Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Happiness and Politics

The wealthy U. S. ranked only 23rd among nations of the world in terms of the degree of happiness of their people? Little Denmark ranked number one? What gives? What is to be learned?

The issue was brought to our attention recently, due primarily to a "60 Minutes" piece that aired this past Sunday. The ranking was from a University of Leicester in England study published last year, authored by a British psychologist, Adrian White. The study was based largely on data provided by an agency of the United Nations (UNESCO), the CIA, and the New Economics Foundation, among others, backed by over one hundred individual studies and the participation of roughly 80,000 people world-wide.

According to White, the concept of happiness, sometimes referred to as satisfaction with life, is currently a major area of research in economics and psychology. One of the main interesting conclusions of the study was that a nation's happiness seems to be closely associated with, firstly, the general health of its people, followed by their wealth, and, next, their access to a quality education. Also of interest, a recent BBC study found that 81% of the U. K. population thinks the government should focus more on making its people happier, than on making people wealthier. This is for them how politics directly enters the discussion.

Returning to the study rankings, Denmark was first, followed in order by Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Sweden, and Finland. Canada was 10th, Norway 19th, U. S. 23rd, U. K. 41st, Japan 90th and Russia 167th. Several African nations were among the lowest of all. Obviously, as one would expect, the well developed European countries generally did very well. However, as a Norwegian, it was noteworthy and surprising that Norway, a richer country with similar health care and a good education system was back so far, and Sweden, with a healthier population than Denmark, with similar health care and also a good education system was back in

Based on the study and the "60 Minutes" piece, Denmark was ranked first basically because their small 5.5 million population considered themselves quite content with the quality of their lives and had very little to worry about, despite their high average overall 50% income tax rate. Another significant factor brought out is that while people in general had high hopes with their lives, they had quite modest expectations and were therefore rarely disappointed. In addition, Danes generally are more interested in the quality of their life than in the amount of their income.

There are many compelling reasons why the Danes are quite content. There is little serious violence in Denmark, so people generally feel very safe. They typically don't worry much about losing their jobs, because the government pays them a high percentage of their relatively good salaries if they're not working. Their average work-week is just 37 hours, much less than in the U. S. There is universal health care and free education through college, even for retired seniors. Students are even paid to go to college and don't need to worry very much about student loans, although many students do have loans to pay for room and board, if they do not live at home. They have six weeks vacation versus our two or three weeks, plus quite a few days off for several holidays. Maternity and paternity leaves of absence are very generous. Day-care facilities are widely available and the cost is based on parental incomes. Social programs for needy seniors, though they vary around the country, are typically also generous. Their freedoms, liberties and civil rights are similar to ours.

What about the U. S.? As most of us know, our Declaration of Independence, authored primarily by Thomas Jefferson and adopted on July 4th, 1776, argued for "certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." So our Founding Fathers apparently had a serious interest in our happiness. While I have not seen any recent study on the subject, I'm fairly certain that a significant percentage of our 305 million Americans are generally quite content and reasonably happy. However, my guess is that a larger percentage of Americans, perhaps even a majority, are probably not.

An admittedly very limited piece of backing for this contention is that the most popular course this year at Harvard is a "Positive Psychology" class taught by Professor Tal Ben-Shakar. One of the big points he made in a recent interview is that 94% of U. S. college students are highly stressed, due in large part to concern about the high level of competition for grades and jobs, difficult to meet high expectations, common need to work while studying to support themselves, and high student loan levels upon graduation. In his class and outside lectures he teaches that a good predictor of well-being and happiness is having realistic expectations and good personal, especially family, relationships. Furthermore, he says, happy people function better and tend to live longer. Hard to argue with most of this.

What can we learn from this and what role, if any, should the government play? It seems to me individuals, employers, as well as our government representatives should think seriously about all this and decide if meaningful changes would be appropriate and beneficial. As individuals, we owe it to ourselves and our families to invest some time and effort to figure out if we should make any lifestyle, education or career changes to improve our well-being and happiness, for example. Perhaps it would be changing our diet and exercise habits, negotiating with one's employer to work one day a week from home, prioritizing more quality time with family on week-ends, or taking some courses to improve better job prospects. In other words, what can we do ourselves to make our families more happy and content, without counting on help from employers or the government?

Employers, for example, might decide they can improve productivity and ability to hire and retain better quality employees by reviewing benefit packages and consider instituting an improved 401(k) program or a convenient day-care facility if they have employees with young children.

Government representatives may decide that there is nothing appropriate and beneficial for them to do, as long as the majority of people don't want to pay higher taxes. However, it is quite likely that there are, in fact, things they can do without necessarily raising taxes or spending more money, though those steps should not necessarily automatically be excluded, especially the latter. I'm thinking particularly of how our armed forces personnel are treated. Could we, for example, not do a better job of providing long-term care for injured combat veterans and better attention to the needs of their immediate families to improve their lives and thereby raise their degree of happiness and contentment? At least as our economy improves and our national security and defense needs make it more affordable, can not government either lower taxes, upgrade our worn down infrastructure facilities, and/or take steps to put Social Security and Medicare, for example, on a stronger financial footing?

All these types of efforts by individuals, employers, and our politicians, properly executed, should certainly serve to lessen the level of stress a great many Americans are living with and raise virtually everyone's general contentment and overall happiness. I can't imagine our Founding Fathers disagreeing with this. Can you? Let's pursue it!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Baseball and the U. S. Government - Why?

Why has the U. S. House of Representatives' very busy Committee on Oversight and Government Reform so far spent two days holding hearings on a Major League Baseball scandal? Why did Congress bless the decision of Commissioner Bud Selig to hire former U. S. Senator George Mitchell to prepare a report ("The Illegal Use of Steroids in Major League Baseball") of over 400 pages at a cost estimated at as much as $20 million? It's not easy to come up with a convincing and satisfactory answer.

The Committee, established way back in 1816, is the main investigative committee in the House. It's charged with investigating any federal program and any matter with federal policy implications. As one of the most influential and powerful committees in the House, its chairman, currently Democrat Henry Waxman from California, is the only committee chairman in the House who has the authority to issue subpoenas without a Committee vote.

The Committee has 5 sub-committees: Domestic Policy; Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia; Government Management, Organization, and Procurement; Information Policy, Census, and National Archives; and National Security and Foreign Affairs. None of them seem to cover baseball, sports in general or even entertainment. It's not obvious to me which sub-committee would have jurisdiction. Perhaps it's Domestic Policy. In recent years the Committee has held hearings on such other issues as Administration contracts entered into for reconstruction and development in Iraq involving tens of billions; allegations of fraud, waste and abuse at the new U. S., Embassy in Iraq; and the financial risks of building new coal-fired power plants without emissions controls for greenhouse gases.

The answers to the two questions in the first paragraph don't seem at all compelling to me, but one apparent answer is because baseball is considered the "national sport", baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry, there are tens of millions of serious baseball fans in the country interested in the scandal; and, finally, a great many politicians are not good at setting legititmate priorities. The second answer, as I understand it, relates directly to national anti-trust legislation.

Any business that operates across state borders and therefore participates in interstate commerce, like baseball, is subject to antitrust legislation covered in the historically important Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914. For reasons associated with the above answer, baseball has been exempt from the anti-trust laws since 1922, when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in its favor in the case of a Baltimore baseball club and National Baseball Clubs, representing the owners of all the professional baseball teams at the time. By virtue of the exemption, plus decades of reluctance by various courts to overrule, baseball is the only sport or other business that has an exemption to the extent that it does.

Nevertheless, I submit that the Committee can find much better things to do with the taxpayers' representatives and money. One more logical reform they could spend time on and implement quickly would be to reduce the number of members on the Committee, currently totaling 41 (23 Democrats and 18 Republicans). How about prioritizing a smaller number of more important investigative issues and dealing with these with,
for example, a Committee limited to the 20 most experienced and productive members and a budget 50% smaller?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Choosing Our President

How do we do choose our president? How should we do it? What should be the prime criteria?

The Republican Party will select their nominee, most certainly Senator John McCain from Arizona, at the Republican National Convention to be held in Minneapolis - St. Paul, Minnesota, September 1-4 this year. The Democratic Party will select their nominee, presumably either Senator Hillary Clinton from New York or Senator Barack Obama from Illinois at the Democratic National Convention to be held in Denver, Colorado, August 25-28 this year. On Election Day, November 4th, as almost everyone knows, we will elect a new president who will be inaugurated and take office on January 20th, 2009.

There will likely be several lesser names from other parties on the ballot, but most political analysts seem to agree that it is very probable that our new president will be Mrs. Clinton, Mr. McCain, or Mr. Obama. The only two other theoretical possibilities, and their chances must be viewed realistically as very poor at this point, would be Republican candidate Mike Huckabee from Arkansas or potential Independent candidate, Mayor Michael Bloomberg from New York.

There are several weaknesses with our current presidential election system and those were commented on in my posting in early January. This is primarily about how we as voters choose among the various front-runners to become party nominees and in the General Election how we choose among the several party nominees.

I frankly haven't seen any reliable polls that break down how most voters make their decision, but I can make an educated guess. First, I should mention the important and very unsatisfactory and embarrassing fact that in recent decades only an average of about 55% of eligible voters actually have voted in federal elections! That means that an average of 45% have chosen not to participate, much higher than what has been experienced in the great majority of other developed country democracies. I hope, and we have some basis for optimism, that the numbers will be much better this year.

My belief is that many of those who do participate simply vote for the candidate who is a member of their own political party, largely regardless of the candidate's specific positions on the major issues. Many younger voters vote for the candidates supported by their parents or best friends, without much regard for political positions. Many other voters, especially on the far left and far right, vote based on a candidate's position on just one or two "hot-button" issues, that to me often seem of relatively lesser importance, such as perhaps protection of little known endangered animal and plant species or abortion rights.

It seems to me that eligible citizens have a responsibility to vote, and voters have a responsibility to become reasonably knowledgeable about the specific positions of all the leading candidates on a majority of the key issues and make their own decisions based on their best judgment of who is the best candidate. This obviously takes some initiative and effort, but it's needed. Few of us have the opportunity to meet the candidates personally, so we have to primarily rely on our impressions based on what we hear and read from several different media sources, watching or listening to debates, interviews and townhall meetings, reading books candidates or other authors may have written on the candidates, and talking to people whose judgment we trust. This seems quite clear.

What are the main criteria in choosing? People will differ on this, but I think the main criteria should include intelligence, judgment, character, leadership and executive experience, ability to select strong lieutenants and advisors, and proven ability to solve difficult problems in a stressful environment. Other important criteria include communication, planning, analytical and negotiation skills. As business people know, these are all basically more or less the same criteria large company directors generally look for in selecting the company's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and should not be controversial. This should not be surprising. After all, the president is in fact the CEO of the country.

All three leading presidential candidates, as one would expect, appear to qualify very well when it comes to intelligence, judgment and communication skills, but, as I see it, all three seem to fall somewhat short when it comes to serious executive experience. Governor Romney, Governor Huckabee, and Mayor Bloomberg all appear to have a definite edge there. John McCain supports many of the key positions of President Bush, especially on Iraq, but he is not popular with most conservative Republicans. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both moderate liberals, seem to have similar views on a majority of the key issues, including health care and on withdrawal of our troops from Iraq and ending the war as soon as possible, likely by the end of 2009. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama want a larger role for government than Mr. McCain.

None of the three leading candidates have everything I'm looking for, to be sure, but I think all of them could perform quite capably if they won, especially if they did a strong job of selecting cabinet members, their chief of staff, and key advisors, and, additionally, if they were committed to working effectively with leaders of Congress in both major parties, without which they would struggle. The main message to voters is to do your homework and make sure you vote for the candidate who in your judgment would best lead our country and the rest of the Free World!