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Don’t Trust the Feds’ Happiness Index

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The Obama administration is financing research to devise a new gauge for Americans’ happiness. A National Academy of Sciences panel is currently analyzing proposals for surveying Americans’ “subjective well-being.” But there are grave perils in any “national happiness index” Uncle Sam might concoct.

Critics increasingly complain that the Gross Domestic Product does not accurately measure citizens’ quality of life. The chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, advocates devising a government statistic to gauge Americans’ “flow of emotional experience during daily activities.” Obama’s designee for World Bank president, Jim Yong King, warned that “the quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of women and men.”

But economic-growth numbers were venerated in large part because they provided pretexts for politicians to endlessly intervene in everyone else’s lives. Simply because government enshrined one faulty standard, the feds are not entitled to hatch another bogus gauge.

The happiness-survey panel has received help from the Census Bureau. Measuring moods is far more difficult than counting people, but the Census Bureau doesn’t even do a good job of that — as I learned working for them in southern Illinois in 1980. As long as census takers didn’t get arrested for drunkenness or public indecency and returned at the end of the day with a stack of filled-out forms, the bosses were satisfied. No one knew what was going on, and no one was responsible for anything. Management repeatedly flip-flopped on whether we should count or disregard illegal aliens living in the trailer parks we swept through. The final tally was accurate, plus or minus 10 percent.

Would the feds manipulate happiness statistics the way they jigger the unemployment rate? If someone failed to actively seek joy during the previous six-month period, would he be formally excluded from the official count? Would government officials invent “seasonal adjustments” to disregard month-to-month swings in reported despondency?

Is there any reason to expect a federal happiness index to be more credible than federal reports on the inflation rate? Would official mood surveys disregard any unhappiness felt by middle-aged men losing their hair — the same way the Consumer Price Index often ignores jumps in housing and food prices?

The official inflation rate is reduced by “hedonic adjustments” supposed to be related to the rise in the quality of consumer products. Would the national happiness rating be ratcheted up by imputing the extra contentment that would exist if people recognized all the wonderful things government does for them?

In the same way that U.S. economic statistics help politicians create an illusion of prosperity, a Gross American Contentment (GAC) index could provide a mirage of legitimacy for the welfare state. At a Brookings Institution workshop last November, leading happiness-survey experts (including National Academy of Science panelists) suggested that “policy makers may want to educate the public and present metrics so that a growth in well-being from, say, 7.2 to 7.4 provides as much meaning as would a 2 percent growth in GDP.” Could the presentation of such metrics “educate” people to the point that it distracted them from the misery they suffered in recessions? Probably not, unless accompanied by massive doses of Prozac.

Anyone who still reveres federal stats should remember the “multipliers” of the past few years. We were told that every dollar spent on the 2009 stimulus package would produce $1.57 in economic activity. That every dollar of food stamps “generates $1.84 in economic activity.” That every dollar of unemployment benefits begets a $2 increase in economic activity. According to those formulas, a robust recovery arrived two years ago.

With “subjective well-being” surveys, would we be assured that deficit spending automatically has a “happiness multiplier” of 2.4? The proliferation of such multipliers would be limited only by the number of social scientists desperate to receive federal grants and sinecures.

The Brookings workshop also included discussions of how happiness surveys that gauged the benefits of “trust and social cohesion” could revalue rural post offices to “take into account the pleasure individuals derive from the social interactions facilitated by a visit to this local meeting site.” If alleviating loneliness becomes a sufficient pretext for subsidies, then the federal budget deficit will soon be doubling. That example is symptomatic of a tendency to view government as a national therapist. (The panel did not discuss the impact on national happiness of the Postal Service’s losing so many letters.)

Perennial peril

Any survey of public sentiment could easily be skewed by the choice of questions or the time of the week (folks are happier on Saturday). The workshop report noted, “Researchers also face hurdles in predicting and measuring counterfactuals, such as how happy married people would be if they had never married.” To simply go around asking that question would spur a surge in 911 calls for police to respond to domestic disturbances.

The Brookings panel concluded, “In the policy realm, the foremost challenge will be addressing accusations of paternalism that often surface among critics of well-being research.” And why shouldn’t people be concerned about how the pretensions of paternalism would once again unleash their rulers? Government officials have perennially falsely assumed that their own power will somehow give happiness to people under their thumb. A Washington Post report on the happiness-survey panel noted one problem: the Gallup polling organization, which is already tracking variations in happiness responses, “found that asking political questions before asking about well-being significantly depresses the life satisfaction score.” So why would experts assume that more government intervention (or more government surveys) would make people happier?

To trust politicians to define happiness is like trusting politicians to define freedom. They will tamper with the terminology to maximize their own prerogatives. Happiness surveys will open a Pandora’s box with pretexts for new government programs to reduce inequities in supposed contentment between different sexes, ethnicities, regions, and who knows what else.

Federal statistics have long been perilous to Americans’ freedom and prosperity. Agricultural policy is a morass in part because the feds define as a farmer “any operation that sells at least one thousand dollars of agricultural commodities.” If someone sells a single horse for $1,000, he is categorized as if he were a full-time farmer. The vast majority of the nation’s 2.2 million farmers are hobby farmers, gentleman farmers, or part-time farmers. Yet politicians perennially invoke meaningless statistics on “average” farm income to justify deluging a cadre of wealthy landowners with handouts. (The largest 10 percent of farms snare most of the subsidies.)

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 is another example of how government statistics spawn mass delusions. In order to close the “achievement gap” between different groups and races, the federal government mandated that states’ test scores show “average yearly progress” towards all students’ achieving “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014. Most states responded by lowering their educational standards in order to create an illusion of progress. The Education Department knew in the first year that many states were lowering their standards in order to create that illusion but approved the charade and boosted the funding to the educational con artists. School kids were forced to waste billions of hours taking tests that produced nothing except bureaucratic and political bragging rights.

Happiness surveys will provide another trump card for politicians to play against any limits on their spending or power. When an inspector general report obliterates any sober justification for a program’s existence, congressmen will invoke survey results showing that it warms people’s hearts. Make-work boondoggles such as AmeriCorps could be magically transformed into “make happiness” triumphs.

Why bother with happiness surveys when federal agencies have long scorned overwhelming evidence that their policies produce misery? Even the Transportation Security Agency’s former chief Kip Hawley now admits that TSA’s degradation of average travelers is unnecessary, but the TSA clings to its power regardless. Likewise, politicians have known for decades that the Internal Revenue Code’s hellish complexity torments Americans. But any pain inflicted in the name of revenue enhancement is worth the price — at least according to Beltway metrics.

The government cannot be trusted to accurately assess the impact of its own power on people’s contentment. Rather than concocting new government indexes, we should curtail our trust in existing government data. Federal statistics will never be more reliable than the politicians who pull the strings of the agency that compiles the numbers.

It was a common saying during the 1930s that “we cannot squander our way to prosperity.” Similarly, we cannot statistically delude ourselves to national happiness. The Framers of the Constitution already created the only “happiness index” the nation needs: the Bill of Rights. The Framers recognized that people would be happier when government was on a leash and its powers were clearly limited. More accurately, they recognized that if the government was not oppressing people, they were far more likely to find happiness on their own.

Government statistics routinely produce mass delusions — at least among policymakers. Any new happiness index is likely to simply provide politicians with pretexts to further trample people’s constitutional rights. Why should people trust federal statistics to do anything except propel and sanctify more government meddling?

This article was originally published in the October 2012 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.