has this entry near the bottom, “On June 27, 2008, Wilkinson was cited by David Brooks as a member of a “group of young and unpredictable rightward-leaning writers” who have “emerged on the scene” in recent years. He calls their emergence a “genuine bright spot” for the conservative movement.” Good luck with that, Mr. Bright Spot. The “conservative movement has been marginalized and is loosing it’s more intelligent members and the Fascists on talk radio will end up with the ignorant dregs. The conservative movement is so nineteenth century. Get over it or be left behind as a footnote in the history books.

    1. hear that will? how dare you question the leader! ’cause, like, bush, and cheney, and something or other!
      anyway, robert (and history!) are coming for you, and they are armed with google, and a 27 by 40 poster!

      1. One of the ignorant dregs has spoken. He hasn’t made any sense but he has spoken. We applaud your effort but If your blather is supposed to be in Will’s defense, you were a miserable failure. All you did is justify my comment and help prove my point and I thank you for that.

  3. Dear Will, thanks for the discussion.
    I am not sure I understand all your points but there is something quite hypocritical in the anti-authoritarian, anti-captilistic “street-art” scene that I think you may be pointing out. Well, perhaps it’s just my cynicism having grown weary of all the “anti’s”
    I created and posted this image today after watching “POPaganda: The Art & Crimes of Ron English”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shepard_Fairey_Parody_Obey_Obamaposter_with_crowns.png but I don’t know how long it will stay up because I can’t figure out wikipedia’s bureaucratic nightmare for posting fair-use works.
    For the record, I voted for someone other than Obama this last election. But I have HOPE we’ll somehow get through to another time (and will be in debt for some time.)

  4. I keep reading people compare him to Warhol and Litchenstein. My grandfather knew them both been clear that Shepard Fairey does not come close to them. For one, they appropriated recognizable imagery. Fairey just rips off little known works and photographs. He has stolen from a number of minority artists. If he was a more conservative bent artist people would be calling him a racist. And it is lame that he is crying fair use now because he has sent cease letters to artists like Baxter Orr who did the same with his Obey poster.

  5. I came across this post when surfing for some background on a Fairey poster. I don’t really want to get into how certain pieces contain more depth than others, or if Fairey has “sold out;” that’s not really the point here.
    Only addressing the ripoff issue – Fairey’s work doesn’t “blatantly rip-off” older posters. What he does is take an existing piece (this includes the feelings and subtext that go with it) and recreate it in a way that is meant to elicit a response.
    So in the Soviet propaganda posters you mentioned above, Fairey’s taking the visual ascetic and saying that certain things we are told equate to Big Brother in Communist Russia. We are told to “obey.” But why do we?
    As with all art, the meaning behind the pieces doesn’t always come through to people that are unfamiliar with the source material or references made. A lot of paintings during the Impressionist period referenced Greek mythology. Of course you wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t studied those things. Same with Fairey’s work. To the untrained eye, they seem to be “ripoffs,” when there are actually quite a few levels of depth to the images, including references to propaganda posters, pop-culture icons, politics, etc.
    It’s not much different from Warhol pieces. Warhol’s painting of Campbell’s Soup can wasn’t because he wanted to paint that can. It was more a commentary on commercialism, culture, and what people were willing to do/buy. A lot of art is the intent behind it.
    I’d suggest reading a bit more about art history. It’s really interesting to see how street art has evolved and its influences. Sure you can dismiss Fairey and his ilk, but then you sound like the old guy that said that Elvis was “too sexual” or that Rock n Roll was the devil’s music. The only thing that your proving is how out of touch you are with the people of today, and the people that will control tomorrow (the younger generation).

  6. FINALLY! SOMEONE ELSE WHO SEES THE IRONY AND SHIFT IN SHEPARD FAIREY!!! I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE! HE WENT FROM SATIRE TO BECOMING PART OF THE MACHINE THAT HE ONCE MOCKED. IT IS SCARY TO ME THAT BARACK OBAMA SUPPORTERS FAIL TO SEE THAT THE SUPPORT AN INDIVIDUAL WHO’S APPROACH TO POLICY MAKING IS MORE INTRUSIVE & FASCIST THAN A CONSERVATIVE ONE. REPUBLICANS GET A BAD RAP. ALL POLITICIANS HAVE THE ABILITY TO BE CORRUPT AND DEMOCRATS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO THIS. WHEN WILL PEOPLE THINK AGAIN? IT’S BLATANTLY OBVIOUS WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE IF YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY. ASK YOURSELF HOW THE NAZI’S GAINED POWER. DON’T THINK IT CAN’T HAPPEN AGAIN? WE’RE ALREADY ON OUR WAY THERE, AND SHEPARD FAIREY’S SHIFT IS A TESTAMENT TO THAT.

  7. FINALLY! SOMEONE ELSE WHO SEES THE IRONY AND SHIFT IN SHEPARD FAIREY!!! I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE! HE WENT FROM SATIRE TO BECOMING PART OF THE MACHINE THAT HE ONCE MOCKED. IT IS SCARY TO ME THAT BARACK OBAMA SUPPORTERS FAIL TO SEE THAT THEY SUPPORT AN INDIVIDUAL WHO’S APPROACH TO POLICY MAKING IS MORE INTRUSIVE & CONTROLLING THAN A CONSERVATIVE ONE. REPUBLICANS GET A BAD RAP. YES, THERE ARE BAD REPUBLICANS TOO, BUT ALL POLITICIANS HAVE THE ABILITY TO BE CORRUPT AND DEMOCRATS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO THIS. WHEN WILL PEOPLE THINK AGAIN? IT’S BLATANTLY OBVIOUS WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE IF YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY. ASK YOURSELF HOW THE NAZI’S GAINED POWER. DON’T THINK IT CAN’T HAPPEN AGAIN? WE’RE ALREADY ON OUR WAY THERE, AND SHEPARD FAIREY’S SHIFT IS A TESTAMENT TO THAT.

  8. …oh and here’s anotherHis slogan is “Manufacturing quality DISSENT since 1989”, yet he is excited to get recognition from the “establishment”. A true “guerrilla artist” would not seek or want to be condoned by anyone holding a public office; for the point of guerilla artistry is to keep the “establishment” in check despite which party rule…s @ the moment. He obviously took the “BLUE” pill, like in the Matrix…and now that I just wrote this I find it ironic; the color of the pill & the color of the party are one in the same…things that make you go hmmmm

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