Government, energy & environment

The Pursuit of Happiness

Is the obsessive pursuit of happiness making people unhappy? I think it is. For example, in the UK there are calls for happiness to be taught in schools. One school (Wellington College) is already doing so. But how can you teach happiness? Surely happiness is subjective? (according to Freud) and ‘people who conceive of life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy’ (Marshall Sahlins). Indeed, what does it say about our present condition that we are so keen on the unalienable right to be happy? It is true that the human race is pleasure-seeking – and presumably nobody wants to promote unhappiness – but happiness, like pleasure and joy, is momentary, fleeting and best looked at backwards. It is also, I think, a by-product of something else. We would therefore be better off teaching how to be kind or good, which would result in happiness by default.

Arguing that education should make children happy is ridiculous. Are people seriously suggesting that maths shouldn’t be taught because this would make some children happier? Moreover, education isn’t everything. A child’s family life can make a child happier – or unhappier – than anything taught in school, so is the intension to regulate and legislate home life too? What people are really saying here is that schools should make children happy in ways that are defined and enforced by adults. There is already strong, steady societal pressure to be happy, but this says more about the needs of unhappy parents wanting to be happy vicariously through their children than it does about the needs of the children themselves.Moreover, we should be nervous about governments jumping on the happiness bandwagon because there is the potential to smuggle in other ideas in the name of happiness. What is being promoted in the name of happiness and what is the debate distracting us from? Coca-Cola sells happiness, but it actually sells coloured sugar water. Being told that we should be happy (which, by definition suggests that you are a failure if you are not) is akin to alcoholics feeling the need to surround themselves with other people that are drunk. They are both delusional and indicative of the fact that there are other things going on that we choose not to face.
Ref: Happiness Studies, A. Philips, Prospect (UK), March 2008,
Search words: Happiness, education, schools, children
Trend tags: Happiness
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Top Risks for 2008+

The Eurasia Group (a political risk advisory and consulting firm) has published a list of political risks and red herrings for the year ahead. Topping the list is that, according to Eurasia, US influence is on the wane. China is rising, the world is shifting away from the US dollar, sovereign wealth funds are gobbling up wobbly US financial assets and energy prices/insecurity means that the US is likely to wind back its engagement with the rest of the world. In an extreme scenario, this could mean that the US strengthens immigration policy and erects further trade barriers.There could also be a deteriation in US commitments to international agreements and a disaggregation of global markets. But this insularity is not limited to government policy. A number of recent surveys (most notably from Pew) suggest that fewer and fewer ordinary Americans think that international trade is good for the US (down from 82% in 2003 to 59% today). This contrasts deeply with the view from other nations such as China and Russia and is potentially indicative of the fact that domestic insecurities are moving the US away from the international stage. Is this inward focus just a blip? Time will tell but a major pre-election terrorist attack, an economic meltdown or a withdrawal from Iraq could fuel this neo-isolationism.

What else is on the list? Iran is still a major risk, although it looks like a diplomatic resolution with the US is possible.Thus ‘second-order’ risks (tensions between Iran and Israel) are likely and could impact on oil prices and regional stability.The full list of risks is:
1. US isolationism
2. Iran
3. Iraq
4. Terrorism
5. Pakistan/Afghanistan
6. Russian foreign policy
7. South Africa
8. Turkey
9. Latin America (especially energy bottlenecks).
With regard to South America, the view is that state interventionism and resource nationalism will continue in 2008 but Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will come under pressure in 2009 due to economic troubles and declining political support. It is interesting to note that the likelihood of a terrorist attack on US soil or US interests abroad is regarded as more likely than at any time since 9/11 and that the possibility of a terrorist attack using a non-nuclear radioactive explosive bomb (a ‘dirty bomb’) is becoming more likely due to the availability of strontium-90 and cesium-137 from ex-Soviet republics and the continuing instability of Pakistan.The list of Red Herrings for 2008+ includes China (no near-term social instability), Russian domestic politics (an international nuisance but stable internally), Saudi Arabia (very little call for domestic reform in the short term), Nigeria (a return to routine problems), Taiwan (China becoming increasingly pragmatic) and North Korea.
Ref: Eurasaia Group (US), ‘Top Risks of 2008’, January 2008, Dr I. Bremmer,
Search words: Geopolitics, foreign policy
Trend tags: Risk
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The Politics of Happiness (the sequel)

A book by Arthur Brooks (an economist at Syracuse University) called Gross National Happiness is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, as you’d expect from an economist, the book is based on numbers, which gives his arguments a certain weight. But his arguments are not dull. Having crawled through the data, Mr Brooks suggests that many things make many people happy – eating, praying, watching TV, shopping and a few other things I’m sure you can imagine. The list also includes spending time away from one’s children. This last finding might seem odd to people without children but to everyone else it will probably make sense. More intriguingly,in 2004, 44% of US Conservatives (in the American sense) described themselves as either ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ compared to 25% of Liberals (also in the American sense). Why? The reason appears not to be linked to income or wealth but to three other factors: US Conservatives are twice as likely to be married, they are more likely to attend church and they are more likely to have children (which, in Mr Brook’s view, means that the next generation is likely to be at least as happy as the current one although I can’t quite follow this logic). Another factor is worldviews. The Conservative view says that if you play by the rules you’ll succeed and be happy. Liberals, in contrast, focus on social and economic injustice and this makes them unhappy. Worryingly, perhaps, extremists on both sides of the political divide tend to be happier than moderates.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 29 March 2008, ‘The joys of parenthood’.
Search words: Happiness, voting, voters
Trend tags: Happiness
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Suspicion of Authority

Between 1980 and 2000 the membership of political parties in the West declined by almost 50%. This means that disengagement with politics is at crisis proportions. Interestingly, this disengagement is usually viewed in purely national terms(for example, the turnout at the 2001 UK election fell below 60%) but the evidence seems to suggest that the collapse of trust is much broader and part of a wider historical trend than previously thought. For example, Germany experienced a record low turnout in 2005, the Netherlands in 1998, Spain in 2000, Italy in 2001 and Austria and Portugal in 1999. Moreover, the problem of extreme disengagement seems to be true irrespective of the political system, government or even individual politicians.Indeed, on many traditional indicators – the economy, industrial unrest, unemployment, crime, and inflation and so on – governments seem to be performing better than their predecessors. So what exactly is fuelling this disquiet? The answer, it seems, is growing individual affluence and economic development. The argument is that voters are now used to getting their own way and have significantly more economic and social freedom than previous generations. This can be dismissed as simple consumerism but this generalisation misses the point. Disengagement is reflective of the fact that people have a desire for greater autonomy and individual expression. Rising affluence has also removed many immediate material concerns and thus the demands placed on government have become more complex and varied. Once, all that mattered was security, jobs and taxes but this now includes post-materialist concerns such as the environment, national identity, immigration, happiness and so on. It is getting harder to keep all of the people happy all of the time. The third factor is the decline of deference. When acute economic insecurity is removed, respect for traditional forms of authority declines and we expect more of politicians not less. These expectations can also be contradictory. For instance, in a 1999 poll 62% of Briton’s agreed that, ‘The government does not trust ordinary people to make their own decisions about dangerous activities’. But simultaneously 61% of people also thought that ‘the government should do more to protect people by passing laws banning dangerous activities’. Go figure. A final factor that should be considered is that many of the institutions that mobilised people into politics have now vanished or have themselves become tarnished. The church and trade unions are no longer as relevant as they used to be and voters now connect with issues in a more direct manner.Ultimately then there is a disconnect between how individuals make personal choices that are simple, easy and immediate, and group choices that are difficult and slow.
Ref: The Trouble with Politics, Paul Skidmore, Prospect (UK) November 2007,
Search words: Authority, trust, government, voting
Trend tags: Trust
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The Art of Noise

‘What would 100,000 people chatting online look like?’ This is a question asked by a New York sound artist called Ben Ruben and the artist and statitician (you read that correctly) Mark Hansen. The answer is a futuristic lattice of 230 small screens featuring the randomly-generated musings of individuals online and an art installation at the Science Museum (London) called Listening Post. Reactions to the artwork tend to start with a sense of wonder at the strangeness and beauty of the work, followed quickly by an appreciation of how silly and funny it is. After a period there is then generally unease about eavesdropping on the private communications of thousands of anonymous people. Another experiment with sound (but this time without vision) was by Katie Paterson at the Modern Art Gallery in Oxford (UK). Her work featured the white-on-white neon display of a phone number inside an empty room. Next to the number was a phone which, when picked up, provided the listener with a direct live link to the sound of a glacier melting in Iceland. Interestingly, what made this installation so strong was the total absence of imagery. Listeners were forced to listen and the experience was not only intimate but highly emotional. And a final note – an elevator in Birmingham’s (UK) Ikon Gallery recently featured the sound of choral voices ascending when the lift went up and descending as it went down.
Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 30 March 2008 ‘Heard the one about the icecap melting?’, Tim Cooper.
Links: Live experiences, the experience economy, sensory branding. Noise, spaces
Search words: Art, sound, sensory branding
Trend tags: Experience
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Genetic Privacy

Britain’s national DNA Database contains information on 40% of black men resident in the UK. In 2004, the House of Lord’s rejected the claim that such records are discriminatory and infringe the right of privacy, although a case is still before the European Court of Human Rights. Public opinion concerning the database is mixed. One the one hand, recent government data leaks and blunders have put a question mark over the wisdom of allowing sensitive genetic material to be held in perpetuity. On the other hand, a series of high-profile murder cases had led to calls for compulsory DNA testing and cataloguing of every individual in the UK.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 1 March 2008, ‘Big, bigger, biggest’.
Search words: DNA, genetics, databases
Trend tags: Privacy
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