Bulgarians are measured as “unhappy” because it is OK, even honourable, to complain

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Yes, the rich are getting richer.  But so are the poor, and it matters much more to the poor.

Deirdre McCloskey poses for a portrait in her home Friday June 3, 2016 in Chicago, Ill. McCloskey, a renowned economics professor, began transitioning from male to female in 1995 at the age of 53. CREDIT: Taylor Glascock for The Wall Street Journal CROSSING
Deirdre McCloskey June 3, 2016 in Chicago, Ill. 

“I’m a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian libertarian” is a sentence that is found in the biography of prof Deirdre Nansen McCloskey on her website as a response to her being widely known as a “conservative” economist. Prof McCloskey has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2000 to 2015 in economics, history, English, and communication. She is a well-known economist and historian and rhetorician, has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. After being married for 30 years and with two children, in 1995 she transitioned from male to female at the age of 53.  She describes her experience of transitioning in the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Crossing: A Memoir.

Prof McCloskey, you argue that the empirics of Happiness research is insufficient scientifically and philosophically. At the same time, you emphasise various impacts of economics on happiness. In general, do you think happiness is measurable at all? How important do you think economic participation is as an indicator of happiness, if at all? What other indicators would you apply?

I do not think it is sensible to measure happiness. Think of it: if we drugged everyone, they would declare themselves to be “happy,” even in the most clever questionnaire.  The problem is not statistical.  It is a bad concept, and so the measurement is meaningless.  The Danes regularly rank as the happiest people on earth.  But if you look into it, you find that they are “happy” because in their culture it is impolite to say you are unhappy.  The Bulgarians are measured as “unhappy” because it is OK, even honourable, to complain.  It is a quite general eastern European custom.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A must see and read Hungarian psychologist, famous for his flow theory.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a  must see and read Hungarian psychologist, famous for his flow theory.

We can and should, though, measure the ability of Bulgarians and others to consume.  It is national income, which can be adjusted in various ways to include the value of the environment, say, or the value of self-house cleaning.  It is the best measure we have of fulfilled lives.  National income per person–not the silly measures of “happiness”–should be the target of public policy.  What policy?  Let Bulgarians alone to exercise their vital powers in creative ways, as they surely will, if not robbed by corruption or regulated by the state.

We can also measure their satisfaction at work, which would be a piece of the overall “happiness” that some people foolishly try to measure.  The positive psychologists, such as my friend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, are more sensible about it.  They look at lives from the outside, not by questionnaire, and judge what jobs are good, and what bad.  They note that a house cleaner who takes the right attitude towards her job can be more successful in life than a CEO who hates it!

You have argued that the jump in per capita income, as well as a shift in social prestige for innovators, have given way to prosperity and happiness. Some more adventurous liberal theories about the improving technological efficiency and rise in share economy are predicting the decline of capitalism as well as growing access to resources and personal fulfilment as consequence. Following this speculation theoretically, how would you translate this development onto your original argument?

The “adventurous” theories are mistaken if by the “decline of capitalism” they mean that a socialist paradise is around the corner.  Older Bulgarians have had some experience with social paradises.  If all they mean is that automation will continue and that the share economy, based on the internet’s ability to record reputations for providing for cash, say, a good taxi ride, will expand, they are correct.  But unless people have private property (to hire out in the share economy, for example) and are allowed to freely exchange, which is the definition of capitalism, no improvement will take place.

If you are worried about technological unemployment, stop!  In 1920 a substantial part of the Bulgarian labour force worked on the railways.  Now it is a small percentage.  They found other jobs, such as driving trucks.  In 2000 in the United States 170,000 people worked in video-rental stores.  Now no one does.

What are your views on the topic of economic inequality – are the rich getting richer and if so – is that happening at the expense of the poor? Is there a correlation between the two extremes or should poverty be treated as a separate issue on its own?

Yes, the rich are getting richer.  But so are the poor, and it matters much more to the poor.

  Look at Bulgarian national income per head since the fall of Communism.  A more extreme example is China since 1978 and India since 1991.  Under their earlier socialisms, they grew at 1 percent per year per person, which meant that real ability to buy goods and service would double every 72 years.  Now under (mainly) capitalism their real incomes grow at 5 to 10 percent per year, income doubling every 12 or 7 years–quadrupling in a generation.

The only way that the poor get richer is from a more productive economy.  Policies to tax the entrepreneurs who open a corner shop or a massive factory merely result in a less productive economy.  I am not in favour of crony capitalism or corruption.

But I am in favor–and Bulgarians should be–of an economy where ordinary people can open a shop without being robbed by the police or export to Greece free of tariffs or regulation.

People, especially intellectuals, say that the big problems facing humankind are inequality and the environment.  No.  The big problem is poverty.  Solve that and equality of important matters (food, housing, education, health) will be achieved, and millions of environmental engineers will come out of countries such as India and China, and soon Bulgaria, to solve global warming and the rest.

In your work, you also discuss the importance of liberalism, equality, empowerment and feminism as a factor of economic prosperity and happiness. Even though the statistics around the happiness index is flawed, do you think there actually is an interconnection between more authoritarian or less economically successful countries and personal fulfilment? If so, could you elaborate?

Of course, there is a connection to personal fulfilment.  We can measure it merely by looking at people’s lives.  A rich, modern economy gives people a chance to flourish.  They may choose to do drugs instead or sit drinking vodka all their lives.  It is their choice.  They are being treated like adults.  Some very poor people, like Jesus or Socrates, can achieve fulfilment.  But the rarity of such people makes the point.  With liberalism the real incomes of ordinary poor people like you and me and our ancestors grow.   We have a chance at spiritual and intellectual and artistic and athletic growth.

Nostalgia and romanticising of the past seems to be a world-spread phenomenon. It is certainly one that could be observed in Bulgaria when it comes to past political regimes and communism in particular. Why would you say economic instability triggers these tendencies?

The days of our youths.  The peasants dancing in costume on the village square.  The (false) belief in a solidarity lost.  It’s all childish, and unhistorical.

In fact under communism, party members prospered, and could go to university and to the top Black Sea resorts.  Now the better entrepreneurs, who make goods and services that other Bulgarians are willing to buy, instead of as the Party members did simply stealing, do well.  But so do we all.  Under liberalism, the world is positive sum.  Under socialism, it is zero or negative sum.

Could you, please, give your definitions of happiness, satisfaction and success?

The classic definition is “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.”  Not “are you happy this week?”  National income provides the “scope”, that is, the mere ability to become a top tennis player or to build a wonderful model train set or the knit a great sweater, denied to starving poor people.  To know more you need to read. . . well . . . my book (!) The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

2 thoughts on “Bulgarians are measured as “unhappy” because it is OK, even honourable, to complain

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  2. Pingback: The Flow. The happiness. The flow of happiness. Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

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