Power and Happiness (President Obama in India)

There is widespread confusion around between two ideas that should be easy to separate from each other. I keep bumping into it. I had several lengthy discussions of it with strangers on Facebook. Some were of the left, some of the right. I found it in my morning paper under the pen of no less than columnist David Brooks of the New York Times (“Midwest at Dusk”11/7/1)).

I refer to the confusion between the happiness of a country’s citizens and the country’s standing in the world. David Brooks wrote:

“If America can figure out how to build a decent future for the working-class people in this (mid-Atlantic) region, then the US will remain a predominant power. If it can’t, it won’t.”

Like this.

President Obama’s post- “shellacking” visit to India is a good time to clear the confusion.

It may be that there is some sort of connection between the happiness of a country’s citizens (or some) and being a “predominant power.” It may be but it’s far from obvious. You would have to demonstrate it. It would be hard; casual evidence does not support the idea. Deeper research does not either.

Norway had a Gross Domestic Product per capita of $52,000 in 2009. Switzerland had only $41,000. Singapore had $50,000. The GDP per capita of the US for 2009 was $46,000. So, on the average, Norwegians and Singaporeans earn more money than Americans. Subjectively, I don’t believe it’s a very big difference but I think the direction of this difference is certain. More of what GDP measures is better than less.

Short tech notes:

  1. Those GDP figures are “Purchasing Power Parity” (PPP). It means that they are adjusted for different costs of living in different countries. One dollar in the US buys more than one dollar in Norway. This fact is minutely taken into account to make the figures truly comparable.
  2. In spite of many criticisms, GDP per capita PPP (see note 1 above) reflects real average individual income for the countries I use as examples, except as noted. We don’t need to go into a more technical discussion here although it would be interesting. I ask you to trust me on this because I am a specialist and because I don’t lie or stretch the truth.

I have personal knowledge of Switzerland and I am well informed about Singapore and about Norway. People in all three countries live very well, I am certain. They are free from gross want. They enjoy long lives that don’t lack for dignity. The life expectancy at birth is higher in each of these countries than it is in the US. (I don’t make a fetish of this for several reasons both technical and substantive. Yet, here also, higher is usually better than lower.) If you spent a little time in any of these three countries, you would find that your impressions correspond well with those abstract numbers. Their people have good lives.

Where their lives are less than satisfactory, it’s because of factors not readily amenable to political or economic change. The Norwegians seem lonely to many observers. Why shouldn’t they? There is only handful of them in a vast country and no one understands their language. Moreover Norwegian skies are overcast much of the year which makes for melancholy. The Singaporeans are too crowded with each other and it’s too hot in Singapore much of the year. (I am only repeating what I have heard them say). The Swiss seem satisfied to me in spite of a certain dourness. Secretly, many envy the French next door who are less rich than they are because the French seem to have more fun in their comparatively ill-run country. And also, the French have plenty of ocean shorelines.

It’s true that I think Americans lead more satisfying lives than just about anyone else. This is due, I believe, to historical facts no one could duplicate. First, cumulatively, immigration ensured for centuries that only the most optimistic came and stayed. It all adds up. Second, Americans are more creative overall than anyone else. In particular, they make more good music and they produce more good movies. This makes for satisfaction but it’s less than obvious that it has anything to do with being a great power.

This is my main point: Norway, Singapore, Switzerland are not major powers by any conceivable standard yet their people are happy.

Now, let’s look at some great powers. China is no doubt a great power by virtue of the weight of its economy. (It’s either the second or the third largest in the world.) It’s also a great power through its Communist government’s control of much of world finance indirectly via the American obligations it holds, Its armed forces are the largest or the second largest in the world. Yet, the official GDP capita of China is only about $7,000 PPP. That would be seven or eight times smaller than Norway’s, seven times smaller than Singapore’s, next door. Take a second to reflect on the difference between living on $7.000 per year and on $50,000. I don’t want to go much beyond this because GDP per capita is a less adequate measure of well-being for China that it is for the other countries mentioned. To put it briefly, there are greater disparities in China between rich and poor categories of the population. I have not been to China but the numerous reports in the media lead me to believe that the standard of living in coastal China is similar to that of the US in the 1920s while in the underdeveloped interior, it’s more like US 1860. One major exception to these statements: Even in interior China, the life expectancy is much higher than it was anywhere in 1860. (Joint miracle of vaccination and of relatively clean water.)

India is a big power in the making although almost be default. It wins all the wars with neighbors that dare to threaten it and most neighbors wouldn’t think of doing such a thing. (Its military differences with China are minor, fortunately.) It’s fast developing a large Navy capable of projecting its power throughout the India Ocean and the Arabian sea. Furthermore, the fact that India is a genuine if tumultuous democracy gives it moral suasion among the powerful western democracies. As a symbolic exercise: If a vote were taken in the General Assembly today to remove France from it seat in the Security Council to give it to India, India would probably win. If the vote were restricted to full democracies, France might still be unseated.

Yet, the GDP per capita of India is only around $3,000. This number is subject to the same restrictions of interpretation as the Chinese figure and much for the same reasons. In fact, the figure overstates the standard of living of most Indians. I know India fairly well. I am saying that what you see casually in India, in the countryside but also in the main cities, suggest that Indians general live more badly than you would if you had $12,000 for a family of four, ($3,000 per capita multiplied by four family members) in say, Arkansas. Correspondingly, its life expectancy at birth is only about 70, ten years shorter than Norway’s or Switzerland’s. It’s even four years shorter than life expectancy in Mauritius, an independent tropical island with a population
90 % of Indian origin.

It’s true that there is much optimism in India today. Two reasons. First, few Indians have been anywhere to compare. In spite of movies and in spite of the stories of returned expatriates, Indians are not aware of the low quality of their lives, low by any standards whatsoever. Second, today’s young Indians see their opportunities grow much faster than their parents and grandparents could have imagined. That’s not because they are rich but because the Indian economy was almost stagnant for two generations. In spite of frequent exuberant pronouncements in the Indian media, mindlessly repeated in the American media, the new Indian “middle-class” isn’t much to write about. To be “middle-class” in India today may not mean much more than owning two pairs of good shoes and saving for a first payment on a moped.

So, there you have it. There is no obvious connection between a nation being a power, any sort of power, and the quality of life of its citizens. Americans are often confused about this simple fact because the United States is a great power where life also happens to be good. The link is probably fortuitous (except see below).

I am aware of the fact that being a citizen of a great power may contribute, subjectively to quality of life. For some people, it’s a kind of psychic income or bonus. This attitude is fairly widespread among the French, and, of all people, the Turks. These two examples should be enough to suggest that this psychic bonus is compatible with a fair amount of self-delusion. Incidentally, the French have no excuse for they have a saying everyone knows: “Happy people have no history.”

I stated above that there is no link between the power of a nation and the quality of its citizens’ life. I must now undermine slightly this pronouncement because that’s the honest thing to do. It may be possible to argue that the happiness of everyone in the world, Norwegians, Swiss, Singaporeans, Chinese, Indians, and all others alike, depends entirely on the joint power of a small number of great powers. The good lives according to this argument only develops under the umbrella of the pax americana, supplemented by the contribution of other, middling, powers. In this view, there is a very indirect link between power and happiness. I don’t think that’s what people have in mind who confuse great power and great happiness. I just believe they have not thought it through.

A final word to keep you thinking. It’s about a separate but closely associated misconception. Contrary to the routine statements of politicians of all sides (Democrats only a little more guilty than Republicans) countries don’t, on the whole “compete” with each other economically. Prosperous Canadians are better for my selfish needs than are poor Mexicans; the richer the Chinese become, the better I live, by and large.

[Editor's note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Delacroix's blog, Facts Matter, on November 7th 2010]

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