Lack of congestion pricing makes Americans miserable

I’m listening to Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way as a book on CD while sitting in often-horrific Boston traffic. What does the book say? Sitting in traffic commuting is the unhappiest time of the average person’s day (cites research by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahneman ). A person who commutes an hour to work each day would need to get paid 40 percent more than a person who walks to work in order to achieve the same level of happiness. Thus we’ve immiserated ourselves here in the U.S. first with suburban sprawl that makes it tough to socialize the 6-7 minimum hours per day that the Thrive book says is necessary and then by our inability to agree on a mechanism for speeding up traffic.

The phenomenon of Americans not being nearly as happy as our income would predict is well known. I wonder how much of that can be explained by just three factors: (1) we move around a lot due to the lack of a central city, such as Paris or Mexico City, in which people will stay after at most one move, (2) more of us live in suburbs than do people who live in other countries (I can’t find good stats on this but it has to be true if only due to the fact that we have so many more cars), (3) we’ve choked our transportation system almost to death so that suburbanites no longer have reasonable mobility.

A few other tidbits from the book:

  • Welfare State handouts make people miserable by keeping them unemployed/dependent; the smart happy country of Singapore does it better by “topping up” wages for their least capable 5-10 percent of workers so that everyone who works has a tolerable standard of living
  • Government policies that foster mixed-income housing make people miserable. People are happiest when they are surrounded by folks who earn about the same as they do.
  • Government regulations that make it tough to start and run your own business make people miserable. People are happiest when they are in control of their life at work. (The author does not address the apparent contradiction with increased socializing leading to more happiness; many people who run their own businesses are literally sole proprietors and spend more time alone than workers in a cubicle farm.)
  • Being religious makes people happy because they are satisfied with what God has provided them. Attending church regularly makes people happy.

I’m not sure that I can recommend the book. It is somewhat rambling and anecdotal and, at least as an audiobook, it is tough to know the reliability of the studies referenced. Furthermore, the insights offered are very similar to what positive psychologists have been saying for years: (1) have a lot of friends, (2) make sure those friends are happy (i.e., the folks with PhDs in psychology recommend immediately dumping any friend who becomes depressed!), (3) live in a compact house or apartment within walking distance of those friends (I wrote about this in my non-profit ideas article under “Latin American-style Towns for the U.S.), (4) don’t work more than 40 hours/week (part-time workers are happier than full-time workers), and (5) take a lot of vacation. On the other hand, the author managed to get an interview with Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, on the subject of why Singaporeans surveyed at the top of the Asian happiness charts.

9 Comments

  1. Javier

    October 22, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    1

    “Thus we’ve immiserated ourselves here in the U.S. first with suburban sprawl that makes it tough to socialize the 6-7 minimum hours per day that the Thrive book says is necessary”

    Where does the author stand on the working from home idea (ie, little socialization, though ~0 commute time)?

  2. Jack Crossfire

    October 22, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    2

    Seen a few MBA’s who subscribe to the dumping of friends who become depressed. It also has to do with boosting their image by only being seen around bubbly people. So an MBA is surrounded by praise, but only by erasing everyone normal.

  3. philg

    October 22, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    3

    Javier: The author did not talk about working from home or, as I noted, the issue that “starting your own business” often equals “being alone”. I guess if the alternative is commuting 2 hours/day probably working from home is better. But maybe it needs to be supplemented with clubs, church, and other social gatherings. And it probably works better for those who are married with children than for those who are single.

  4. gheron

    October 22, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

    4

    The Singapore scheme certainly sounds sensible. I first read about something similar many years ago in Robert Anton Wilson’s essay The RICH Economy http://www.whywork.org/rethinking/whywork/rawilson.html, where he describes the The Guaranteed Annual Income ideas of Robert Theobald and others.

  5. Jim Howard

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:04 am

    5

    “the smart happy country of Singapore does it better by “topping up” wages for their least capable 5-10 percent of workers so that everyone who works has a tolerable standard of living”

    Milton Friedman called this sort of ‘topping up’ a ‘negative income tax’. to President Nixon liked it and it became law during the Ford Administration. It’s called ‘Earned Income Tax Credit’, and it gives the bottom quartile of U.S. workers a negative tax rate.

    It’s also very fraud friendly.

  6. philg

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:19 am

    6

    Jim: How do people get the EITC via fraud? By having an extra job or two where they are paid in cash?

  7. John

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:35 am

    7

    Or by declaring a few children that exist but aren’t theirs, pocketing an extra $3-5k.

    The last IRS figures I saw described a third of claims as fraudulent, leading to a much higher percentage of audits than the dollar amounts justify. This missed audit opportunity cost is not generally charged to the EITC, but should be.

  8. Jim Howard

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    8

    ” How do people get the EITC via fraud?”

    The extra money you get from EITC is shaped like the top half of sine wave.
    If you earn nothing you get no EITC. If you have three or more kids you get some EITC up to an adjusted gross income of $49,078. To get the maximum payment of $5,751 you need three children and an AIG between $12750 and $16700.

    If you work for cash you want to keep your income income in that top bracket, so you know to report at least $12750 but not more than $16700.

    You also maximize your EITC by having three kids (the rules for what counts as a ‘kid’ are complicated). It’s not that hard for a clever person to find a qualifying child in Mexico, or just create the child out of whole cloth. There is also often an advantage for one member of a married couple to file as ‘head of household’.

    It’s really an interesting problem in linear algebra that a lot of people put a lot time an effort into maximizing their EITC.

    And who can blame them.

  9. philg

    October 23, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    9

    Jim: $5700/year does not seem like quite enough to motivate so much activity! Though I guess that is roughly what the USDA says it costs to have 2 kids instead of 1 kid. So essentially the government is saying “We will pay for one kid”.

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