Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Good Life: More Money? More Constraints?

The good life.  We all want it.  Even if we disagree, sometimes violently, over its precise manifestation and the best ways to achieve it, we are in unison in striving for a good life.

(By "the good life" I refer to the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, also rendered in English as a "meaningful life" or the "fulfilled life."  This differs from everyday happiness [hedonic happiness] in that it evaluates the wide sweep of life projects: not "are you happy right now?" but rather "how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?"  I have discussed this in earlier postings.  An Aristotelian "good life" or "meaningful life" need not be wed to Aristotle's provisional list of Greco-centric virtues but rather more broadly to the idea and ideal of virtues-those ends that we desire for their own sake.)

A recent study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton suggests that income may have different effects on hedonic happiness and life satisfaction.  The Easterlin paradox notes that happiness derives from relative income; if all boats rise, relative poverty leads to the same level of happiness or discontent.  Easterlin's argument is that the link between income and happiness only holds within countries and not between them; this is to say there is not a significant correlation between national income and happiness.  But the Kahneman and Deaton study suggests that perhaps what holds for hedonic happiness does not hold for life satisfaction.  They conclude that (within the U.S.) "high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness."

Margarita Corral (working with the Vanderbilt Latin American Opinion Project) reports on a large-scale comparative study of life satisfaction across Latin America.  She finds a close association between national economic development (as reflected in income) and evaluations of overall life satisfaction.  This makes sense: we adapt our hedonic happiness to the daily norm of our lives but in looking at the wide sweep of our life projects we feel more intensely the opportunities not presented or taken because of financial exigencies. 

All the same, recent research suggests that while income may be important in life satisfaction, it is not determinant.  That is to say that it is necessary but not sufficient.  Indeed, if we take "the good life" (as variously and broadly conceived) as our shared end, it makes us look at the economy and markets in new ways.  And there is a growing body of scholarship that suggests that there may be ways we can structure the economy and our lives to best promote the common good. 

And it isn't always in ways that seem apparent.  For example, The Economist recently reported on a study by Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Alex Rees-Jones, and Miles Kimball.  They asked folks if they would rather earn $80,000 a get an average of 7.5 hours sleep a night or make $140,000 and sleep only 6 hours a night.  About 70% reported they would prefer to earn less and sleep more.  The kicker comes next: the researchers then asked this same sample what they would actually do: depending on the question between 17% and 25% said they would still do what they said they would not prefer. 

An economist would most likely say that we have to give the most weight to what folks would actually do-that this "revealed" preference is the true preference.  And yet, as I have argued, we should also take seriously the stated preferences, how folks say they would like things to be.  I hold that our stated preferences are more attuned to our overall life satisfaction, and that revealed preferences are most sensitive to hedonic happiness.  
If this is the case, it sheds new light on the role of smart regulations.  It suggests that we sometimes need structure and flexible constraints to be our best.  And the immediate pull of hedonic pleasures may entice us to make decisions counter to our long-term better judgment.

Lynn Stout's book, Cultivating Conscience, provides amble examples of how this might work, as do Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge and Bob Frank in various places.

Stout also points out the pitfalls of bad rules and regulations.  Specifically, she argues that financial incentives often undermine the very moral basis of work and vocation in a way that is both inefficient and contributes to dissatisfaction.  We all know that specific rules can have unintended consequences, but it is surprising how rules themselves can sometimes undermine the common good they are meant to ensure. 
A number of recent books address this point from different angles. 

Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in their (2010) Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (NY: Riverhead) make a strong case for revaluing the Aristotelian virtue of phronesis, or practical wisdom.  They argue that doctors and lawyers are bound by so many rules and regulations that they have little room in which to exercise their discretion, their practical wisdom based on the particular context.  With the proliferation of ethical (and other) guidelines, acting morally seems to clear: stay within these established boundaries and ipso facto you are acting ethically.  But, as common sense tells us, it isn't that easy.
Practical wisdom, Schwartz argues, is not a list of rules but a state of mind, a perspective built up through experience. 

Elsewhere, Schwartz argues (and thanks to Jaime Kyne for this reference) that, "it is distressing that modern social trends are conspiring to make wisdom ever more difficult to cultivate. These trends can be organized around two core features: increasing market pressure and increasing bureaucratization. The pressure to make a profit threatens both skill and will. It threatens the development of the skills demanded by practical wisdom by depriving people of adequate time to get to know people and situations well enough to exercise judgment wisely. Doctors who see eight patients an hour can't possibly be expected to discern the unique circumstances of each patient. And it threatens the will by substituting financial incentives for motivation to do the right thing."
Incentives actually act to undermine the use of wisdom: "the more financial incentives crowd out people's desire to do the right thing" and, in fact, "market incentives and bureaucratic rules may be an appropriate short-term response to greedy doctors or unimaginative teachers, but in the long term, they only make doctors greedier and teachers less imaginative."

Indeed, the market is starting to respond with a number of products that help us enforce our better inclinations.  Leanne Italie reports on new technological products that help us stop ourselves from doing things we don't, in our more rational and contemplative moments, want to do: Intoxalock stops you from starting your car if you have had too much to drink; Don't Dial places hurdles on calling under the influence; NOTXT stops texting and driving; and, as discussed in a previous post, Mastercard's new inControl system stops you from overspending.

In We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess (2010, NY: Penguin), Daniel Akst distinguishes between "first-order desires" ("immediate pleasures, not necessarily conscious or at least not contemplative decisions" and "second-order desires" (which are actively chosen and evaluated; these speak to our better selves, involve a higher level of reflection).  He sees a loosening of social norms and rules and elevation of more hedonistic self-fulfillment that has led us away from second-order desires. 

Akst writes that we are all like Odysseus and need to control our raw impulses. And the best way to do that is through precommitment devices.  These are promises, often enforceable, that one makes to do in the future, setting up circumstances that make it hard to back out of.  He suggests, for example, that folks could sign up to pay extra taxes if they gained weight.  See his article in Slate.

Dan Ariely also studies precommitment and how it links to our propensity for "hyperbolic discounting": discounting future gains and pleasure at a very steep initial rate.  Precommitment devices help us give full weight to our future selves' preferences by signing a contract for Weight Watchers or a health club; allocating portions of future raises to retirement plans; and so on.

David McRaney writes on "Procrastination" in the entertaining and enlightening blog "You Are Not So Smart":
He cites a 1999 study by Read, Loewenstein and Kalyanaraman that had participants pick from a selection of highbrow and lowbrow movies to watch now or in a few days.  Folks tended to pick lowbrow movies for their more immediate pleasure and highbrow movies for later.  They wanted to watch the highbrow movies, but not right away (they'd rather have their guilty pleasure first).

He argues that metacognition is central to overcoming these deep biases in our pleasure circuits:  "Thinking about thinking, this is the key. In the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial - want never goes away.  Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don't have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted.  You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later. Later is murky place where anything could go wrong."

 McRaney writes that, "the trick is to accept the now you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future you - a person who can't be trusted. Future-you will give in, and then you'll go back to being now-you and feel weak and ashamed. Now-you must trick future-you into doing what is right for both parties."

All of this new research recalls the classic the 1960s Walter Mischel experiment with marshmallows: the kids who were able to hold off eating a marshmallow for a few minutes did better on later rewarding tasks that required short-term sacrifice for longer-term gain:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ivory Towers and Productive Engagements

The ivory tower.  We frequently hear the phrase invoked these days in popular discourse, but most often dripping with disdain.  It is not the real world, but the distant, removed, elitist Ivory Tower, inhabited by Mandarins who think they know better than the common folk.

Sure, the academy is in some ways removed from contingencies of daily life (although less so than many imagine).  But this is not so much a liability as an asset, perhaps our greatest asset.  Removed from the so-called real world, we are able to examine that world with a bit more distance, judicious distance that allows one to question suppositions and assumptions, to speak what may be left unspoken, and so spur creativity and new ways of looking at things.

As Derek Bok has persuasively argued, universities are becoming more vocational, responding to pressures to show their value added to society and to individual students in directly instrumental ways.  In this way they are becoming less ivory tower-like.

An existential crisis can result if scholars stray too far for too long from the ivory tower, at least in the humanities and social sciences.  We can find an analogy in business consulting: consultants are sometimes hired to justify an a priori position, but their most productive use is to get an unbiased yet informed outside opinion.  Being too embedded within the organization becomes a liability.  Writ large, scholars' value comes from critical distance.

AT THE SAME TIME, it also seems that scholars should weigh in on the problems of the real world-to use their critical distance toward productive ends when possible.  The paradox is that that requires engagement and engagement can lead to compromising the very critical independence that gives value to our position.

Directing a Center for Latin American Studies, I spend a lot of time engaging folks outside of the academy.  I find it rewarding, the attempt to nudge people to look at issues from a slightly different angle, to inform them about the impressive work my colleagues are doing.  But there is always linguistic, semantic, and even moral compromises involved in talking across these boundaries.  One cannot convey the full complexity of problems, the nuances of arguments-something gets left out when translating to non-specialist audiences.

Where does one draw the line between engagement and collusion, between putting our ideas into practice and compromising our critical distance?  That there are no easy answers was brought home to me recently after I led a panel discussion for a military audience.  Florida International University hosts a number of applied academic seminars on Latin American countries aimed at the US military leadership at the Southern Command.  At the seminars, academics, scholars and pundits working at places like the Inter-American Dialogue and the Washington Office on Latin America as well as more obscure, neoconservative think tanks, meet with current and former military area specialists.  I led the seminar on Guatemala, and there was a lively discussion and clashing of views as well as many points of consensus.

It is not easy talking to folks who hold different worldviews, with whom one fundamentally disagrees on certain key points.  Preaching to the choir is much more comfortable.  (Indeed, I have spent the last few years getting to the point where I can have meaningful scholarly conversations with economists about anthropological critiques of economic models.)

Writing the Guatemala report was difficult, summarizing a wide range of opinions and yet putting my editorial and analytic stance forward.  In fact, I thought I might catch flack for the report, but my fear was that it would come from the Guatemalan oligarchy, military and police, and narcos, of whom the report is highly critical.

But, alas, the rebuke came from the left, which presents much less bodily danger but far greater moral bite.  A fellow anthropologist saw in my engagement a sort of nefarious collusion, aiding and abetting a military guilty of countless atrocities in Latin America.  This bloody collusion was nowhere more apparent than in the violence of Guatemala's civil war, determined by a U.N. commission to be officially a case of "genocide."  I discuss this in the report, although the seminar was more focused on the broad historical sweep and social landscape-the 50,000', 2000 year perspective.  The report was focused on the social and power structure of Guatemala over time, showing how the colonial legacy, military dictatorships, and elite interests have led to the current power structure of narcos and organized crime (with close ties to the military) exerting the most influence in a weak and corrupt state.  (For the critique of this report and a link to the original see here ; for a more journalistic summary see the posting below and link to The Guatemala Times article.)

I appreciate the stance of moral purity, of a distancing and opposition that refuses to compromise.  Indeed, I think we have too little substantive opposition in this country and think we are all richer for its existence.  Yet, I also see a space and a need for engagement.  There are major inequalities and problems with the way things are and I can easily imagine a better world order.  We should not lose sight of our utopian dreams.  At the same time, being a realist, it also behooves us to make things even incrementally better.  We have to maintain a dual consciousness (and conscience): dreaming of the possible and supporting that end while also working on the practical, taking modest gains where we can.