According to The Guardian , “the UK government is poised to start measuring people’s psychological and environmental well-being, bidding to be among the first countries to officially monitor happiness.”
Despite “nervousness” in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and the recent riot in Westminster, the Office of National Statistics will shortly be asked to produce measures to implement David Cameron’s long-stated ambition of gauging “general well-being”.
The tools to measure happiness. We clearly have the tools to measure happiness efficiently. More than that, we have the tools to get a sense of tomorrow’s happiness. This story led me to think about, for example, the Recorded Future program.
The Recorded Future is like Google trends, but rather than looking at what’s trending now, it gets a sense on what will be trending tomorrow. This program, and others like it, can have value for the private sector and for governments. If they are successful, that is.
They can add some extra information to use in making business decisions, especially in considering investments. They also have value for the intelligence community, in a more creepy way. These are people ever-interested in preempting crime and terror — real “department of pre-crime” stuff.
Indeed, the Recorded Future program is receiving a great amount of funding from the CIA and from Google.
But these programs also have value for those who set government policy, and an administration’s tone. These advanced versions of prediction markets could easily be used to steer policy by giving a sense of what tomorrow’s “happiness index” might be and identifying potential sources of “unhappiness.”
When happiness becomes politicized. The U.S. economy began to have its recent problems when the housing market toppled. The housing market toppled after years of government meddling and manipulation — primarily via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
While some people might argue over details (are Fannie and Freddie quasi-government entities, or quasi-commercial entities?), what is clearly understood is that those companies have been used to manipulate the home ownership market; because home ownership has been the United State’s “happiness index” for a long time.
If home ownership was up, politicians were looking good. Because this was a bi-partisan measuring stick, no one in Washington DC dared point out what was happening. Of course, when the consequences became unavoidable and the market finally reacted against the decades of government manipulation, there was a lot of finger pointing.
My point is, if some vague sense of happiness becomes a badge of honor for career politicians, it will also become a focal point for government dirty tricks. And nothing will be said until consequences become too visible to ignore. By then it will be too late.
For an example of a possible nightmare scenario: BBC News had an article in 2009 about adding lithium to the citizen’s drinking water, to “curb suicide.” Research suggested this would be a great idea. That alone isn’t reason to worry. However, when the political class also has a reason to think it’s a good idea — ‘We The People’ have reason for concern.
Responsible leadership? Good leadership isn’t about standing behind someone with a gun at their back — like too many politicians in America today. Good leadership also isn’t basing decisions on some vague idea of happiness.
Good leaders make decisions, sometimes unpopular ones, based on a clear sense of right and wrong. Unfortunately, most members of the political class are not interested in results. They are only interested in the appearance of results.
While the economy, including the housing market in the U.S., is no longer a great place for politicians to point to while patting each other on the back; “happiness” is going to be talked about more. Not just in the UK, either.
According to the same article at The Guardian , “countries such as France and Canada are looking at similar initiatives as governments around the world come under pressure to put less store on conventional economic measures of prosperity such as gross domestic product.”
I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before the political class in Versailles DC stop running fear-based elections and policy, and start running things based on happiness. Perhaps they have grown too accustomed to peddling fear?
In the meantime Canadian statisticians are already polling “subjective well-being” across the country, but it is not yet part of their official data set.
John Helliwell, a member of Canada’s National Statistics Council, has been in talks with the UK on how to measure subjective well-being. He told the Guardian: “The UK plans are putting into action the two most important elements of the Stiglitz/Sen report: systematically measuring subjective well-being as part of a broader national accounting system, and using these data to inform policy choices.”
As a side note: If the tap water starts to taste a little funny, switch to bottled.
Gaudrian, “Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood.” 14 Nov 2010.
BBC News, “Lithium in water ‘curbs suicide.'” 1 May, 2009.
LA Times, “Minorities’ Home Ownership Booms Under Clinton but Still Lags Whites” 31 May, 1999.
NY Times, “Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending.” 29 Sept, 1999.
Dateline Zero, “”This is not a hope election, it’s a fear election.” 31 Oct 2010.
Dateline Zero, “Pre-crime: Google, CIA seek the ‘Recorded Future.'” 2 Aug 2010.