Sunday, May 08, 2011

On the measurement of happiness

You might think it's the individual's pursuit of happiness that is the driving force behind our societies' dynamics, the progress as well as the regress. At least I thought that for a long time. And then, some years back, during a talk by Stuart Kauffman, it occurred to me this doesn't make sense and, worse, it's actually not true.

It doesn't make sense because from an evolutionary perspective the driving force is survival. It just happens to be beneficial for your survival if you're happy about actions that eventually produce healthy offspring. But if you think about happiness as some biochemical reaction it's not an end unto itself: For keeping your body supplied with energy it's actually irrelevant if you like eating. The reward circuit that triggers dopamine release is just a handy neurological tool to memorize the dos and don'ts. And you don't have to look far to figure that people don't make decisions to optimize happiness in the first place. There are, just to pick one example, many studies showing vicinity to nature (forest, parks, beach etc) improves not only people's self-declared happiness but also their health and life-expectancy. Yet, most people live in cities and spend their time indoors. Why?

In the wealthier nations on the planet, word has it that money doesn't make happy and even politicians and economists have come around to seeing that the GDP is far from measuring well-being. British Prime Minister David Cameron has set out to measure the Brits mood by means of a national happiness index, the French too have created a Commission to assess happiness, and residents of Somerville have recently been asked to fill out a questionnaire about their life satisfaction. We will certainly see more efforts into this direction. But this left me wondering. What quantity it that the Brits, the French, the Americans aim to optimize here? And do we really want that?

I'm not an economist, but I know so much as that the question how to optimize collective happiness is not new to economists. If you want to determine the "national well-being" you inevitably have to sum, or aggregate in other ways, different people's happiness. Yours and mine and that of my babies. And do they all count the same? How does your happiness compare to mine? How many ways are there to aggregate, and which one is the right? How do you, objectively, measure it? Can you at all?

People have tried, and are trying, seriously, to determine the amount of happiness as a neurological reaction, a red on an fMRI or a peak in a hormone level with the aim to eventually determine a 'true' value of stuff essentially. Yet 100 years ago most economists abandoned an inter-individually comparable happiness in favor of a measure of preferences that cannot and, interestingly, doesn't have to be compared between you and me. They call it the utility function.

The utility function works well on an individual level, but leaves an ambiguity among different possible optima as to which is the collectively preferable one. The aggregation would necessitate a 'social welfare function' which is basically the weight for everybodies' happiness in order to sum it up and it is ambiguous - call it the measurement problem of economy. Lacking a rationale for one particular choice, for the hard-core neo-conservative it's a capital DONT. And, from a theoretical basis, a justified one. But all these attempts to measure happiness then bring us back to this century-old question: What do we want? And what's the rationale for it?

To illustrate the problem, consider you are redistributing money from the rich to the poor. You do it on the premise that taking $10 away from a billionaire will decrease his happiness less than it will raise the happiness of a starving child in Africa. But how do you know if you can't compare their happiness? And if you would indeed measure their brain activity should the ability to produce high dopamine levels, that is to some extent genetic and age dependent, affect your decision?

In all this discussion, nobody ever questions that it is actually happiness that we want. But beware the self-evident assumptions for I am here to disagree. So I argue what we are really pursuing both individually and collectively is not happiness, it is the maximization of possibilities. Money doesn't make happy. It opens possibilities. You don't move to the city because it makes you happy, but because it opens doors, increases the number of available mates, and enriches your nightlife. The relevant point is that the number of possibilities is not weighted. It's just a number. You can add it and you can compare it. So here's the rationale for giving the tenner to the starving child. The billionaires' options are hardly affected. Yet the money has a large impact on the child's health and education. It opens a large number of future possibilities, more than it closes for the billionaire.

You can find a writeup of my thoughts on the Social Science Research Network (that's the humanists' arXiv):


  1. To illustrate the problem, consider you are redistributing money from the rich to the poor.

    Indeed. What awards you the right, other than a gun muzzle, to force those who produce to involuntarily support those who consume? Shall we State-subsidize the intelligent, talented, and useful? Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression.

    Shall we State-subsidize genetic, developmental, and behavioral trash; reproductive warriors, religious hind gut fermenters, drug addicts, Enviro-whiner Luddites; the stupid, the pathetic, and the Officially Sad? YES! More than $2 trillion spent in the US alone since 1970.

    Mandated charity is a simple choice between incompetent fascists, corporatists, and double-digit IQ christ-besotted jackasses against bleeding heart Liberals, welfare pimps, Enviro-whiners, feminazis, and Queer Nation.

    I don't want them fed, I want them dead. Natural causes will do nicely. The money I make belongs to me and my family, not to a government stooge who takes a cut and dumps the rest on ambulatory sewage.

  2. Wow Al, that seems like just about the most hateful, self congratulatory diatribe I've read in a long time. I hope you and your IQ score are very happy together. One wonders where such hate emanates from. I don't know your history so that is all I can do - wonder.

  3. Now the more choices you have, the more likely you are to make yourself unhappy by worrying about them, worrying you made the wrong choice and regretting your choices. So it follows that what people actually maximize is unhappiness :P

  4. "Now the more choices you have, the more likely you are to make yourself unhappy by worrying about them, worrying you made the wrong choice and regretting your choices. So it follows that what people actually maximize is unhappiness."

    I think you are onto something. The whole Scrooge McDuck thing has to do with the overabundance of choices some people have. They constantly worry that if they had done something differently they would have better maximized the results for themselves. Sometimes that feeling can even mutate into the neurotic drive to suppress others welfare based on their own superiority. That is a sickness that the holocaust originated from. Of course it all gets mixed up with the urge to scapegoat so it's not a one to one correspondence. Bit it's still sick and weird. Not enough sentiment in this world of all of us being in it together at some level.

  5. I think in reducing happiness to the level of some chemicals in the brain, you are making a fundamental mistake.

  6. In any case, in the Indian traditions, there are four goals of life, not a unitary happiness.

    These are dharma, artha, kaama, moksha.

    A simplified explanation can be found on Wikipedia.

    To quote from elsewhere:

    "Swami Dayanand Saraswati explains the concept as follows:

    "Dharma occupies the first place in the four categories of human goals, because the pursuit of security, artha, and pleasures, kama, need to be governed by ethical standards. Artha, striving for security, comes second, because it is the foremost desire of everyone. Everyone is obedient under the doctor's scalpel precisely because everyone wants to live. Granted life, one then wants to be happy, to pursue pleasures, kama. I want to live and live happily; and both pursuits, the struggle for security and the search for pleasure, must be governed by ethics. The last category is the goal of liberation, moksa, ranked last because it becomes a direct pursuit only when one has realized the limitations inherent in the first three pursuits."

  7. Happiness, because it is subjective, is a poor measure of about what we should be discussing.

    'Quality of life' (QOL) is perhaps better. Of course what I imagine would be a better QOL for open to challenge.

    But the gain in QOL for the starving child is certainly MUCH greater than the loss in the QOL of the billionaire 'donor'.

    Such considerations suggest that a a replacement of GDP with a (more difficult to obtain) measure that is more like QOL would help in reframing where we want our economies to go...and perhaps, how to get there.

  8. Happiness is the by-product of success.

    Survival is the first goal of success.

    Fear is the strongest of emotions, and those who properly channel it are those most likely to first survive, then thrive.

  9. I thought about this for a while, and I think I disagree with you. People do sometimes pursue goals which don’t necessarily open up new possibilities for them : like someone will try to increase the respect they get in whatever society they are part of, even if it doesn’t translate to increased possibility of anything. Or people who’ve once made a choice out of the possibilities (in career, or in marriage) and finds it congenial will invest time and effort in that choice, which is actually a move in the direction of decreasing possibilities. If people do sometimes try to move towards increased choices it can be because they are not sure about what they want ; they lack information about what will make them happy. When they do know what will make them happy they will pursue that, even if it decreases 'possibilities'.

    I would think that trying to maximize the aggregate happiness of its members is a wrong-headed way to proceed for a society. Ultimately, the individual is responsible for his/her happiness. Surely the collective goal should be to make sure that as many of individuals as possible have the opportunity to pursue their happiness, however they see fit. Which means the goal should be to try to maximize the possibilities for individuals. How much choice does a citizen have can be a good measure to judge nations by.

    So, IMO while the pursuit of increased possibilities does not fully define the human pursuit, it is the only part of the human pursuit that a government can concern itself with.

  10. The 'possibilities' must be defined too. Are they pointing in some direction?

    Possibilities can also be increasing the chaos,andIdoubt that is what we want. Usually we want some kind of order, or negentropy.

    Possibility maybe as increased ability to express our selves? And spread it? That is, self-organization?

    If eveybody would see that money is just a possibility, virtual money. Many prefer to keep it virtual, as some assurance (against bad times?). A storage. Are we depleted of possibilities?

  11. Happy Mothers' Day Bee, one day belatedly. It was your first one. First of many.

  12. Hi Nirmalya,

    I appreciate your feedback. I think the question of possibilities is more difficult though than you think. I've been somewhat sketchy here, but there's more details in the paper. When I talk about possibilities, I don't just mean options open to you NOW, I mean the number of all paths you can take. That necessitates to set some time at which you're looking, over which you want to optimize your possibilities. The best option might actually display a temporary decrease of possibilities. In fact, it often does: think about the whole energy issue, using the resources of our children etc. You have to decrease your possibilities now (by reducing, say, oil usage) to increase the chances of sustainable long-term development in the future. If not, you're drastically reducing future possibilities and with that the total number that you can reach.

    With regards to the examples that you're mentioning, also take into account that your optimization is limited by constraints. You can't do better than your cognitive abilities allow you to do and, yes, people lack information in the same way they do in economical transactions, so they do make mistakes. Also, some have issues with making decisions that leads them to ignore a lot of possibilities (neurosis, depression, etc) because that's just the best they can do. The question isn't if they do the best that anybody could have done to maximize possibilities, but if they do the best they can do. So the guy who stays in a marriage that's not working any more, why's he doing that? Well, breaking up and starting over new takes up time and is emotionally troublesome. It might ruin your social network, your relationship to the kids, your finances, etc. It is not at all clear he'll be better off in terms of possibilities.

    "[T]rying to maximize the aggregate happiness of its members is a wrong-headed way to proceed for a society... Which means the goal should be to try to maximize the possibilities for individuals."

    Yes, is what I'm saying. You have to keep in mind though that maximizing the possibilities for individuals implies looking at the possibilities you can only create collectively too. Best,


  13. Hi Bee,

    So if I’ve taken you correctly, the attaining of happiness is a possible side effect of having choice, such that the chances of being happy increases with the number we have. I think the key word here is “possible” and thus itself varies among people in respect to how they make them respective of the criteria used. That’s to ask, when one looks at the differences between the rich and the poor, did the rich become that way from solely being given more choices and the poor as a result of having less?

    I guess what I’m asking are choices limited only by what’s made strictly (definitively) available or a composite of what’s available and what’s perceived as available. That’s to point out that not only the quantity of choices made available as important, yet also the quality of those made available and most importantly our ability to discern what a good choice is from a bad one. So what this all comes down to is risk assessment, as to say that people find happiness not only in having choices, yet also their willingness to make them and the way they have them considered.

    So for me the greatest choice all of us face is whether we wish to learn how to make choices and to learn from the choices we have made. This then takes us back to the scientific method, where optimum success is found between the quantity of data made available and the ability to have it assessed. The problem being with people regarding their happiness is the experiment for most is not simply a hypothesis, yet their actual reality.

    What we need therefore is both on the individual and societal level is to recognize this, as to test our hypothesis before having to decide which choices are made. So I would say, life is not just about having the liberty to pursue happiness, yet also having the ability to discern what choices pursued will find us as happy.

    “The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care! This is an ability about which normal traditional scientific method has nothing to say. It's long pasttime to take a closer look at this qualitative preselection of facts which has seemed so scrupulously ignored by those who make so much of these facts after they are "observed." I think that it will be found that a formal acknowledgment of the role of Quality in the scientific process doesn't destroy the empirical vision at all. It expands it, strengthens it and brings it far closer to actual scientific practice.”

    -Robert M. Pirsig- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - page 253



  14. Bee:In all this discussion, nobody ever questions that it is actually happiness that we want. But beware the self-evident assumptions for I am here to disagree. So I argue what we are really pursuing both individually and collectively is not happiness, it is the maximization of possibilities.

    This is what I see as the potential as well...while most certainly you can circumscribe the boundaries of the discussion, you can also limit the potential, of points of views( by what you have grokked and consumed)...that happens all the time in the parameters of your thinking. You have to make choice as to reasons why you might want to limit that discussion according to those parameters you have chosen.

    The more you exercise the neuronal connections in your brain, the stronger the pathways for expression, routine, and possibilities in bringing alternatives to that network for what is self evident. Life changing. But you have to plan the making of the pathway, and thus itself becomes neurological destination of the perceived as a reaction?

    In this case, a discussion about happiness?

    It's a biological basis, as a foundation of the fight and flight response that is most primitive within us. The parameter had already been set in advance "as limited" as to what is self evident? Economically as a consumer you will have to adjust, select your priorities, and as a global potential this sets the tone for the economic realization. This is a natural response of the species to adapt itself to the situation?

    The danger is what sets future examples is by way of what we conclude as "self evident" also sets the climate for change/not change? What you accept in a point of view. You recognized this by recognizing a view held by Stuart Kauffman. You have to understand how he works.

    This sets the basis, as a logic for exchange. So people are always setting up the model as Stuart Kauffman does for perspective so that one can hope to share based on the idea of extending those boundaries of thinking. Some "thing" that you yourself or what he himself may not of thought of.

    This is a trait of Kaufman's approach.

    An "alternate reality" viewed of the economic situation according to the parameters he had chosen in advance. So you have to learn to actually speak as if your are joining two levels of thinking. wearing two hats.

    Like the LHC research, with cosmological implications as the experiment sets the example as we observe it, as we see nature setting it before us.


  15. On a somewhat esoteric level and most highly subjective, what then is to be gained by such a measure?

    This is a highly mental state, set on a ancient background. Yet it is a clear message for something about your course in life? What you have chosen?

    Most certainly, one is seeking truth in contrast of your hearts measure, what ever that might mean to you, can be represented in the heart?

    Stuart only believes it's just a biological organ, but yet, it can make all the difference sitting between what we can aspire too and what truth one settled for.

    That is, just "you" sitting in judge of yourself and whether you had been true to yourself.

    Setting the minds state in advance, allows a transition of a most peaceful kind?

    Because you know then, that such a model/image had begun to mean something to you and you begin to understand "the koan" that life presented to you.


  16. "Happiness" is imagining a better future (by whatever concrete or abstract measure), obtaining it, keeping it.

    Early 20th century US immigrants sacrificed themselves to insert their children into society. It was a miserable life with high mortality. They did not require psychopharma to escape depression.

    Social engineering ended all hope of obtaining better futures. Those who produce suffer confiscation at all levels that government might reward the deserving for being dependent. Depression is anger without enthusiasm. Even the Red Queen managed to stay in place - not so for Baby Boomers and their desperately indebted unemployable progeny. Diversity!

    If god loves the poor, crippled, and stupid, then god can bloody well pay for them himself or take them back. My wallet is broken.

  17. There is too much of a reward for the unwanted trait of greed hence I would get rid of the concept of interest rates/borrowing. Producing stuff should get rewarded not producing imaginary money from money.

    How much the reward for producing stuff is should be set by how much good it does for the group not by how conned the group is by the producer. There should be some sort of workfare to get everybody producing.

    There should also be a more circular rather than hierarchical organizational structure for business and government.

  18. Uncle,
    "My wallet is broken".

    I'm pretty handy Al. I think we can splint it and get up and on it's feet. Pretty soon that wallet will be a fully functioning member of society again and it will be whistling Dixie!

  19. Uncle Al,

    You forgot to add...."somebody should take a look":) obviously do not stand for any theoretical dogma?:)

  20. Hi Bee,

    The blogger gods just got me again. Then perhaps it's simply they agree with Al; which is something I should be mindful of:-)



  21. Hi Uncle Al,

    I must say you’re a real salt of the earth; that is to mean what gets rubbed into wounds :-) Yes I have to hand it to you, for as when it comes from one being of the land of the free you certainly know how to make freedom a coveted commodity as having the denial of it, an industry only eclipsed by your one of defence.

    That is there's no denying you’ve got it nailed down as to what's required when it comes to finding the formula for achieving happiness.



  22. Hi Al,

    I would also have to agree it is easy to understand how finding one’s self in a happy place and the unfettered pursuit of wealth correspond as to being undeniable:-)



  23. Sign in first Phil and the Gods will not be so unkind again:)I understand your pain so we have to evolve:)

    One can devise tests for the here proposed hypothesis along the same lines. To
    that end, one needs to study situations where people, besides engaging in economic exchange, have collective decision making processes that supplement the free market mechanism. While most democracies are of that sort, for practical purposes a smaller system would be preferable. A real-life example may be agricultural communities in developing countries, or possibly some game can be devised which
    simulates a suitable setup. One then needs again a quantification and discretization of possibilities as outlined in the previous paragraph. The question to test is whether people collectively strive to a situation where, given sufficient information, the aggregated number of possibilities for all of them is maximized.
    On the Problem of Measuring Happiness

    The trickle down effect(a Galton Board) does not work:)When it is "for profit" there is a cost cutting that goes on, and the first to go is the employee. This is done in order to maintain the profit margin. Depending on the identity as a person the Corporation being fair, is to miss the understanding that in a dog eat dog world, why should they create jobs when they consider any effect on the profit margin as survival?

    Why, when you stimulate, has Corporate tax cuts not worked?


  24. Geez, some of you people like to over-complicate everything.

    Once again, in case you missed it the first time, in bold AND italics:

    "Happiness is a by-product of success."

    Period. Don't over-complicate the simple, thnx.

    So the route to happiness no longer involves happiness itself so much per se, so far as what the heck constitutes "success."

    Well, in that regard you are on your own, as is everyone else. We're all individuals just like everyone else. Same difference.

    My point is look at HOW MANY DIFFERENT ways there are to define "success"!

    For many, especially in America, "money" is the answer. More money, more happy. That works for some, I suppose.

    In Europe however, my next door neighbor from Spain opened my eyes when she said "In America you live to work; in Europe we work to live." Nice. I like that. I should have been born in Europe, sigh.

    For others it is in attaining a difficult degree, be it Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology. For a large subset of those, it is obtain their doctorate then work in their field, hopefully ending with either tenure or a vice-Presidency. For a smaller subset yet, it's to develop/build/theorize something that changes the world.

    For some others, happiness is obtained by taking over the world. Since nobody has done that yet (Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan came closest), going down that road leads to inevitable unhappiness, but, that doesn't stop people from trying.

    For others, success means not having to work and getting government checks all your life.

    For others still, it means having a nice little home with a white picket fence and healthy children and dogs and cats. They may not be far-reachers, but they are often the happiest of all, IMO and based on my experience. Why, I dunno. Perhaps because their goals are realistic and reachable, thereby satisfiable?

    For some it's to have a love life that makes James Bond and Hugh Hefner look like amateurs. Good luck on that one. :)

    But for others like me, it comes from knowledge, both the having and the pursuit. To be a lifelong journeyman, without goals, is depressing, so I seek specific, small ones. And that makes me happy.

    Small steps, Elle, small steps.

  25. Hi Steve,

    "Happiness is a by-product of success."

    Yes and you have so many examples of that, as to how achieving success can expand ones access to the bi-products. Howvever I think you have it turned around from what Bee is proposing; being first it’s the access which is important so then the success which gives one a chance at happiness might be had.

    I believe this as being self evident, with my only proviso being we still need to consider the qualifiers as much as we do the quantifiers, which even the most successful seem to get confused about at times. Than again one could say there are people who find happiness in frowning upon others having it achieved; yet of course that is only in the most advanced societies :-)



  26. Hi All,

    Since we are all pontificating on happiness, I thought it might be interesting to contemplate some other pontificators regarding the matter.

    “Man falls from the pursuit of the ideal of plan living and high thinking the moment he wants to multiply his daily wants. Man's happiness really lies in contentment.”
    -Mohandas Gandhi

    “It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

    “Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants.”
    -Benjamin Franklin

    “But O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes.”
    -William Shakespeare

    “They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

    “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
    -George Orwell

    “Happiness is a ball after which we run wherever it rolls, and we push it with our feet when it stops.”
    -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    “We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.”
    -George Bernard Shaw

    “If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years.”
    -Bertrand Russell

    “Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.”
    -Immanuel Kant

    “For this generation, ours, life is nuclear survival, liberty is human rights, the pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants.”
    -Jimmy Carter

    “The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it.”
    -Jacques Yves Cousteau

    “To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle”
    -Albert Einstein



  27. Hi Phil, Uncle,

    Sorry, I was offline yesterday. I've now freed a handful of comments from the spam queue. Best,


  28. Hi Bee,

    happiness to me is an internal state of the brain, which you cannot measure by means of dopamin doses. You are happy when you are actually feel well and when you are satisfied. How you become satisfied is different of course and it has an end.

    Best, Kay

  29. Screw quality, Phil, it's all metrics now. Once you let Pandora's Apple computer genie out of the bottle, there's no point in closing the barn doors, so to speak.

    And yes, I hear u n Bee re access and availability. Well, muslims are flocking to Europe and Mexicans to America, so access is rapidly increasing. So no worries, atm.

  30. Nice quotes Phil.


    What a false illusion thou art to human mind ! How cruelly thou deceivest thy possessor and those who covet thee ! Thou buyest for me by thy betrayal of mankind. Thou didst tax my energy to gain thee, and thy discount has lost to me and my fellow-men the greatest blessings of a continent, as well as the principal products of our toil. Few indeed are they who know and understand thy seductive power. We shall expose thy falseness so that our children shalt not be deceived by thee.

    General Observations-Charles Lindbergh,
    Banking and Currency and the Money Trust

    I mean if pontificating is offering ways in which to look at money or wealth "as probabilities" then what can come out of a lot of it?

    It is obvious we had some affect over our host over the years as to how one may "draw a picture" as to show the thought held in regard as a inductive/deductive interaction with the world around one. What weight holds the person's/societies mind?

    Has humanity in it's truest sense then(the heart)found a place between Heaven and Earth where the mind can be emotively and intellectual combined so as to operate with it's full functionality. That it might not just dismiss the economy to abstraction alone?

    What algorithm shall one use and then to let it loose?


  31. "Ingenuity

    The term ingenuity or applied ideas is used in the analysis of Thomas Homer-Dixon, building on that of Paul Romer, to refer to what is usually called instructional capital. Ingenuity is often inherent in creative individuals, and thus is considered hard to separate from individual capital. It is not clear if Dixon or Romer considered it impossible to do so, or if they were simply not familiar with the prior analysis of "applied ideas", "intellectual capital", "talent", or "innovation" where instructional and individual contributions have been carefully separated, by economic theorists."

    One cannot discount what one has learn from the associations here, can we? One is always capable of hearing it in the metrics, so it is difficult for you to lie?:)

    World Gold Council

    Addison Wiggin writes,

    The power and influence of the United States in 1971 should not be ignored. It was the decision to go off the gold standard that, in effect, destroyed the orderly economic policies that had been possible through Bretton Woods. Introduction to the Demise of the Dollar ( John Wiley& Sons, 2005)


  32. Bretton_Woods_system

    Free trade relied on the free convertibility of currencies. Negotiators at the Bretton Woods conference, fresh from what they perceived as a disastrous experience with floating rates in the 1930s, concluded that major monetary fluctuations could stall the free flow of trade.

    The liberal economic system required an accepted vehicle for investment, trade, and payments. Unlike national economies, however, the international economy lacks a central government that can issue currency and manage its use. In the past this problem had been solved through the gold standard, but the architects of Bretton Woods did not consider this option feasible for the postwar political economy. Instead, they set up a system of fixed exchange rates managed by a series of newly created international institutions using the U.S. dollar (which was a gold standard currency for central banks) as a reserve currency.

    What kind of metal are you made of? I did not realize there was a category for paper:)

    The market prices of commodities vary from day to day and often several times a day. This occurs when there is no radical difference in the proportion of the supply and the natural demand. This fact is conclusive proof that our system is controlled by manipulators and fundamentally wrong. I have sought to elucidate this problem within this volume and have suggested a plan which, if adopted, would make the people the master of the world, instead of the present master—THE MONEY TRUST.

  33. Dear Bee,

    I like your blog. Here are my remarks to your post:

    1) “this doesn't make sense and, worse, it's actually not true”
    Pleonasm. Truth *is* what makes sense.

    2) “the driving force is survival (not happiness)”
    I would say: survival and happiness belong to the same driving force which is pleasure (or desire, envy, etc.). That’s similar to the Lustprinzip of Freud. Also increasing pleasure and reducing pain (or suffering, not feeling well, etc.) are basically the same thing. Animals want to survive because they don’t want to be eaten (I think we can agree on the fact that being eaten alive is not pleasurable).

    3) Like others, I think your concept of “number of possibilities” is not pertinent. Maybe this concept works for you because you’re an explorer…

  34. Hi Steven,

    Replacing happiness with success doesn't work without a definition of 'success.' You're just replacing one word with another. Best,


  35. Hi Len,

    "But the gain in QOL for the starving child is certainly MUCH greater than the loss in the QOL of the billionaire 'donor'."

    How do you know? Who tells you what definition of QOL is relevant? This is just a reformulation of the original problem. Best,


  36. Hi Ulla,

    Yes, chaos is a possible choice, but not one that optimizes your future options. As I said above in my reply to Nirmalya, what you want to optimize is the number of paths that bring you from some initial time to some finite time, not the number of possibilities that are open at any one particular time. (See paper for illustration.) If you take a wrong turn (chaos) at an early time, you might end up with few possibilities left in the future. Best,


  37. Hi Phil,

    "I guess what I’m asking are choices limited only by what’s made strictly (definitively) available or a composite of what’s available and what’s perceived as available."

    I mean actual choices. You might be mistaken about what choices you really have, or you might delude yourself about it. These are all problems that enter through our limited cognitive abilities and eventually add uncertainty. You have similar problems in the ordinary micro-economical framework: people don't actually know what can happen or how likely it is to happen etc. And yes, if you're King of Wishful Thinking you might be happy about all the possibilities you're imagining but are not really available. That just drives home my point that happiness is not a good measure, and one whose optimization doesn't actually move us forward. Best,


  38. Hi Plato,

    The notion of possibilities certainly has a psychological aspect to it, as has the notion of preference in economics. But what I'm thinking about are the more pragmatic aspects. You could for example just be counting the number of products or the educational options to assess how well a country is doing. Also, note that I am not saying this is what we *should* be optimizing. I'm saying it's what we *do* optimize. You can just do it better or worse, and I believe realizing what you're trying to achieve might help you to get there more efficiently. Best,


  39. Hi Kay,

    Do you really think there is something about happiness that is not measurable? It seems to me feasible to measure it, just that then you're stuck with the problem of interpersonal comparison for which I can't see any ethically acceptable and unique solution. Best,


  40. Bee, while I think most of your comments to commenters were relevant I think you gave Len short shrift. What he said about the QOL increases vs decreases in rebalancing SOME of a billionair's assets is absolutely true. To say otherwise is simply not to recognize an inconvenient reality.

    What is even worse is that denying that goes against the main premise of your post, which is to say a government's primary responsibility is to give it's citizens more options. In this case the baby would not even have the choice to live. So what exactly do you see wrong with his logic? The instrument of taxation is the best is a governments best friends in optimizing opportunities and options for the broadest amount of people.

    Finally, I am really so done with only paying attention to the squeaky wheel, that is, the radical rights mantra that it is the law of the jungle out there. It isn't and it shouldn't be. No one is talking about removing all incentive to get become successful and wealthy. That is a red herring and a straw man and you of all people should know that! Don't hunker down when nut cases attack your well thought out original case. The loudest and persistent voice is often the one that most wrong. DON'T LISTEN TO THEM. They are demagogues.

  41. Hi Eric,

    I think you misunderstood what I said. I am not at all denying that there are measures other than the number of possibilities according to which some quantity increases in the mentioned transfer from the billionaire to some baby. There are many social welfare functions that have been discussed in the literature, and I am reasonably sure that pretty much all of them would indicate an increase in that case. What I am saying is that there's no rationale for such a measure. You can always ask: why this measure, why not some other? What if the billionaire suffers severe trauma from losing his money? Shouldn't that count as well? What makes you believe that the QOL index in this and that definition is the relevant measure? See, it just pushes around the bump under the carpet. Yes, apparently we do feel like such a redistribution is a good thing to do. But why? My suggestion is an answer to this question. Best,


  42. Bee, I'm not sure I understand you when you ask " what if the billionaire is traumatized?" Are you saying that facetiously? The whole problem it seems to me is the level of taxation that is currently employed in individual countries.
    I am speaking as a member of the USA where there has never been a lower opportunity for upward mobility than there is now. This coincides with the lowest taxation rate for upper incomes than there has ever been. Money is gravitating to the top 1 or 2 percent like never before while the rest have their jobs shipped overseas.

    In our case your argument rings completely hollow. Heads of companies here are actually given incentives to ship cobs overseas by the tax policies we have. The very largest and most profitable companies in this country paid no taxes at all. And their CEO's reaped hundreds of million just for doing that.

    If you talking about counties that already have a progressive tax structure then I could see it. But in this country the change in tax policy is disastrous. Now is not the time to be worrying about the robber barons' feelings if some money is taken away to keep other people from
    going hungry. If you are in a socialist country an even more progressive tax creates a communist state. That is not what I want. It depends where you are starting from. But applied to the USA your argument is heartless in the extreme. Don't listen to Al. He's nuts and a whiner.

  43. Yes Bee, I agree we "do" optimize.

    Hidden Layers

    When I first took up the piano, merely hitting each note required my concentrated attention. With practice, however, I began to work in phrases and chords. Eventually I was able to produce much better music with much less conscious effort.

    Evidently, something powerful had happened in my brain.

    With the "Economic Manhattan Project" this was "no less real" in the exploration of the probabilities, that possibilities do come about by way of wearing two hats. There is this gathering of intellectual thought and through "the great air around us" thoughts come through optimization. Thoughts come by way of reducing it "to a pathway."

    Stuart Kauffman's and your take.

    I did express this with regard to the psychologically(one hat) as well as the biologic expression of the organ(the other hat) as you noticed, as well as having explain the reactionary circumstance of something that becomes habitual. Our reaction.

    The neurons seem to work that way once having trodden a path long enough, that the path becomes real. Assigning the body to move in certain ways after a time, the body on it's own knows to make the best use of that at a hidden level.

    Some understand well this current that flows through our civilizations and the path into the future we most certainly have set our eyes upon....but have we truly answered the question as to how we should design the next economy?


  44. Hi Eric,

    We're talking totally past each other. Yes, my question about the billionaire's trauma was made jokingly so, but for the purpose of making you think exactly what is the rationale for weighting people's experience in one particular manner and not some other one.

    Look, I believe in social democracy and I'm all in favor of taxing the rich. My problem is that after doing some reading in economy I couldn't find a rationale for that. Sure, you can say the whole theory is nonsense, but that's somewhat disingenuous and doesn't help anybody. The problem (and I elaborated on this in the paper) is that within the framework of standard economic theory the social welfare function is ambiguous and either way you chose it, it necessitates assumptions for which there are no justification. That's why neo-conservatives (in Germany they're called neo-liberalists but same thing) reject social welfare per se and, based on what the theory says, I can see why. What if I'm arguing you should weigh people's life satisfaction stronger the younger they are. Or maybe the older they are? What really is the right weight? Talking about possibilities instead removes the problem.

    I haven't said anything about what are the consequences we should draw for our tax laws, and I don't know what consequences we should draw. That's way beyond me. I am just hoping maybe a different way to think about the question might be useful. And yes, upward mobility is a reflection of current possibilities. Lack thereof is not a good situation in the long run. That's why I think it's useful to try to quantify possibilities, to get a measure for the situation.



  45. Hi Bee,
    I'm not following your argument I guess. And perhaps we are talking past each other. But I think perhaps we just disagree also. Selfishness is part of the human condition along with generosity. Like everything in life there is a duality. You choose what part you accentuate. You can choose to accentuate social Darwinism or you can choose to accentuate the health of the community over the individual. I have a feeling you fall in the former part of the spectrum while I fall in the latter. Both parts are part of a continuum that is included within evolution. Survival of an ant colony through cooperation among the ants is just as important to the success of the ants as a tigers ability to catch and dominate his prey within his territory.

    Because humans are at the top of the food chain many of us choose the Tiger as their model. However, if you look around you they aren't doing quite as well as the ants. I think it is possible to use some intuition about this fact and realize that self gratification of the individual over the community has real limits. One shouldn't go overboard in either direction. But I'm pretty sure your side of the spectrum is not nearly as good for the long term survival and happiness of the species as my side of the spectrum.

  46. This kind of 'collective' happiness can only be understood within the context of a specific cultural and sociological environment; its meaning is bounded by society to serve its needs. In this sense it's a cheap manipulation of an inner agony.

    True happiness on the other hand can only have a personal meaning. It acquires its substance within you and by you.

  47. Giotis, that is hogwash and over intellectualization. If you have ever successfully meditated you would have realized the bliss that is experienced comes when you surrender the ego and become part of the one. That, if you have ever experienced it, is true happiness.

  48. Hi Eric,

    Yes, it is very possibly the case that we disagree on what the importance of the individual in the community concerns. But that's a question of judgement and really my post and my paper doesn't make a judgement on that. I even explicitly wrote in the paper that these questions still remain open. What I am saying is just that the attempt to measure happiness is fatally flawed and we should be looking at possibilities instead. Now what is the best way to optimize possibilities, is it putting an emphasis on the individual or on the collective or, most likely, somewhere in between, I don't know. I don't even think that a model can give an answer to that at all. I'm just saying rather than talking about happiness and discussing what to do about it, we should be talking about possibilities, at least there's no ambiguity how to compare it. Best,


  49. Holy Jeremy Bentham and his "Fierific calculus" attempts to metricize "happiness", which, like money, changes hands frequently.

    Bee, I can't believe success and happiness are synonyms. I can give upteen examples of some very successful people who are good at one thing more than any other: FAKING happiness, and cases where societal "losers" (I'm talking financially) are very happy. Is there something in the Anglo-Germanic-Yankee soils that equate happiness with financial success?

    Because poll after poll shows that even when America was #1 per capita in terms of Prosperity (we're #10 now (thanks, Bush), Norway is #1), we were not happy.

    Everyone should read the short story: "The Midas Plague", by either Frederick Pohl or Poul Anderson (I forget which). Chilling.

  50. Hi Bee,

    That would correspond e.g. to the agent of putting his bananas on a pile and hoping for somebody to bring milk and a mixer. As before we then see that the number of possibilities at one time is not a particularly insightful quantity. This space is vast, but a lot of the possible actions will significantly decrease future possibilities. (The bananas may just rot away.) More relevant is thus the number of possible future evolutions an action opens. We define the space of all possible time-ordered sequences of actions from an initial state to an endtime to be HA(Si, te). The number of possible paths is then #HA(Si, te).” .

    -Sabine Hossenfelder, “On the problem of measuring happiness” (page 9)

    I would say happiness resides as much in considering what might be, as to what already exists, such as it relates to possibilities; that is at least when it comes to our species. This is to ask, if a banana smoothie is strictly a product of evolution, as simply needing to have the bananas, milk and blender all made available , thus having their combination only dependent upon opportunity, time and chance; absent of imagination with the desire for having it to be.

    That’s not to say I would deny the quantity of choice being important as to what can be, only that I’m not convinced that is all which is required to having things to be as to have us advance. No rather it’s to say that happiness can’t be captured as simply being an accidental consequence of progress, as imagination fuelled by desire counts as much as does opportunity when it comes to personal and societal progress.

    “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

    -George Bernard Shaw



  51. Hi Steven,

    “Screw quality, Phil, it's all metrics now”

    Sadly I would have to agree, as it’s obvious with those examples I gave many today find the quantity of screwing more relevant than determining the quality of what’s screwed:-)

    ”Love begins with an image; lust with a sensation.”

    -Mason Cooley



  52. Well, Phil, I could have used better language, but getting to your point re "screwing", we've all seen how puppies behave vs dogs, and kittens vs cats, and are humans so special we're any different? I don't think so.

    But the kids today have something we never has as youth: the Personal Computer. M'kay. We don't remember a time without television either, but our parents do. Our parents don't remember a time time without radio, but their parents did.

    My point being there has never been a time of greater information expressibility than now, and I can only see that increasing. And although it would be great to be young again, I'm not sure I would want to be a young person toDAY. The information they have at their disposal is wonderful compared to our day, but they have added chores we never had, which is to check their Facebook accounts, frequently. And then there's texting. And the latest of many YouTube viral videos. And iPods. And the latest greatest videogames. Need I go on?

  53. > from an evolutionary perspective the driving force is survival.


    The driving force is reproduction. Survival of the individual is often discarded in favor of reproduction -- for example, male spiders and mantids, or (for that matter) the showing-off behaviors of human teenagers.

    And last I knew, biologists had just about completely discarded the idea of a drive for species survival.

  54. If we wanted to maximize happiness, in the sense of an overabundance of neurochemicals. You could probably do it relatively cheaply.

    Placing individuals in a vat of heroin or something like that would likely keep them very happy, all the while keeping healthcare costs down as their life expectancy would vanish.

    I suspect that most people would not be content with this though, ergo the need for a better definition and quantitative control over what you might call 'fulfillment vs happiness'

  55. Hi Steven,

    Yes there is so much more and yet only more to have left unassessed. So then what is your point; that is other than supporting my own?



  56. Hi Joel,

    This may be a matter of semantics. You can reproduce all you want, if your offspring doesn't survive it doesn't matter. A lot of offspring is just beneficial because it improves the chances of survival. Best,


  57. Hi Joel,

    Just to expand on Bee's point, explain why if life’s goal is rooted in reproduction that more complex life formed evolved? That is why would nature even bother when quantitatively on both the individual and biomass level single cell organisms followed by simple creatures comprise to being the overwhelming amount? Now don’t misconstrue this query with having you thinking I’m a proponent of intelligent design or some such notion; it’s simply to point out that if reproduction where the driving force complex creatures wouldn’t even exist.

    On the other hand, if the ability to assess and exploit ones environment stands as an advantage than there is as sound reason for us finding the development of complex creatures. That being complex creatures having the ability to notice (more aware) of what’s available (options) as to its quantity; as well as to determine at times which being the most beneficial (better) as it relates to quality. So in such respect what other than survival could stand as to being the fundamental driver?



  58. Hi Bee,

    I would like to add, that I meant it is not possible to fully understand the brain and how it works, since how to describe the mind ? Thus happiness cannot completely be understood.

    Best, Kay

  59. Would somebody PLEASE post! I absolutely HATE having my name at the top of the queue. Me shy. :)

  60. People should prefer righteousness to happiness -- that is, they should do what they think is right, instead of what they think will feel good.

  61. Hi Michael,

    “People should prefer righteousness to happiness -- that is, they should do what they think is right, instead of what they think will feel good.”

    I shutter when people invoke “righteousness” as being their credo, as it usually entails thinking in terms of things only in absolutes. That is from a scientific perspective all truths are provisional, with the exception of perhaps only one, which grounds thinking to being and thus what relevance is there to being other then in finding joy in such thoughts. So I prefer “rightful thinking” as opposed to “righteous thinking”.

    “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes”

    -Star War, Revenge of the Sith



  62. All else equal, a dollar is worth more to a poor man than a rich one. That is an axiom not an empirical proposition. It is part of the ideal of human equality, derived from our own personal experience that a dollar is worth more to us when we are poor than when we are rich. We assume that other people are like us, and that, as a society, everybody's happiness is equally important. Of course economic well-being is only a small part of happiness, but not an unimportant one. I hope these observations don't seem trivial.

  63. Luke, you are wise and yotr thoughts are not trivial at all, and thanks.

    There is an often misquoted passage from the Bible, from Timothy: "Money is the root of all evil." The correct passage reads: "The love of money is the root of all evil."

    Money <=== It ain't everything, but it sure comes in handy when it's time to pay the bills. And what's this about money being a "thing" in a solid sense? Sure seems more like a fluid to me. Here she comes, and there she goes.

  64. Michael,

    If you really think what the righteousness means, you cannot mean what you say. This is the most terrible scenario of all? Humans have dreams and goals, often unrealistic, they have predictions, will etc.

    The important thing for evolution is the potential possibilities. It cannot be genes, because the phenotype (genes + ENVIRONMENT) is the evolutionary important one. We cannot see the genes, but the effects of environment, yes. So a good environment and possibilities is the one, and often that means happiness too?


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