Arnold Kling Agonistes

Arnold Kling doesn't like happiness research, and gives a rousing and rather Austrian explanation why not.

My point is that reported happiness is all about comparisons. To report how happy I am, I have to make that report in comparison to something else--how I felt a month ago, or how I imagine someone else feels, how I imagine I'll feel tomorrow, or something. Because the survey questions do not specify the comparison that the respondent is supposed to make, we have no idea what the answers mean.


You can attempt to read something into the data that is reported by "happiness research." You can also read something into tea leaves or goat entrails. Scientifically, there is not much difference.
:beatnik:
Share this

Ye Gods! Happiness is an

Ye Gods! Happiness is an emotion . . . how much science is involved in emotion? I bet it's not nearly as much as is involved in reading tea leaves.

Diana

Well, people do functional

Well, people do functional MRIs now and look for what lights up when people say "I'm happy", but I'm still wary of 'scientific' efforts to measure happiness. I doubt there is an easily quantifiable basis to understand how and what will make someone 'happy' and as Arnold said, happiness is relative anyway.

Happiness may not even map to any particular part of the brain, but rather be an emergent phenomenon ala dyslexia (western dyslexics have a different brain disorder than chinese dyslexics, even though the 'disease' is the same- because the writing systems are so different, they use different parts of the brain...).

Arnold's point about the

Arnold's point about the need for comparison is a good one. But that's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Despite Austrian claims to the contrary, non-acted upon preferences (and indifferences) are observable, measurable and scientific. Further, happiness, as an emotion, still involves physical changes in the brain at the very least. I don't see how one can so quickly rule out happiness research. Bad happiness research, yes. Happiness research in principle, no.

Micha, what is the

Micha, what is the scientific definition of happiness and what unit(s) do you intend to measure it with?

David, I am not a scientist,

David,

I am not a scientist, nor am I familiar with the scientific literature on happiness. My point is that I see no good reason to dismiss the scientific study of emotional happiness a priori. While preferences are relative, and thus require a point of comparison, as Kling correctly observes, relative does not mean unobservable or unscientific. If modern technology allows for the observation of chemical changes in the brain which indicate happiness or unhappiness, and this contradicts Austrian principles, so much the worse for Austrian principles.

Tyler Cowen writes: "Even

Tyler Cowen writes: "Even huge positive changes in a person's life -- getting married, winning the lottery -- only affect happiness levels for about six months."

Then I'm living on a serious surplus of borrowed time. And if anyone thinks I'm gonna stop because happiness research says my time is up they've got another thing coming.

Micha, If modern technology

Micha,

If modern technology allows for the observation of chemical changes in the brain which indicate happiness or unhappiness, and this contradicts Austrian principles, so much the worse for Austrian principles.

I'm not sure happiness research says much about Austrian principles one way or another. Austrian economics is a study of revealed preferences which takes utility to mean the value given to a good based on how it helps an individual achieve an end. I don't see much connection between happiness and the Austrian view of utility.

Kennedy, I don't think

Kennedy, I don't think that's what happiness research is saying. Will Wilkinson made a similar point a few weeks ago on the same subject: giving someone additional choice may not give them much more happiness, and that additional happiness may be shortlived. But taking away that choice once given, or losing something once achieved, may lead to terrible unhappiness, much greater than the original gain.

The point of the quote to which you responded is only that people seem to adjust and take things for granted after a while. Which makes a lot of sense considering the rate of depression given modern living standards. If happiness didn't adjust, depression would have been near universal just a generation or two ago.

It amazes me to think how people lived their lives before technologies like modern medicine, indoor plumbing, electricity, central heat and air, toothbrushes, etc. And yet they were still just as happy as most of us are today. In the same way, our great great grandchildren will look back at us and wonder at our below-their-poverty-line living conditions. This is also why certain strains of conservative thought, especially ludditism, are so incredibly foreign to me. Although it may be the case that our ancestors were no less happy than we are, how can we go back to that standard of living knowing what we know now?

Jonathan, I agree that

Jonathan,

I agree that happiness research is not necessarily incompatible with Austrian econ taken as a whole. But specific Austrian claims may be weakened or contradicted, depending on how they are defined. If "psychic profit" can be measured through the observation of brain chemistry, that may be at odds with Austrian objections to quantification. Also at odds are Austrian claims about the necessity of action as an indicator of preference; for example, both happiness research and mere introspection provide us with evidence of indifference. (Do I really care whether my mouse pad is blue or red? No.)

Micha, Also at odds are

Micha,

Also at odds are Austrian claims about the necessity of action as an indicator of preference; for example, both happiness research and mere introspection provide us with evidence of indifference. (Do I really care whether my mouse pad is blue or red? No.)

So far as I know, the Austrian claim is that if you don't care about the difference between a blue mouse pad or red mouse pad, then they are the same economic good in terms of meeting your end of having something to roll your mouse on. After all, every unit of every good is different in some way, at least at the atomic level. Yet, we can comfortably call these different objects simply multiple units of the same economic good. Indifference is not meaningful in analyzing action.

Jonathan, Perhaps there are

Jonathan,

Perhaps there are two Austrian views on the matter. From what I was taught, both at Mises U and reading various Austrian literature, indifference curves are forbidden precisely because indifference cannot be demonstrated through action. Which, as Bryan Caplan notes, is a strange requirement for Austrians, since many of their own principles depend upon introspection, not observation. Hence "a priori." Also, I believe many Austrians claim that if I actively choose the blue mousepad over the red mousepad, that indicates that I prefer the blue mousepad to the red mousepad. Action demonstrates preference. But what if I honestly couldn't care less, and I just picked one at random?

And, at least if neoclassical economics is correct, indifference is tremendously important in microeconomics, serving as the basis of individual consumer demand curves.

I understand the distinction

I understand the distinction between ends and means -- and it is a good one. But I don't think it sufficiently answers the question. If I can be indifferent between a red shirt and a blue shirt, why can't I be indifferent between a new shirt and a new pair of pants? Or a new shirt and a movie ticket?

Further, depending on the level of abstraction, we can classify neither all acts as either means or ends. Why did I stand on my head drinking codliver oil? Because I thought this was the correct means to achieve my desired ends? What ends? Health? Virility? Or simply because I wanted to stand on my head drinking codliver oil for its own sake?

We could define all acts as means and define all ends as attempted increases in psychic profit. But on what grounds can we say that no two acts/means result in the same expected profit? Just because this indifference cannot be expressed through action does not mean this indifference does not exist. We can observe through introspection that it does. This does not entail observing another person's utility preferences. This entails observing our own utility preferences, and then recognizing that although we cannot (yet) get inside other people's minds (perhaps happiness research may change that?), we recognize the similarities between ourselves and others, and extrapolate from those similarities the possibility (probability?) that others experience the same indifference we do, even if we may not be able to empirically observe this (yet).

I'll try to get to the Callahan article later.

Micha, Perhaps there are two

Micha,

Perhaps there are two Austrian views on the matter. From what I was taught, both at Mises U and reading various Austrian literature, indifference curves are forbidden precisely because indifference cannot be demonstrated through action.

I would restate it as- action implies a choice and cannot imply indifference among different ends. Ends cannot be indifferent. Means are valued by how they help achieve ends. If both Coke and Pepsi help achieve the same end of quenching thirst, they are simply two units of the same economic good ("thirst quencher") even though you are indifferent to them. You will value them per diminishing marginal utility.

I'm not familiar enough with indifference curves to comment on them, though with most of these things, the differences are rarely relevant (no pun intended).

Which, as Bryan Caplan notes, is a strange requirement for Austrians, since many of their own principles depend upon introspection, not observation. Hence â??a priori.â??

Economic methodology is different from observing another person's utility preferences. I'm not sure why Caplan associates the two. There's nothing inconsistent about a priori methodology telling us that other people's preferences can only be revealed through action.

lso, I believe many Austrians claim that if I actively choose the blue mousepad over the red mousepad, that indicates that I prefer the blue mousepad to the red mousepad. Action demonstrates preference. But what if I honestly couldnâ??t care less, and I just picked one at random?

As I said above, then you are treating them as different units of the same economic good as the differences between them are not relevant to the end in question. This article probably explains it better than me.

Choice and Preference by Gene Callahan

But I donâ??t think it

But I donâ??t think it sufficiently answers the question. If I can be indifferent between a red shirt and a blue shirt, why canâ??t I be indifferent between a new shirt and a new pair of pants? Or a new shirt and a movie ticket?

You can. But it's not relevant at the time of action. There's no denying that differences between different objects exist. It's just that relevant differences in preferences are observed through action. The ends determines what 'relevant' means.

Further, depending on the level of abstraction, we can classify neither all acts as either means or ends. Why did I stand on my head drinking codliver oil? Because I thought this was the correct means to achieve my desired ends? What ends? Health? Virility? Or simply because I wanted to stand on my head drinking codliver oil for its own sake?

Ends and means are different. Ends are end-states- states of being. In trying to go from one state to another, people choose means - scarce goods in the environment. In the above example, your end would be "standing on your head drinking codliver oil" and your means would be you, codliver oil, time, etc.

Just because this indifference cannot be expressed through action does not mean this indifference does not exist.

Sure those indifferences could exist; they are simply not relevant. I think relevance is the key point.

The problem with the

The problem with the relevance argument is that Austrians are not only claiming that indifference is irrelevant to action; rather, the claim is that indifference curves are bad methodology, based on some erroneous notion, akin to Austrian rejection of interpersonal comparisons of utility.

And I would dispute the claim that "relevant differences in preferences are observed through action." What is true indifference (I don't care whether I get the red or the blue shirt, so I choose at random and purchase the blue shirt) may be incorrectly viewed as preference (He chose the blue shirt when he could have chosen the red shirt for the same price; therefore he prefers the blue to the red). Indifferences cannot be observed through action, but they are extremely relevant for economic analysis, at least according to neoclassical economists. If Austrians wish to dismiss indifference curve analysis, they need a better argument than "relevance", since the neoclassical claim is precisely that they are relevant. And they need a better argument than denying the validity of introspection, since the Action Axiom rests upon it.

My point about ends vs. means is that an outside observer cannot determine, merely on the basis of observable action, whether a particular act was a means to a further end, or an end in itself. Am I juggling in order to entertain my children or am I juggling because my goal is the activity of juggling in itself?

The problem with the

The problem with the relevance argument is that Austrians are not only claiming that indifference is irrelevant to action; rather, the claim is that indifference curves are bad methodology, based on some erroneous notion, akin to Austrian rejection of interpersonal comparisons of utility.

I think that we have two different understandings of the Austrian view of indifference. My understanding is that it deals with end-states that are revealed through action, namely that action results from preferring, not from being indifferent to. As far as I know Austrian theory does not claim that every single preference can be revealed through action. Indifference may explain inaction (though I'm not sure), but it can't explain action. It may be a psychological phenomenon, but it is not a praxeological phenomenon. If you chose the blue shirt over the red shirt at random, then the differences between the colors of blue and red were not subjectively relevant to you. Similarly, even you had picked a blue shirt from a stack of many ther blue shirts, each of them would have been different in at least some way - temperature, weight in milligrams, exact color as measure by wavelength reflected, exact heterogenity of texture, pattern of wrinkles, etc. These differences would not be subjectively relevant to your choosing one shirt from the rest.

If Austrians wish to dismiss indifference curve analysis, they need a better argument than â??relevance", since the neoclassical claim is precisely that they are relevant.

Austrians say something is irrelevant. Neoclassicals say something is relevant. Shouldn't the better argument be settled by the better argument, rather than defaulting to what the neoclassicals say?

Austrians say something is

Austrians say something is irrelevant. Neoclassicals say something is relevant. Shouldnâ??t the better argument be settled by the better argument, rather than defaulting to what the neoclassicals say?

Right, but what is the argument for irrelevance? If I say, "Knowing the number of blades of grass on this lawn is irrelevant," and you say, "No, it is relevant, because this number will help us measure which brand of fertilizer is more effective," the burden of proof falls back on me to show why the number remains irrelevant.