Bryan Caplan  

The Joy of Oblivion

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Will Wilkinson has a great demolition of the New Economics Foundations' Happy Planet Index. The magic formula: "Multiply life expectancy by life satisfaction and divide it by environmental impact." Here's Will:

I worry that much of the happiness work is ideologically loaded, but most of it is at least an honest attempt study human welfare empirically. Too much of it, however, is stuff like the NEF’s index, basically an attempt to persuasively define something like “happiness” so that it comports with a statist, anti-growth agenda. This is sheer politics brazenly posturing as social science. If the Cato Institute published a study that, say, multiplied life satisfaction by the rate of economic growth and then divided it by government spending as a percentage of GDP, and called it “The Happy World Index, ” would editors think twice? I hope they would. In fact, I bet they would.

Yep. But you can make the reductio ad absurdum even more devastating. According to the Happy Planet Index, you can achieve infinite happiness simply by having zero environmental impact. And the simplest way to achieve that, of course, is not to exist at all.

News flash: Unimaginable happiness is just a massive suicide pact away!


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TRACKBACKS (9 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/540
The author at johnopedia in a related article titled Infinite happiness through mass suicide writes:
    A while back I had a post on the ‘world happiness index’.  This econoblog has an interesting take on the ‘index’.  I didn’t even think of it this way.  Trust an economist to come up with the obvious results. According... [Tracked on July 31, 2006 12:22 PM]
The author at De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum in a related article titled Ecologistas incentivam o suicídio (sério!) writes:
    Will Wilkinson has a great demolition of the New Economics Foundations' Happy Planet Index. The magic formula: "Multiply life expectancy by life satisfaction and divide it by environmental impact." Here's Will: I worry that much of the happiness work i... [Tracked on August 1, 2006 5:09 AM]
The author at Java Zen:Thinking Out Loud in a related article titled Sheehan Fast Woes - SOLVED! writes:
    Like all things done for the first time, its easy be a little clumsy out of the gate. Such is the case with Cindy Sheehan and her efforts at protest fasting. We can forgive her noble, albeit awkward, first effort. After all, she isn’t a professio... [Tracked on August 1, 2006 8:04 AM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
Omer K writes:

Liberals are Lemmings. No big surprise there.

Tom West writes:

you can achieve infinite happiness simply by having zero environmental impact. And the simplest way to achieve that, of course, is not to exist at all.

Tsk, tsk Bryan. The numerator would also be zero. 0/0 is not infinity, it's undefined. Odd mistake for an economist to make :-).

James writes:

Tom West,

I can think of at least one other economist who made the error you point out.

Friedrich Engels writing to Karl Marx (18 August 1881):

"......Thus yesterday I found the courage at last to study your mathematical manuscripts even without reference books, and was pleased to find that I did not need them. I compliment you on this feat. The thing is as clear as daylight, so that we cannot wonder enough at how stubbornly mathematicians insist on mystifying it. But this results from the one-sided way these gentlemen think. To put dy/dx = 0/0, firmly and without circumlocution, does not enter their skulls. And indeed it is clear that dy/dx can be the pure expression of an ongoing process in x and y only if the very last traces of the quanta x and y vanish, leaving behind only the expression of the previous variation process, without any actual quantities remaining."

See this for more.

dearieme writes:

Marx: that's the limit!

Pat writes:

Actually, you can't even kill yourself without having an environmental impact. Disposal of your remains, regardless of the method, will affect the ecosystem to some extent.

Also, your method of offing yourself may have an impact. Carbon monoxide poisoning by inhaling automobile exhaust is probably the most painless method, but that's pollution! If you shoot yourself, there are exhaust gases from the gun, and the bullet may pass through you and release toxic lead into the environment. And so forth.

Dorothy Parker summed it up rather well:

Razors pain you; Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give;
Gas smells awful; You might as well live.

CayleyGraph writes:

Tom West:

"Life Expectancy" probably doesn't include suicide in its calculations, so it'd probably still be at least 60 years total. And, although most people who commit suicide probably have negligible "life satisfaction," since our hypothetical person would be secure in the knowledge that his death would give him/her enormous happiness, s/he should have satisfaction well above zero.

Although, as Pat points out, you can't really achieve zero environmental impact, an early death would ensure that it's rather low. Besides, if you choose a method like "eaten by endangered predators," the negative impact should be close to zero (so long as you aren't loaded with preservatives).

sammler writes:

But of course, it is the planet's "happiness" (whatever that means) rather than any mere person's -- or even that of all mankind -- that is presumed to be important. This is another case of the New Bestiality in action.

Pierpaolo Sommacal writes:

Tom West: Tsk, tsk Bryan. The numerator would also be zero. 0/0 is not infinity, it's undefined. Odd mistake for an economist to make :-).

Surely if we disappear right now the numerator would drop to
zero instantly, but environmental impact would only tend to zero, as
pollution would only slowly fade away and buildings crumble, so that HPI
would be zero.

But we can make the same point in an only slightly less powerful
rhetorical way: if we return to be hunter-gatherers. Presumably, as I
understand environmental impact, it would be zero, life expectancy would range
between 25-30 years (or lower?), and life satisfaction would be lower than now but
still not zero.

Or perhaps someone thinks it would be greater, and that's the point.

meep writes:

Cayley: Usually, when actuaries calculate a general life expectancy, it includes death by all causes - it's easier to get data that way, though they will also slice-and-dice by various causes of death and at what ages. Main causes of death differ greatly at different ages, with more violent death at younger ages (suicide, homicide, car accidents) and death-by-disease at older ages. In the U.S., that is.

Suicide rates tend to have a small impact on the life expectancy for a large population, though, as do homicides (there's generally more suicides than homicides in a relatively orderly society). It's not a main cause of death except in those age ranges where there's few deaths anyway.

Marc writes:

Divide by zero is evidence of a bug, not a feature.

Miracle Max writes:

If the Cato Institute published a study that, say, multiplied life satisfaction by the rate of economic growth and then divided it by government spending as a percentage of GDP, and called it “The Happy World Index, ” would editors think twice? I hope they would. In fact, I bet they would.

Or maybe not:

http://www.cato.org/pubs/efw/index.html

kentuckyliz writes:

It always puzzled me why the members of the Society for Voluntary Human Extinction didn't go ahead and get the ball rolling...commit suicide and be good role models of the behavior they are attempting to inspire others to do. Their very existence, continuing day to day, shows them to be the stinkin' hypocrites they are. They should serve that *special* Kool-Aid at their next convention.

kentuckyliz writes:

Here's another way it could work, from a Darwinian perspective.

People don't commit suicide to gain greater happiness, but relief from pain and misery. So they are miserable people, and they inflict their misery on others and make the planet a more miserable place to be.

So miserable people should commit suicide. That takes their misery out of circulation, and only happy people are left to breed and pass their sunny temperaments on to their progeny.

Ivan Kirigin writes:

From the title, 'The Joy of Oblivion', I thought you were talking about this excellent video game I've been playing:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000BC38LA/sr=8-1/qid=1154481034/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-5596005-1605645?ie=UTF8

Alex Robson writes:

Courtesy of today's Opinion Journal Best of the Web, here is a story which illustrates a slightly different but related point.

Happiness indices are confounded by sample selection bias - Denmark has a high suicide rate, and the suiciders' "happiness" level (or lack thereof) isn't counted in their index rating.

RWP writes:

The limit as environmental impact approaches zero is infinity.

Interestingly, if one completely destroys the environment you have zero happiness. But if it is a rational choice with full information how could it make you unhappy?

Oh mathematical models.

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