How to Debate Happiness
Tyler Cowen will be one of the protagonists at the Economist debate in New York on November 10th. The proposition is “America is failing at the pursuit of happiness.” For the affirmative will be Jeff Sachs and Betsey Stevenson. For the negative will be Will Wilkinson and Tyler.
If I were taking the con position, I would focus on the economic concepts of consumers’ and producers’ surplus. Intuitively, I am rather content, and those concepts help to explain why. Most of my career, I earned way more than it would have taken to keep me working as an economist. That is producers’ surplus. As a consumer, I can think of all sorts of goods for which I would gladly pay much more money.
Just to take one example. If I go to a Bar Mitzvah celebration, the family will have spent thousands of dollars putting together an evening of food, music, and dancing. On a per-person basis, the cost is probably $50 to $100. Often, someone will turn to me at such an event and say, “Isn’t this fun?”
I’ll think to myself. “Are you kidding? I have more fun than this every week.” Every week, I go folk dancing, and I enjoy it even more than a Bar Mitzvah party, not that I have anything against Bar Mitzvah parties. I probably would pay $50 a week for folk dancing, but it only costs $7. So I am getting a huge amount of consumers’ surplus out of that.
I get enormous consumers’ surplus out of reading, Internet surfing, eating, bike riding, and so on.
The total amount of producers’ and consumers’ surplus in my life is very high. (Actually, can you add them? It strikes me that part of the reason that the producers’ surplus seems so high is that I get so much consumers’s surplus, so there may be double-counting.) And I’m quite sure that they have gotten higher over the years.
If I were debating, I would try to come up with some back-of-the-envelope measure of aggregate consumers’ and producers’ surplus. It would be interesting to try to estimate the change from, say, the early 1970’s to today. My intuition is that it has increased even more than measured real income, because the variety of consumer goods has gone up and the disutility of the average job has gone down.