Michael Hiltzik Knows How to Make You Happy, You Clod

Michael Hiltzik says more government control will make you more of an individual and other things that make your brain explode.

hiltzikMichaelIn a world where Thomas Friedman and David Brooks exist, choosing a favorite columnist to mock-read every week should be a two-man race, but we are blessed here in Los Angeles with one of the most predictably predictable columnists in the nation.

America, meet Michael Hiltzik. Or don’t. It’s probably better if you don’t.

I subscribe to the Los Angeles Times. I used to spend a lot of time yelling at Hiltzik columns, but I have decided to harness that energy and focus it like a laser beam of truthy America-loving awesomeness here on this website.

If my retorts seem not-well-thought-out or asinine, it’s because I write this column on short breaks from my work. This is not my full-time job. Saving America is just something I do in my spare time.

Hiltzik’s latest column in its entirety is available here. It’s about how government programs can make a nation happier. Yes, the nation he’s referencing is America. His words in bold. Mine in not-bold.

How much are we willing to pay for the pursuit of happiness?

I dunno. $70. I’m ballparking it.

Never mind the conventional speculation about whether the resolution of some political standoff in Washington favors Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, “entitlement” fans or skeptics.

Waaaaay ahead of you, Mikey. I pay no mind at all.

Question for you: is anyone actually a “fan” of entitlements? People like entitlements, but no one except wonky media types such as yourself are “fans” of entitlements. We don’t gather as a nation on Saturday mornings to grill hot dogs in a parking lot and get ‘faced and pile 90,000 high into a stadium to cheer on our entitlements. GO HOME MORTGAGE INTEREST DEDUCTION! YAY!

The more fundamental question, says Benjamin Radcliff, is this: Does it make people happier or not?

Given that I’ve never seen Hiltzik meet a confirmation bias he didn’t turn into a 1,000-word column, I am going to go out on a limb and guess that this Notre Dame guy believes that social policies makes us all happier than, as President Clinton likes to say, a dog with two dicks.

It’s also an important study, in a political environment where the cost and benefits of social programs are on the table as never before.

Wait. Someone in Washington is actually weighing the benefits of programs and not just blindly funding them? Hahahahahahahahaha. BREATHES. Hahahahahahaha. FALLS OVER.

Radcliff’s research suggests that higher levels of social programs produce a happier population and that public policies such as social insurance and strong labor market protections are among the most important factors.

Confirmation bias achieved. Let’s summarize this column so far: The columnist thinks there is some political stuff that is important. The columnist went out and interviewed some guy. Hey, that guy agrees with the columnist! What were the odds?

“The differences in your feeling of well-being living in a Scandinavian country (where welfare programs are large) versus the U.S. are going to be larger than the individual factors in your life,” he says. “The political differences trump all the individual things you’re supposed to do to make yourself happier — to have fulfilling personal relationships, to have a job, to have more income. All those individual factors get swamped by the political factors. Countries with high levels of gross domestic product consumed by government have higher levels of personal satisfaction.”

Wait. What? This guy is saying that making money, dating, having a career you enjoy—it all gets trumped by having a really great light rail system?

Statistics bear him out.

OK, these statistics better be damn good.

In the 2013 World Happiness Report, published by the UN and compiled by Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University and colleagues from the London School of Economics and the University of British Columbia, four of the top five rankings are occupied by Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden, all countries with strong social programs.

That’s five. Not four. If five of those top four countries are actually five countries, I seriously doubt the veracity of these statistics, sir.

The U.S. ranks 17th.

I have an explanation for these statistics. It’s called the endowment effect, and it goes like this: People give more value to the things they own. If your country is small and boring and has a massive welfare state, you’re more likely to claim that you are happy. You’re not going to say, “Gee, we spend crazy money on our social programs, but I think I would be happier with a smaller safety net like they have in America.” No. You’re going to say, “Yeah, an efficient light rail system IS better than ever starting a company like Apple or being Jay-Z. I can get from Shwevrbvdrfks to Oksnagloogen in 850 kiloseconds!”

These measurements do raise the question of what it means to be “happy” and how to place a number on it.

Yeah, that’s the other thing. How do you even measure happiness? My happiness fluctuates. I am happy when I am eating a sandwich. I am less happy when my sandwich is gone. Which raises a key question: Is it possible the Swedes were interviewed while eating sandwiches?

Experts grapple with whether people actually know how happy they are and whether they’re willing to tell the truth on surveys. “There’s good reason to be a little skeptical about studying happiness in this way,” Radcliff says, “but it’s pretty clear now that we can do this and it works.”

Translation: We have no idea what we’re doing, and we’re going to keep on doing it!

The concept of personal fulfillment even in the midst of toil was furthered in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal by the brain truster Adolf Berle, an expert on the corporation’s role in society. The flaw in Herbert Hoover’s infatuation with “individualism,” Berle told FDR during the 1932 presidential campaign, was that the great mass of workers didn’t get to be individuals.

They didn’t? That must have come as quite a shock to the workers who had different names, spouses, children, careers, incomes, homes and favorite baseball teams. They didn’t get to be individuals? By what standard? And since when are we taking our conventional wisdom about the 1930s from guys named Adolf, anyway?

“Whatever the economic system does permit,” he said, “it is not individualism. When nearly 70% of American industry is concentrated in the hands of 600 corporations, the individual man or woman has, in cold statistics, less than no chance at all…. What Mr. Hoover means by individualism is letting economic units do about what they please.”

Aaaaaaand now we’re in Crazy Town. It takes a very narrow view of the world to say, “Welp, unless you own General Motors, you don’t count as a person.” Also, if someone uses the words, “economic units” to describe human beings, you don’t want that person on your team.

Berle proposed a “far truer individualism,” which was translated in Roosevelt’s inaugural address into an affirmation of “social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

This is underpants gnomes nonsense. What the author and his source are trying to do—but they are being sneaky about it—is claim that the government should have more control of your life in the name of individualism. This is impossible, which is why that simple sentence I just wrote is cloaked by the author and his source in so much verbiage. YOU WILL BE WORN DOWN BY OUR WONKY ATTRITION!

The conservative counterargument is that government programs interfere with what should be the sole organizing principle of the economy: the market.

“That approach has a certain logical consistency,” Radcliff agrees. “Their view is that the market consists of nothing but free individuals making free choices about what’s best for them. But it ignores the reality that people don’t face each other in the market as equals.”

No, you maniac, the free market doesn’t ignore the reality that people don’t face each other as equals; it depends on it. If we all entered the market with, say, the education, skills and capital of a Notre Dame happiness researcher, then who would invent our iPhones, engineer our bridges, run our airlines, hit our home runs, write our novels, make our music and so on and so forth? If we all faced each other as total equals, there would be no economy. He calls the market economy’s greatest strength its weakness. That’s either stunning ignorance or willful deceit. What the hell’s going on at Notre Dame? Unless it starts winning some big bowl games, my kids are definitely not going there.

Regulating the influence of market forces, he argues, increases people’s ability to fulfill their own lives — a key determinant of happiness.

OK. Let’s see some specific examples.

One obvious criticism of Radcliff’s work is that it plays into a partisan narrative — Democrats good for happiness, Republicans bad.

Nice veiled shot at Republicans there—still waiting on those specific examples. Specific examples here would really support your case.

A similar objection was raised by a peer reviewer when he submitted his very first paper on the subject to the American Journal of Political Science, the leading publication in his field. “It came back with a two-line rejection,” he says. “They called it ‘simply an ideological project.'” The No. 2 journal, the American Political Science Review, accepted the same paper.

Alrighty then, I guess we’re not going to get those specific examples.

But we have learned this today: the American Journal of Political Science is the bomb and the American Political Science Review is birdcage lining.

It’s also proper to note that today’s ideological lineup of the two parties doesn’t fully reflect their historical positions.

A strong progressive Republican bloc supported Social Security at its inception in 1935. (And some of the harshest opposition came from Southern Democrats.) Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the program’s largest expansion in benefits and beneficiaries, and a crucial fiscal rescue of the program was enacted under Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Oh, NOW you have examples?!?

The Great Society program of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson gave us Medicare, but it was Republicans who devised its expansive drug benefit, Part D, in 2003.

Cue the National Anthem…

Our decades-long debate over Social Security and Medicare is now joined by a messy debate over Obamacare, its beneficiaries and its discontents. Underlying them all is the fact that the pursuit of happiness is established as one of America’s founding principles. What we’re really arguing about is how much to pay for it.

I still say $70.

Joe Donatelli is the author of The Marching Band Refused to Yield. Follow him @joedonatelli.


Author: Joe Donatelli

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist.