Sunday, January 29, 2012

Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard

Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard

Wow - what twaddle. This must be one of the worst books ever written. Layard thinks that he has discovered a new 'science'! This 'science' involves cramming together random pet theories - and declaring that they will make society happier.

The 'idea' behind the book is that economists should focus not on economies but happiness, and that society should be organized around the maximization of happiness. So far, so good and as Layard admits - this not exactly new either. Bentham would recognize the theft of the idea.

But somehow, Layard (presumably having triumphantly created an enormous fortune for himself through his superior understanding of the old 'science' of economics, or not), thinks that this might be a new angle. He then proceeds to explore the idea, picking useless and contradictory illustrations for his lengthy selection of random talking points.

For example, he cites the observation that Oscar winners are happier than their peers and therefore live longer. This is fairly early on on the twaddle, and I was cutting him some slack at this point. However, I could not help but think - 'Hollywood likes its beautiful, healthy people, I wonder how they controlled for that statistically' (You might just as easily imagine that, like a Crufts winner, once you've won something you will be well looked after, and so on). So, as one does these days, I simple googled 'oscar winners live longer than losers', and the first hit provides the necessary details. Suffice it to say that the statistical analysis behind the original article in the 'Annals of Internal Medicine' was flawed, and this has been pointed out in the same journal, several times, starting soon after the original article. You would think that an economist would have been able to discern the faulty analysis for himself, but even if not, he could have googled it.

Apparently, this particular flawed thinking has a name 'Immortal Bias', "We note that 100 percent of the Oscar winners live to be at least 30 years old. Of course this is not surprising because they are known to be Oscar winners. Thus we know ahead of time that the Oscar winners will live longer than a traditional life table would predict. This gives them an advantage in their life expectancy. This is called a selection bias or Immortal bias." (see 'Oscar winners do_not live longer'). In fact, all this was discussed in the original article - but somewhere along the line someone wanted some publicity, or they wanted to flog a book, and the falsehood flourished.

By the way, apparently the Economist regurgitated the same flawed logic in 2007, so perhaps this form of statistical incompetence is endemic among economists. No wonder the economists like Layard are fleeing their own field, after all it is rather too easy to tell when the dust settles whether you have any money. Far better to be in the 'happinomics' 'science' department (now that climatology is known to be a fraud).

Layard enthuses about drugs at great length, both legal and illicit: '...the widest use of these drugs is "recreational" - to liberate the spirit and enhance the experience of life. Most drugs can do this if taken in moderation. And most people do practice moderation.' Layard thinks Freud's use of cocaine was wonderful, quoting with glee Freud's comments while under the influence.

But there is no mention of the increased happiness created by inexpensive energy, reliable food supplies, transport, modern medicine, declining attempts to exterminate races in systematic killing factories, and so on. Layard is completely oblivious to his selection bias - but I think that we can safely assume that he enjoys the sound of his own voice.

Of course, Layard thinks that progressive taxes on the wealthy will serve to defray the depressed happiness which ensues for everyone else if one person's income increases. (Honestly - and he explains this at great length as a form of happiness pollution). Somehow, Layard seems to have resisted learning from the economies of Cuba, North Korea, and all other attempts to remove income inequality. He even seems to have not understood that the founding fathers of the US spoke of the 'pursuit' of happiness and not simply dolling out 'happiness' in exchange for taxes to their docile, jealous citizens.

Well, I'm sure that Layard's own happiness is profound. He is funded by the taxpayer to waffle on about his own pet enthusiasms while his only output for his input is the justification of increased taxation - useful for his political masters - but not so good for society.



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