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Business & Economy

Matt DeBord talks with Rabe about being a shiny happy person

Demonstrating happiness, LA Rams Isiah Robertson and Fred Dryer laugh it up on the sidelines on October 21, 1973.
Demonstrating happiness, LA Rams Isiah Robertson and Fred Dryer laugh it up on the sidelines on October 21, 1973.
James Roark/LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection

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Following up on my recent effort to convince Rabe that we should start thinking about human rights for robots, I headed down to his high-tech recording studio-slash-office to convince him that we should reconstruct our economy to favor happiness over blunt growth.

He quickly accused me of being a commie! Then we reviewed "The Communist Manifesto," a copy of which Rabe keeps in his office for quick reference.

(The truth is, I'm probably more of what the novelist Walker Percy once called a "Southern moderate," which basically means I enjoy a good mint julep from time to time.)

Anyway, I was able to introduce John to the work of USC economist Dick Easterlin, who's credited with developing "happiness economics" in the 1970s. I've written about Dick and his work a number of times. He's sometimes talked about as a potential Nobel Prize winner. And he's one of those economists who has a concept named after him: the Easterlin Paradox, which very crudely stated says that rich people are generally happier than poor people, but that rich societies aren't happier than poor ones, and that rising economic growth doesn't make societies much happier, after a certain plateau is reached.

If you look at this on a graph, you get a flat happiness line and a rising growth line. The Easterlin Paradox has been found over and over again in societies through the decades. Recently, Dick published some new research that suggests life satisfaction has leveled off in former Eastern European societies, as well as in China, where economic growth has been very strong in since the old Communist system gave way to a state-sponsored variation of market capitalism.

What Dick concludes is that happiness is more likely in societies where there's job security and a strong social safety net. So in China, for example, people aren't as happy as we might expect them to be because the old communist-era protections have weakened.

Other economists look at the happiness research and say, "Hey, maybe GDP isn't the best overall way to measure how an economy is doing!" Gross domestic product is a really broad method of measuring what an economy is producing. The assumption is that you have to grow unendingly, over the long term, to be successful (you have recessions and even depressions here and there, but overall, the line is supposed move up and to the right FOREVER).

But is that all there is? If an economy is growing but everyone is miserable, is a society actually doing well? Or just trading well-being for affluence?

Happiness economics has gained a lot of respect in the past decade — previously, it wasn't viewed as being hardcore enough, in terms of its math and methods — and it's entered the mainstream conversation about economics in a much bigger way since the financial crisis, during which the traditional economics profession didn't exactly cover itself in glory.

I'm not sure I convinced Rabe. But I think I made him a little bit...happier.