Can We Reverse the Trend of Working-Age Adults Who Don’t Work?

Ten million working-age adults were receiving food stamp benefits in 2015, were not receiving disability benefits, and were not employed. This number of nonworking able-bodied adults is something that experts from both political parties agree.

And this nonwork is occurring during a time of low unemployment, when many employers are saying they can’t find workers.

Here is something else experts from the right and left agree on: Those nonworking Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients are almost certainly living in poverty, maybe even severe poverty, and are also prone to the significant health problems that come with nonwork and low income.

Challenging a large federal program (SNAP), which has successfully delivered needed assistance to poor families, to help out-of-work recipients find employment is a worthy objective and is part of what the Trump administration is trying to do with its proposals to reform the SNAP program.

To be sure, there are items of concern in the overall proposal: Reducing benefit levels and shifting costs to the states with broad flexibility could lead to increases in deep poverty and is a dramatic change to a long-standing federal commitment.

However, the proposed emphasis on increasing work is important and beneficial. The budget proposal would limit waivers from the work requirement that applies to able-bodied adults without children — a good idea.

The proposed cost shift to the states would be much better if it came with a carefully designed federal work requirement that both ensures that states are moving able-bodied adult recipients toward employment and prevents states from denying poor families assistance. Still, if these reforms succeed in forcing states to help (and push) SNAP recipients into employment, there is a reasonable chance they will reduce poverty.

That is why some liberal reactions to the administration’s budget, such as The New York Times editorial on the proposal, seem a little over the top. Yes, many SNAP recipients are working while they receive SNAP benefits, and yes, many are children, seniors, or disabled, and these pro-work efforts are not targeted at them.

But many of the nonworkers include able-bodied adults who are in need of more than just food stamp benefits, and focusing on ways to increase their income through earnings will help, not harm, them.

Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration should keep working to refine these SNAP reforms to maintain a focus on work for able-bodied adult recipients while carefully designing requirements so that states are not allowed to take actions that would increase deep poverty.

The Dignity Deficit: Reclaiming Americans’ Sense of Purpose

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt on Arthur Brooks’ piece on the “Dignity Deficit” as published in Foreign Affairs magazine. The full text is available for subscribers:

“He who establishes conventional wisdom owns history,” a historian once told me.

So it’s no surprise that ever since last year’s extraordinary U.S. presidential election, all sides have been bitterly fighting over what happened—and why. The explanations for Donald Trump’s surprise victory have varied widely. But one factor that clearly played an important role was the alienation and disaffection of less educated white voters in rural and exurban areas. Trump may have proved to be a uniquely popular tribune for this constituency. But the anger he tapped into has been building for half a century.

The roots of that anger lie all the way back in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson launched his so-called War on Poverty. Only by properly understanding the mistakes made in that war—mistakes that have deprived generations of Americans of their fundamental sense of dignity—can the country’s current leaders and political parties hope to start fixing them. And only once they properly understand the problem will they be able to craft the kind of cultural and political agenda that can heal the country’s wounds.

All the way with LBJ

On April 24, 1964, Johnson paid a highly publicized visit to Inez, the biggest town in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County. Inez was the heart of coal country, the most typical Appalachian town that Johnson’s advisers could find. In the 1960s, “typical Appalachian” meant a place suffering from crippling despair. The citizens of Inez were poor. Many of them were unemployed, and their children were malnourished. Johnson had chosen Inez to illustrate that dire poverty was not just a Third World phenomenon: it existed right here at home, and not just in cities but in rural America as well. But he also came to Inez to announce that this tragedy could be remedied.

In one famous photo op, Johnson stopped by the home of a man named Tom Fletcher, an unemployed 38-year-old father of eight. The president climbed up onto Fletcher’s porch, squatted down next to him, and listened to the man’s story. According to a 2013 article in the Lexington Herald-Leader by John Cheves, “Fletcher never finished elementary school and could not really read. The places where he had labored—coal mines, sawmills—were closed. He struggled to support his wife and eight children.” The president used Fletcher’s struggles as a springboard for his own announcement. “I have called for a national war on poverty,” he declared. “Our objective: total victory.” Years later, Cheves reports, Johnson still remembered the encounter. “My determination,” he wrote in his memoirs, “was reinforced that day to use the powers of the presidency to the fullest extent that I could, to persuade America to help all its Tom Fletchers.” Over the next five decades, the federal government would spend more than $20 trillion trying to achieve Johnson’s dream with social welfare programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Tom Fletcher personally received some of this largess: he got welfare benefits and found employment through government make-work initiatives, laboring on crews that cleared brush and picked up trash from roadsides. But he never held down a steady job, Cheves recounts, and although his standard of living rose along with the national average, he never made it out of poverty. By 1969, he no longer worked at all and relied instead on disability checks and other public assistance. After his first wife died, he married a woman four decades his junior, with whom he had two more children. In a cruel final twist, Fletcher’s second wife murdered one of those children (and tried to kill the other) as part of a scam to collect on their burial insurance. In 2004, with his wife still in prison, Fletcher died, never having gotten much closer to the American dream than he was when Johnson climbed onto his porch.

Visit the area today, and despite Johnson’s promises, you’ll see that idleness and depression still hang heavy in the air. In Inez, as across the country, the welfare state and modern technology have made joblessness and poverty less materially painful. Homes have electricity and running water. Refrigerators, personal computers, and cars are ubiquitous. Economic growth and innovation have delivered material abundance, and some of the War on Poverty’s programs have proved effective at bolstering struggling families.

But even though poverty has become less materially miserable, it is no less common. In Martin County, just 27 percent of adults are in the labor force. Welfare is more common than work. Caloric deficits have been replaced by rampant obesity. Meanwhile, things aren’t much better on the national level. In 1966, when the War on Poverty programs were finally up and running, the national poverty rate stood at 14.7 percent. By 2014, it stood at 14.8 percent. In other words, the United States had spent trillions of dollars but seen no reduction in the poverty rate.

Of course, the poverty rate doesn’t take into account rising consumption standards or a variety of government transfers, from food stamps to public housing to cash assistance. But the calculations that determine it do include most of the income that Americans earn for themselves. So although the rate is a poor tool for gauging material conditions, it does capture trends in Americans’ ability to earn success. And what it shows is that progress on that front has been scant.

The War on Poverty has offered plenty of economic analgesics but few cures. This is a failure not just in the eyes of conservative critics but also according to the standard set by the man who launched the campaign. On signing the Appalachian Regional Development Act in March 1965, Johnson argued that the United States should aspire to more than simply sustaining people in poverty. “This nation,” he declared, “is committed not only to human freedom but also to human dignity and decency.” R. Sargent Shriver, a key Johnson adviser on the War on Poverty, put it even more explicitly: “We’re investing in human dignity, not doles.”

I need you to need me

At its core, to be treated with dignity means being considered worthy of respect. Certain situations bring out a clear, conscious sense of our own dignity: when we receive praise or promotions at work, when we see our children succeed, when we see a volunteer effort pay off and change our neighborhood for the better. We feel a sense of dignity when our own lives produce value for ourselves and others. Put simply, to feel dignified, one must be needed by others.

The War on Poverty did not fail because it did not raise the daily caloric consumption of Tom Fletcher (it did). It failed because it did nothing significant to make him and Americans like him needed and thus help them gain a sense of dignity. It also got the U.S. government into the business of treating people left behind by economic change as liabilities to manage rather than as human assets to develop.

The dignity deficit that has resulted is particularly acute among working-class men, most of whom are white and live in rural and exurban parts of the United States. In his recent book Men Without Work, the political economist (and American Enterprise Institute scholar) Nicholas Eberstadt shows that the percentage of working-age men outside the labor force—that is, neither working nor seeking work—has more than tripled since 1965, rising from 3.3 percent to 11.6 percent. And men without a high school degree are more than twice as likely to be part of this “un-working” class.

These men are withdrawing not only from the labor force but from other social institutions as well. Two-thirds of them are unmarried. And Eberstadt found that despite their lack of work obligations, these men are no more likely to spend time volunteering, participating in religious activities, or caring for family members than men with full-time employment.

That sort of isolation and idleness correlates with severe pathologies in rural areas where drug abuse and suicide have become far more common in recent years. In 2015, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an extraordinary paper by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. They found that, in contrast to the favorable long-term trends in life expectancy across the rest of the developed world, the mortality rate among middle-aged white Americans without any college education has actually risen since 1999. The main reasons? Since that year, among that population, fatalities due to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis have increased by 46 percent, fatalities from suicide have risen by 78 percent, and fatalities due to drug and alcohol poisoning are up by a shocking 323 percent.

Unsurprisingly, those left behind hold a distinctly gloomy view of the future. According to a survey conducted last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation and CNN, fewer than one-quarter of white Americans without a college degree expect their children to enjoy a better standard of living in the future than they themselves have today, and half of them believe things will be even worse. (In contrast, according to the same survey, other historically marginalized communities have retained a more old-school American sense of optimism: 36 percent of working-class blacks and 48 percent of working-class Hispanics anticipate a better life for their children.)

To be sure, rural and exurban whites who possess few in-demand skills and little education are hardly the only vulnerable group in the United States today. But the evidence is undeniable that this community is suffering an acute dignity crisis. Left behind every bit as much as the urban poor, millions of working-class whites have languished while elites have largely ignored them or treated them with contempt.

Americans from all walks of life voted for Trump. But exit polls unambiguously showed that a crucial central pillar of his support came from modern-day Tom Fletchers: Trump beat Hillary Clinton among white men without a college degree by nearly 50 percentage points. Tellingly, among counties where Trump outperformed the 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney, the margins were greatest in those places with the highest rates of drug use, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Many analysts and policy experts saw Trump’s campaign as a series of sideshows and unserious proposals that, even if implemented, would not actually improve things for his working-class supporters. For example, academic research clearly shows that trade protectionism—a major theme of Trump’s campaign—is more likely to destroy jobs than create them. Yet Trump won regardless, because he was the first major-party nominee in decades who even appeared to care about the dignity of these working-class voters whose lives are falling apart.

Welfare to work

If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to “help” people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary. The question for leaders, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, must be, Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?

Read more here.


Confessions of a Catholic Convert to Capitalism

Care for the vulnerable is not unique to one religion. All major philosophies share this goal, religious or otherwise. But how does religious belief intersect with capitalism?

Many goodhearted people mistrust markets. They believe that free enterprise worsens inequality and encourages greed and materialism. Many worry that capitalism sows division and economic exclusion. These fears are reasonable.

But rejecting free enterprise is the wrong approach. In a recent essay in American Magazine, I wrote that free enterprise is not inherently moral or immoral. However, it is humanity’s best tool for alleviating mass-scale poverty. It empowers billions of people to build happier lives filled with work and security.

I know you care about these big questions as much as I do.

Here are a couple excerpts from the article about my journey toward Catholicism and the free market.

As a Seattle-born bohemian living in Barcelona, my political views were predictably progressive. But my thinking began to change in my late 20s upon returning to college, which I did by correspondence while working as a musician.

I fancied myself a social justice warrior and regarded capitalism with a moderately hostile predisposition. I ‘knew’ what everyone knows: Capitalism is great for the rich but terrible for the poor. The natural progression of free enterprise is that the rich and powerful accumulate more and more of the world’s resources while the poor are exploited. That state of affairs might be fine for a follower of Ayn Rand, but it is hardly consistent for a devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Right? …

As I taught about the anti-poverty properties of free enterprise, a common objection—especially among my Catholic friends—remained. ‘Okay,’ many said, ‘I see that markets have pulled up the living standards of billions, and that’s great. But they haven’t pulled people up equally. In fact, capitalism has created more inequality than we have ever seen.’ This spawns ancillary concerns about the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, and the rising inequality of opportunity. My challenge as a Catholic economist was to answer these questions in good faith.

The evidence on income inequality seems to be all around us and irrefutable, particularly in the United States. From 1979 to today, the income won by the ‘top 1 percent’ of Americans has surged by roughly 200 percent, while the bottom four-fifths have seen income growth of only about 40 percent. Today, the share of income that flows to the top 10 percent is higher than it has been since at any point since 1928, the peak of the bubble in the Roaring Twenties. And our lackluster ‘recovery’ following the Great Recession likely amplified these long-run trends. Emmanuel Saez, a University of California economist, estimates that 95 percent of all the country’s income growth from 2009 to 2012 wound up in the hands of the top 1 percent.

Taking this evidence on its face, it is easy to conclude that our capitalist system is hopelessly flawed. Digging deeper, however, produces a more textured story.

Please read the essay and let me know what you think on Twitter @arthurbrooks. If you enjoy it, pass it along to a friend or colleague — especially someone who is skeptical of capitalism.

‘Psychic Numbing’: How to Avoid Desensitization to Bad News

No matter your political inclinations, we can all agree on one simple fact: 2016 was a crazy year. Anger and resentment became political focus points across the Western world. Foreign policy crises, especially the Syrian civil war, burned hot throughout the year with little resolution in sight. A flow of corruption and scandal took down government leaders on at least three different continents.

Everyone that you talk to will find different elements in 2016 to condemn and to celebrate. Some will be outraged by the presidential election results but thrilled with the big leftward steps taken in our culture and popular media. Plenty others will have precisely the opposite view, pleased with political victories but deeply unsettled about the broader direction of society. Wherever you fall personally, it seems safe to say that nobody will remember the last year as an apogee for optimism, warm-heartedness, or American unity.

What does that mean for your 2017? In the face of events or trends we dislike, it can be tempting to try to simply care less about the world around us. When the cable news gets too wearying, it seems like we should simply turn off the TV. Perhaps the prudent path forward is to pull up the informational drawbridges that connect us to the world and redirect our attention inward.

There is something noble in this instinct, but there is also something dangerous and destructive. A little social science can help us discern what to do.

First, let’s remember that these sensations are nothing new. Tragedies have always been part of life. That means there’s a surprisingly robust academic literature on the subject. And so, over the past couple of weeks, when I wasn’t hunting with my son Carlos over the holiday, I dug into some of the research that looks at our response to large-scale traumatic events. (First prize for nerdiest dad!)  I outlined my findings in a recent New York Times column, but here are some of the basic takeaways:

It turns out that social scientists have a term for when people simply throw up their hands in response to overwhelming circumstances: “psychic numbing.” Some of the most interesting research on this topic comes from Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. His body of work shows that when tragedy is large in magnitude and in a distant location, we become desensitized. Recent history shows us some of the depressing  implications. For example, while many of us feel compassion for the refugees fleeing war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East, the organized response to such events is muted at best.

Slovic wasn’t the first academic to talk about “psychic numbing.” Any fan of Adam Smith will likely recall a famous passage from his Theory of Moral Sentiments where Smith discusses Europeans responding to an apocalyptic earthquake in China:

“If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

Is there a solution to psychic numbing? Is there a better way forward than either feeling constant despair about events we can’t control or cauterizing our normal human empathy?

Absolutely, but it’s not what you might presuppose. When we hear of these tragedies, we often rush to grasp the big picture. Collect the data. Gather the evidence. Figure out what systemic changes we can demand from on high. Let me propose that this thinking is part of the problem. What if the real solution, on a personal level, is to do the opposite of “thinking big”?

Any readers who work in fundraising have likely heard some version of the saying, “One is greater than one million.” No, this isn’t bad math. It’s the real-world application of a “think small” philosophy. As I wrote in the Times column, “when it comes to people in need, one million is a statistic, while one is a human story.” Thinking small can simultaneously allow us to continue paying attention to trends or events that disturb us – but by focusing on individual victims instead of just on global systems, we are limiting the scope of our empathy to circumstances we may be able to actually improve through our own efforts.

I have seen this “1 > 1 million” axiom at work in my own life. As you all know, of late, there has been an incendiary bipartisan backlash against globalization and the notion of an interconnected world. But despite the short-term shift in political winds, my own personal and scholarly appreciation for globalization has only grown stronger.

I have contemplated the many lives I personally know who have been saved by our globalized world.  While I know of many such stories, my thoughts always return to daughter, Marina. My wife and I adopted her 12 years ago from an orphanage in China. Fifty years ago, that would have been virtually impossible, and it would even be more difficult today, thanks to misguided government policies that limit foreign adoptions. Her presence in my life is not only a profound blessing. It is also a simple reminder that the walls of protectionism and restriction don’t only wall off the movement of physical capital and traded goods. They also close the valve of opportunity for millions of children around the world.

Here’s a little challenge for the beginning of this new year. Look back on the events or trends that disturbed you most in 2016. Then, instead of thinking about global, symbolic protest movements you can join or systematic changes you can demand from on high, contemplate a practical way to familiarize yourself with one human being who has been affected. Then, find a way to concretely help that individual.

Does Character Matter in Election 2016?

Does character matter when it comes to the 2016 presidential election?  Many campaign operatives and pundits say that elections are no longer about persuasion to any meaningful extent. Instead, they argue, campaigns are purely a turnout game and campaigns should focus exclusively on turning out their base.

But recent research shows this argument might not be valid. Political scientist Danny Hayes, a friend dating back to my days in academia, studies political traits — the qualities and characteristics people assume you possess because you are a conservative or a liberal.

He finds that if you are a liberal, people overwhelmingly assume you are empathetic and compassionate. For conservatives, the traits people assume are good morals and strong leadership.

Hayes’ research also suggests a moral double standard among the public. In other words, people are especially hard on politicians who betray the traits they’ve already ascribed to them. For instance, people would probably be more outraged if a liberal politician were a jerk to his interns than if a conservative politician did the same thing. And they get madder at conservatives than liberals when they are sexually immoral.

At the same time, voters seem to go out of their way to reward candidates who attempt trait-trespassing. Hayes found that candidates win roughly 60 percent of the vote when they take on traits not usually associated with their party. So for Democrats, the prototypical untapped trait is strength; for Republicans, it’s empathy — a reverse of the standard assumptions about the parties.

Knowing about this huge windfall in voter rewards would have been good for both candidates if they could project authentic character traits not typically ascribed to them. Instead, they missed a golden opportunity. Trump could have started to close the gap by embracing empathy and  compassion for the vulnerable. Clinton could have tried to shut the door on Trump by focusing on projecting strength, upright moral leadership, and a modicum of traditional values.

If you’re interested in a more detailed account of this research – including the specifics about what candidates stand to gain from being unconventional, take a look at this column on breaking out of the party box.

Major Life Decisions: How Much Influence Does a Coin Toss Have?

Steven Levitt, a well-known economist of “Freakonomics” fame, has a new paper on a topic that we can all relate to: How do people make big, pivotal life decisions? And how can we evaluate whether we make good ones?

When I stop and think about it, the relative scarcity of a robust literature on this topic is surprising. What could be a more pressing or pertinent subject? But — among other difficulties — it is incredibly difficult to create a controlled environment with the kind of randomization that you need for rock-solid results.

Let me explain. To try and measure whether some small behavior makes people happier, researchers could simply randomly assign participants into “Group 1” and “Group 2” and impose different conditions on each. This ensures that people with preexisting differences aren’t self-selecting into different groups and polluting the direct causal link that you’re trying to measure.

This approach — create a controlled environment, randomly divide your participants into “treatment” and “control” groups, and then measure how they fare — works great for studying things like new medications. But not so much for studying major life decisions: whether to get married, what kind of person to marry, and whether to move across the country for a new job. It turns out people aren’t willing to surrender those decisions to a social scientist in the name of advancing science. Weird, I know.

That’s where this study gets creative. Levitt did the best he could to “randomize” decisions by looking at the impact of a coin toss on people’s likelihood of making certain decisions. First, he recruited more than 10,000 volunteers. Each one took a survey that asked about a big decision they were facing. Then came the interesting part: Levitt’s website presented participants with a coin flip that “told” them which choice to make. After the experiment, Levitt followed up with the recruits to see what they decided and how happy they were.

Obviously, participants weren’t bound to follow through and obey the virtual coin. So the first question the study examined was: How much does a virtual coin flip impact which choice people end up making? And as funny as it seems, it turned out that the coin flip influenced participants’ decision making a lot. Taking account of a range of other factors, Levitt finds participants who got heads were about 25 percent more likely to make the change they were considering. And these weren’t insignificant decisions. Some of the changes the participants were mulling included quitting their job or separating from their spouse.

Equally interesting, the people who went ahead and made the change they were considering usually wound up happier as a result. Among the participants who were considering “important” decisions, those who decided to make a change later reported being a full point happier (on a 1–10 scale) than those who stuck with the status quo. Maybe there’s a lesson here: If you find a potential decision sufficiently compelling that you can’t get it off your mind, you should probably just pull the trigger. (Check out my Valentine’s Day column from 2015, “Taking Risks in Love,” for one practical application of this principle.)

The potential lesson here is intriguing. The results suggest that people leave a chunk of potential happiness untapped simply by tethering themselves to the status quo. Even a randomized virtual signal from a stranger in academia was enough to give people a little momentum and push them toward improving their lives.

Do Presidential Debates Matter? Probably Sooner Than Later

By most accounts, Monday’s first presidential debate brings Americans a strange mixture of joy and despair. On one hand, this interminable campaign is finally entering its homestretch. On the other hand, an evening of hand-to-hand mudslinging will dominate our televisions and our discussions even more than usual.

Each season, the first head-to-head debate seems to mark the unofficial beginning of the campaign’s end. And while the buildup is always dramatic, the country seems especially on edge this time around. Not only have the polls been tightening of late, but there has also been unusually high variance in the results, adding extra uncertainty. Throw in two candidates who most Americans don’t like, and it’s no surprise that analysts are predicting Monday evening’s debate could be the most watched in history.

This got me wondering how much of a difference these election debates actually make. Do presidential debates matter really? Is all the commotion remotely justified? What do the hard data say?

I dug into the research.

As it turns out, the answer academics have come up with is a go-to favorite among ivory-tower types. Do the debates make a difference? It depends.  

First of all, general election debates seem to matter less than everyone thinks. Surveying the literature, Professor John Sides at George Washington University concludes that presidential debates usually have little to no effect on general election outcomes. One study he cites, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, examined a big set of elections from 1952 to 2008. Their finding? “The best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”

So the general election debates hardly ever yield earth-shattering inflection points. But the data can still help us guess what might happen Monday night. In 2012, Nate Silver looked back at the historical record and found that the first debate usually helps the candidate whose party is out of power. Interestingly, he published his piece just a few days before Mitt Romney turned in an enormously successful performance in his first debate with President Obama. Romney’s big night won him a real bump in the polls (as per Silver’s analysis), but it soon faded away, and the underlying fundamentals of the race returned to the fore (as per Erikson’s and Wlezien’s hypothesis).

But this contrasts sharply with the research on primary debates, which seem to matter a lot. One 2013 study found that after primary debates, a whopping 35 percent of viewers said they changed their candidate preference. After the general election debates, only 3.5 percent of viewers said the same. People’s minds are seemingly only 1/10th as open during the general debates as during the primary debates. Why? I’ll make a few guesses.

For one thing, the primaries usually feature candidates with similar views. If voters can hardly distinguish between their options on policy substance, it makes sense that stylistic differences would exert a larger impact. What’s more, we hear a lot from primary voters that they are actually value debating skills pretty highly as an important trait that they’re looking for. (“I want someone who can really take the case to the other guy on national TV in October!”)

In sum, we are left with a bit of a paradox. While many primary voters seem to care a lot about rhetorical skills when they’re choosing who will represent their “team” in the general election, very few general election voters seem to be swayed permanently by those prime-time performances. As a result, debates matter a lot in the primaries but only a little in October.

Try dropping that factoid into the conversation at your debate watch party. It might be the most substantive talking point people hear all night.

Are Poor People More Optimistic Than Others About Their Futures?

Poor people are more likely than non-poor people to think that they will be able to pull themselves out of poverty. Forty-eight percent of the poor say most poor people will remain poor for a long time while 41 percent say poverty is a temporary condition. That compares to 60 percent of people who said that the poor will remain poor for some time.

Meanwhile, 61 percent of Americans, including 64 percent of Americans living in poverty, say that most poor people who receive welfare benefits would rather earn their own living instead of staying on welfare.

Those are some of the findings from a new Los Angeles Times poll, conducted in partnership with The American Enterprise Institute, a top Washington think tank. The poll provides other stark findings about how Americans think about people in poverty.

America’s political parties may want to take note of those findings, particularly because 37 percent of people living in poverty defined themselves as somewhat or very conservative while only 31 percent defined themselves as liberals. Another 24 percent declared themselves moderate.

Only 27 percent of Americans said they believe that conditions for poor people have improved in the last 10 or 15 years while 42 percent say it has gotten worse for poor Americans. Only 13 percent said they believe that the poverty rate has declined in 30 years.

In reality, 14.8 percent of people were living beneath the official poverty line in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 3 points below the rate that lived in poverty in 1965, the year that President Johnson’s War on Poverty programs began, and 3.3 percentage points higher than in 1985, when the AEI-LA Times study was first conducted.

The 2016 survey mimicked the 1985 survey and demonstrates how (little) opinion has changed over 30 years. The seemingly small differences over that time frame may be due to the fact that little has changed when it comes to public policy — or more exactly, how much change has kept things the same. The pivotal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is coming up on its 20th anniversary since enactment, shifted responsibility for welfare from the federal government to states, but poverty is more persistent than the “T” in TANF intended.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that only about half of the federal and state grant money for TANF actually went to “core welfare reform activities” in 2013, in part because “states can use TANF funds much more broadly than the core welfare reform areas of providing a safety net and connecting families to work; some states use a substantial share of funding for … other services and programs.”

So what else do people think of the poor, and how do the poor perceive themselves? Other poll findings that stand out:

Fifty-four percent of people as a whole, and 47 percent of people living in poverty, said they believe that the potential loss of welfare benefits “almost always” or “often” impacts the decision of unmarried people on whether to get married. This is an interesting finding given that much work has been done demonstrating that marriage helps families get out of poverty. It’s notable also that 47 percent of all the people who took the survey reported they are married, but only 23 percent of the people in poverty who answered the poll said they are married.

About 87 percent of Americans — including 81 percent of individuals living below the poverty line — believe that requiring poor people to seek work or participate in a training program in return for benefits is a better approach than providing benefits without asking for anything in return.

Fifty-four percent of people think welfare encourages dependency, down from 59 percent in 1985. On the flip side, more people feel negatively about the way things are going, 67 percent of people, and 66 percent of people who are poor, said they are dissatisfied with the country’s direction. That pairs with the increase in the number of people who say that it’s harder for poor people to find work, up to 57 percent today from 43 percent in 1985.

Seventy-six percent of people, including 71 percent of people in poverty and 80 percent of people not in poverty, said they thought that welfare programs are badly designed or under-funded, and that’s why they have failed to pull people out of poverty.

Thirty-five percent of people said government has the greatest responsibility for helping the poor — that’s twice as high a percentage over those who responded that either churches, charities, families, or the poor themselves have the greatest responsibility.

The entire poll, conducted between June 20 and July 7, 2016, can be viewed here. The survey was conducted among 1,202 adults, including 235 adults living in poverty. The survey oversampled individuals living below the poverty line to get reliable estimates of the views of poor Americans themselves.

3 Lessons on Work to Create Meaning in Your Life

Sure, pretty much everyone wants a career. It makes it a lot easier to plan your weekends that way. But having a career, or even a job, doesn’t mean that you are going to create meaning in your life. Indeed, if you hate what you do, your life is going to feel meaningless, and your likelihood of happiness takes a big tumble down the odds maker’s charts.

So how do you create meaning in your life? Ultimately, by having a vocation, a reason for doing what you do. Whether you’re a ditch digger or a high-powered executive, choosing work that feels fulfilling brings a much greater sense of happiness.

Three lessons on work can help you determine whether your day-to-day work is fulfilling to you, and hopefully help you decide whether you are living with meaning or need to pursue your happiness through work in another way.

Lesson #1: Focus on serving others

The greatest engine of misery in our society is a sense of social and economic superfluousness. Feeling like you’re needed is integral to feeling successful.  The sense of insecurity many in America feel today is contributing to the anger on display in U.S. politics.

Have a miserable colleague at work? Odds are the problem isn’t just skill mismatch or lack of drive. Most likely, they don’t feel really necessary. Don’t believe it? Reflect on your own experience. Remember that time you weren’t being used enough on the project at work? Didn’t feel good, did it?

We’re designed to serve others, we are wired to want to feel useful, and a sense of superfluousness is a social and psychological cancer.

At the same time, most public policy ideas aimed at helping the job market fail to unleash that sense of utility — and the commensurate human flourishing that goes with it — because the policies are created through a managerial mindset, treating lower income earners as data points to be managed and raised.

To promote human happiness, public policy and our politics must treat every human as a precious asset. Our organizing principle must be that everyone needs to be needed. And even if we don’t realize it, almost anyone with a job is needed and relied on. There are people counting on each of us. We should view every day as an opportunity to serve them.

Lesson #2: Ask why you do what you do

When people first meet, they often ask, “What do you do?” But rarely do you hear, “Why do you do it?” And that second question is important to consider.

Saint Thomas Aquinas asks in his Summa Theologica why people are happy or unhappy? He poses the question of whether happiness is found in such things as wealth, honor, fame, glory, power, the physical body, pleasure, the soul, or objects.

“Naught can lull man’s will save the universal good,” Aquinas contends.

What does that mean? The upshot is that miserable people chase money, power, pleasure, and fame. That’s no surprise, it’s a natural thing to do. It’s much easier to pass on your genetic material if you accumulate these things. But pushing you to pass on your genetic material is not coincident with you leading a happy life. The key to happiness isn’t being a ripe specimen in the eyes of Darwin. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy.

Understanding the real moral purpose that lies behind your choices and keeping it square in your sights is a much more viable route to happiness. The diagnostic tool is to ask yourself: Why am I doing this thing? We all want money. But is it primarily for money? Is it primarily for power? Is it primarily for fame? Or is it because I feel a sense of purpose?

Lesson #3: Don’t invest everything in work

The social science comes down pretty clear on this one. Four inputs of happiness are in our control: faith, family, community, and work. Many people might think they have all four covered. Indeed, they might. The key question is this: When was the last time you checked your life portfolio for balance among those four inputs? It’s easy to find ourselves drifting, especially at different phases of the life cycle. But this is a big trap. Just like it takes diversification to weather economic shifts, so too can big life events upend an unbalanced happiness portfolio. Investing all your time and thoughts into work is like going long on Greek bonds. No one wants to be that guy.

— modified from the work of Arthur C. Brooks

A New Social Science Scandal

Professors are mere human beings. Naturally, then, each has his or her guilty pleasure. In my case, it was candy corn and circus peanuts.

Other academics’ guilty pleasures seem to be less benign. For example, some scholars cannot resist the allure of research findings that can be weaponized into ad hominem political attacks — and then cash in on a little media buzz as a result. Every couple of months, it seems, we see headlines trumpeting the latest juicy, data-driven potshot aimed squarely at conservative Americans. “New study shows conservatives can’t count. And they hate puppies!”

This kind of motivated reasoning is hardly universal. I can report firsthand that most academics, whatever their personal predilections, are above this kind of bad behavior. But they still happen pretty regularly.

For a prime example, consider a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Political Science. It was entitled “Correlation Not Causation: The Relationship Between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies.” The paper’s main aim was to debunk the idea that a person’s personality type leads directly to their political ideology. But buried deep in the study’s empirical findings was a pretty provocative data point: Compared to liberals, the authors wrote, conservatives scored significantly higher on measures of science scandal

Sounds pretty bad for conservative citizens, right? You don’t need a PhD to understand this is basically saying “conservatives are dangerous.” To add insult to injury, the study also seemed to lavish praise on the personalities of conservatives’ political opponents. Left-leaning individuals reportedly scored higher on scales of “social desirability,” meaning they possessed a greater predisposition to try to please others.

But this time, it was actually conservatives who got the last laugh. It turns out the scholars made a pretty big mistake. At some point, someone misread the way the political ideology data were coded in the research. They mistook the data on liberals for the data on conservatives, and vice versa. What does this mean? These controversial results were actually the exact opposite of what the authors reported.

Conservatives are justifiably enraged. But so are some liberals. I originally heard about this egregious case of academic maleficence in a tweet from an accomplished left-leaning economist.

Of course, this story raises pressing questions about the impact that ideological prejudice may be having within academia. As a former professor, this is a topic I care deeply about, and I’ve written about it at some length in the New York Times.

But this little episode has me thinking about another bigger-picture issue. The cognitive problem of confirmation bias — people letting their mental guard down when a claim gels with their preconceived notions — does not impact only social science research. It plays out in our everyday lives, shaping everything from our political debates to our professional lives to our interpersonal relationships.

So I’m mulling a longer piece that would look at the broad impact of confirmation bias across American life. Keep your eyes out for my take as I dig into this more in upcoming weeks. In the meantime, feel free to drop this fun story at your next cocktail party. If you’re a conservative, maybe it will reassure your family and friends that you are not, in fact, crazy.

Get Out of Dodge? American Migration Slows, Homebodies Abound

Geographic mobility has always played a big part in the “American dream.” For my part, I have moved between states or countries 10 times. But you don’t have to share my apparent wanderlust to realize that picking up and moving can inflect a person’s life for the better. Especially in a hyper-competitive economy, we would intuitively expect people to be moving more and more to seize opportunities and find the best occupational fits.

I recently got curious about this topic and whether reality matched my expectations. I spent an afternoon digging into some migration data from the Census Bureau. And what I found surprised me: People today are actually moving less often than the historical norm.

Much less.

The data are astonishing. In the 1960s, roughly 20 percent of the US population moved in any given year. Since then, that fraction has been cut almost in half. Looking at the numbers another way: While the U.S. population has increased by more than 75 percent since 1960, the total number of people who move annually is roughly the same.

Curiously, those who would seem most compelled to move appear to be especially stuck. Look at Mississippi, which has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. One might expect to see outmigration to places such as North Dakota, where unemployment is about half as high. Yet Mississippians today are even less likely to move out of state than they were before the Great Recession.

Why the decline?

Reading through the possible explanations, one popular hypothesis was that our aging population explains a lot of this decline. Younger adults have always moved more relative to older people, and so a population in which they make up a declining share would be expected to be less mobile on average.

This is part of the story, but it doesn’t capture everything that’s going on. For example, it turns out mobility has dropped over time for all ages. In fact, since the onset of the Great Recession, the decline in mobility has actually been the most dramatic among millennials. Other factors must also be contributing. Chief suspects include a more broadly stagnant economy, a housing crisis that left many anchored to homes while they wait for values to rebound, and — especially interesting to me — a regrettable cultural shift that undersells the importance of entrepreneurial living.

Let’s talk solutions. First, we could reform our education system to better equip people with valuable skills that transcend particular organizations and localities. Reviving vocational and technical training programs via creative voucher schemes would be a good start.

Second, we can make moving easier. First and foremost, we should fine-tune welfare programs, many of which have policy quirks that can dissuade the vulnerable from relocating or from seeking employment at all. We could also experiment with small-scale programs in which the government offers relocation allowances or collects information about employment opportunities in other regions, and then rigorously assess their effectiveness.

But more than any policy tweak, we must set out to rebuild a culture that prizes dynamism and treating life as an entrepreneurial project. That starts with leaders who testify proudly to the true pillars of the American dream — courage, adventure, optimism, and a unique refusal to be tied down to our pasts.

When Alexis de Tocqueville came to our shores in the early 1800s, he didn’t find leaders who stoked — and sought to profit from — the masses’ fears of change. In fact, he found quite the opposite, noting that the American people embraced instability and churn as a source of wonder and self-improvement. Today, that sense of adventure is eroding and trepidation is taking its place.

Telling Americans they should be afraid or angry about our changing economy is exactly the wrong answer. The only acceptable response is to fight proudly and boldly for solutions. And I’m convinced that one of those solutions is to help people get out of Dodge.

This section is adapted from my latest New York Times piece.

Censorship at Facebook? Maybe Not. Intellectual Diversity? Maybe Not

We all saw the report: Anonymous sources claimed that Facebook employees have deliberately censored stories from the site’s “trending” topics that favored the conservative outlook.

Conservatives across the country were frustrated and angry, and the reason why ran deeper than simple indignation at unfair treatment. The frustration was more intense because media bias is a documented fact that politically and culturally conservative Americans have been grappling with for decades. The traditional press, across both print and broadcast media, famously tilts to the left. This holds both in explicit opinion commentary and in subtler, implicit ways, such as which stories are deemed worthy of straight news coverage and which are seen as red herrings to ignore.

But new media seemed to hold new promise for a level playing field. From the young days of the blogosphere in the early 2000s, conservative- and libertarian-leaning blogs gained huge followings, inflected major debates, and kept the “mainstream media” newly accountable.

As social media such as Facebook and Twitter gained prominence, Americans with views disdained by the traditional coastal media again found cause for optimism and new ways to organize and discuss the news of the day.

This is why the Facebook allegations felt so disappointing to so many. A digital platform that had seemed to determine popular stories by a neutral algorithm was instead running a subjective editorial desk and reportedly staffing it with young, left-leaning college grads who openly put their thumbs on the scale.

That’s why, this past Wednesday, I joined a group of other conservative leaders at Facebook headquarters to meet with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and others from management. I came in with an open mind, eager to help explain conservative frustrations and discuss future solutions. And the spirit of the meeting was cordial and productive. Personally, I am extremely skeptical (to put it mildly) that there is some top-down conspiracy to weaponize Facebook to intentionally censor conservative views, and I hope that this is the beginning of serious efforts to combat the risk of systemic bias.

Facebook has a tremendous opportunity to out-innovate old media models and win over customers who are hungry for ways to separate the signal from the noise. But questions of editorial oversight and — even more important — intellectual and ideological diversity within Silicon Valley remain important issues that deserve serious solutions.

Facebook and other young, innovative companies have a massive opening to change the status quo in news aggregation by disrupting old patterns and helping citizens bypass “gatekeepers.” They can greatly improve the marketplace of ideas. But to do this, it is vital that new media avoid making old mistakes.I hope that last week’s meetings were just the beginning of serious efforts to combat the risk of systemic bias. Silicon Valley talks a great deal about diversity. Rightly so. But that has to include intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity, or else a golden opportunity could easily be wasted.

Changing the Conversation on Criminal Justice

A Democratic administration, a major university’s criminal justice center, and a free-enterprise-focused think tank came together this week to discuss mass incarceration. This event might seem a little unusual since this kind of diverse collaboration is not exactly commonplace in Washington, DC.

But collaboration and open discussion are possible across the political spectrum, and it’s important to engage in good-faith dialogue and debate with colleagues of all views on crucial subjects.

White House policymakers, American Enterprise Institute scholars, and The Brennan Center’s experts hold a wide range of views on the substance of criminal justice reform during National Reentry Week. They share a passionate desire to build a system that more effectively serves both the human dignity and human potential of vulnerable people.

And let’s be honest — few subjects in American life are so clearly misaligned with these twin moral goals as the status quo in criminal justice.

Data show that only about one-third of incarcerated Americans get to participate in any educational, vocational, or pre-release programs while behind bars. One professor who studies our prison population estimates that roughly half of all people in prison are functionally illiterate. And partially as a result of these factors, about two-thirds of all parolees wind up back in prison within three years of their release.

To be sure, excessive spending and economic inefficiency are serious consequences of this inefficient system. But the heaviest costs that America bears for this human capital tragedy are not material. They are moral.

When we talk about a person who comes out of prison barely able to read and utterly unprepared for citizenship, we are talking about a person stripped of his basic dignity. When we see a person who is asked to re-enter productive society but has no plausible job prospects, we are looking at someone whose human potential has been badly stunted.

Through action and inaction alike, our society has effectively decided that there are millions of our brothers and sisters, the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated, whom we simply do not need. At worst, we view them as human liabilities we must coexist with and manage at minimal cost; at best, as people we can tolerate and try to help. But as dormant assets to be enlivened and empowered? Hardly ever.

If we committed ourselves and our society to the moral principle that we need to need everyone, how would criminal justice policy change? Fascinating work on this topic already speaks for itself, and in the year ahead, expect to see more research on inmate education and reentry.

For conservatives and Washington-based Republicans, the mass awakening to the cause of criminal justice reform is a prominent, recent example of ideological-category scrambling that would have been difficult to imagine a decade ago.

For progressives and the Democratic Party, another side of that coin is education reform.

“Predictably, [charter schools] are turning out to be neither a total panacea nor an awful failure. Their successes depend hugely on leadership. So some have done poorly and others have saved kids from failing in traditional schools.

As a general matter, though, charters are really promising. A nationwide study published last year by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that kids in urban charters gained 72 more days of learning per year in reading than in traditional schools, and 101 days in math. Here in Washington, D.C., we have an excellent schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, who has really gone to bat for charters.
And even though D.C. charters serve poorer kids and more minorities than traditional schools, they’re yielding faster improvement and better results.”
These findings and others paint a picture that is nuanced but still clear. As my AEI colleague Rick Hess explains after an exhaustive review of the research: “For poor parents trapped in dangerous and underperforming urban school systems, it is pretty clear that school choice works.”
So far, the political left has been sluggish to react to this emergent scholarly consensus. But politicians who choose the interests of organized labor over the common-sense recommendations of school choice advocates simply make the wrong choice. And while neither Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders have spoken up yet for the sorts of bold solutions that would really help vulnerable children build their human capital, an immense political opportunity remains within their reach.
Whoever ends up the Democratic nominee, they should deliberately try to re-create former President Clinton’s famous “Sister Souljah” moment by taking on a corner of their own constituency (here, the entrenched education interests that are happy to freeze the status quo in place). It would simultaneously make a bold moral statement and inject some appealing unpredictability into his or her political image.

The decreasingly United States?

There’s this old joke about two comedians who find themselves in a rowboat. One falls overboard. Not able to swim, he starts waving his arms and frantically screaming, “Hey! I’m dyin’ over here!” His friend calls back to him with some advice: “Go dirty!”

We might see this as a metaphor for this year’s presidential primary races. And if you think it’s bad now, just wait until the general election. The divided right is set for a crash course collision with the enraged left in a country that is more politically divided than it has been in decades.

What can we do?

It’s helpful to examine what is happening at a more granular level. Let me propose a quick analysis that looks at three different dimensions of polarization.

First, convincing research shows that polarization is happening on a citizen-by-citizen basis. For better or worse, the average American is becoming more and more internally consistent, more predictable in an ideological sense. A recent Pew study shows that the percentage of Americans who report holding “consistently conservative” or “consistently liberal” views has more than doubled since just the 1990s.

Polarization of politics rally

Comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hold a rally to mock the polarization of politics, Aug. 28, 2010.

Second, moving up a level of analysis. Both political parties are becoming purer ideological vessels rather than mixed coalitions. Rockefeller Republicans and Blue-Dog Democrats are almost extinct. We know this intuitively, but the data also support it: In 1994, 4 in 10 Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat. Almost a third of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. But today, those numbers have nosedived to just 8 percent and 6 percent respectively.

Finally, it’s not just that the intellectual gulf has widened, between both individuals and the parties. We also really don’t like the people on the opposite side of the gap. Polling shows that a little more than a third of Democrats have a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans; meanwhile more than 40 percent of Republicans hold that view of Democrats.

These phenomena cause problems more dire than just hurt feelings. For example, there is good reason to believe that hyperpolarization has led to a surge in political discrimination that spills over into areas outside politics.

Consider a recent study in the American Journal of Political Science. The researchers asked more than 1,000 adults to compare the resumes of two fictitious high school students and decide which should receive a scholarship. Here’s the twist: Some of the subjects were given resumes that were basically indistinguishable except for one key difference. One of the students headed up the Young Democrats, and the other led the Young Republicans.

What happened? Subjects who identified as Republican or Democrat gave the award to the high schooler who shared his or her own worldview almost 80 percent of the time.

Whether the discrimination was deliberate or unintentional, such dramatic political prejudice suggests real and damaging consequences for fairness and social cohesion. Obviously, we can actively choose our ideology, and so one’s political predilections do offer more substantive information about our character than, say, our appearance. But while dismissing somebody out of hand based on politics may seem less unjustifiable than doing so based on his or her race or religion, it is still not even close to a recipe for social harmony — nor for a policy climate that is conducive to the creativity that our present challenges require.

Who Pays for Polarization in Politics?

The downside to divisive politics goes beyond unpleasantness in our daily lives. The bigotry and contempt bred by excessive polarization make it much harder for America to aspire to the kinds of historic, path-breaking achievements that have defined our proud heritage. As a result, this social pathology imposes a direct and heavy cost on vulnerable people around the world who are not prepared to bear it.

Let me explain. The kinds of achievements in jeopardy aren’t just the ubiquitous DC examples of “pragmatic” policy compromises, such as infrastructure spending or entitlement reform. To be sure, both are important efforts, and they are made more difficult when reasonable disagreements morph into a culture of content. But I think we need to aim even higher.

If you read this newsletter, you’ve probably heard me explain how the spread of American-style free enterprise lifted two billion of our brothers and sisters out of poverty. (If you haven’t, I discussed the details in a recent TED talk.)

This humanitarian miracle is all the more remarkable because it unites seemingly disparate pillars from both sides of the political aisle. We normally associate special concern for the poor and vulnerable with the left, and free markets and global capitalism with the right. But what history teaches us is that only these supposedly “conservative” policies and institutions can fulfill these supposedly “liberal” moral goals. Each polarized camp holds one key to unlock the next antipoverty miracle. But we have to turn them together. We need fierce advocacy for free enterprise and deep moral concern for the vulnerable.

Sounds like a tall task? Well, it is. The stew of American polarization has been simmering for a long time. It’s going to take a minor cultural revolution to fix the damage that has been done. But we must, for our own sake — and the billions of souls whose chances at building financial security and earned success hang in the balance.

Here’s one way we all can beat back the forces of polarization: Challenge yourself to always remember the human faces who are victimized by every uncharitable political attack. As a convert to conservatism who was raised in Seattle, I have many liberal family and friends. Whenever I hear some ostensibly right-wing entertainers try to “fire up” the base by lambasting liberals as stupid and incompetent, I realize they’re attacking people I love. Instead of turning up the volume, I hit “mute.”

Never forget that each of us has agency. We can choose to fashion ourselves and our institutions into islands that rise above the sea of vitriol that has temporarily swamped our politics. The fact that reporters or commentators or some candidates have taken their eyes off the ball of building a better world through an earnest competition of ideas doesn’t mean we should do the same. Much the opposite.

It makes our shared mission all the more urgent.

Scalia on Principled Conservatism: Combining Creativity and Curiosity

 Justice Antonin Scalia embodied principled conservatism.

America lost a patriot and unswerving advocate for constitutional government.  There is no need for me to recap the basics of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s amazing career. Instead, I’d like to focus on a few specific facets of his character. [Read more…]

What Is the Fate of Traditional Religion in America?

What is the future of traditional religion in this country? This question is discussed constantly across America, from dinner tables to graduate seminars to think-tank conference centers.

You may remember a 2015 Pew reportthat was advertised as bad news for traditional Christianity. The report helped popularize a now-famous phrase: the “rise of the nones.” It showed a big increase in the number of Americans who identify with no religion at all. Since 2007 alone, the ranks of these “nones” grew from 16 percent of America to almost 23 percent today.

That makes “unaffiliated” the second largest of all religious groups — just behind Evangelical Protestants, just ahead of Catholics, and well ahead of mainline Protestants and all other faiths. A huge sea change, right?

Maybe not.

Late last year, the well-known religion scholar Rodney Stark released a new book titled The Triumph of Faith. As you can guess from the title, he doesn’t agree with the conclusion that many are drawing from the Pew paper. But he doesn’t directly dispute the “rise of the nones” thesis.

Instead, Stark combines that result with another, seemingly contrary trend. He notes that over the same years when the number of officially “unaffiliated” Americans swelled, church attendance did not significantly drop. Furthermore, the percentage of self-declared atheists did not seem to increase. What can explain this paradox?

Stark solves the puzzle by arguing that almost all of the new “nones” were Americans who already weren’t attending church much — they just held on to religious labels. As the broader culture around them secularized, the social pressures that once urged nominal believers to self-identify with faiths they didn’t practice were worn away. So, by Stark’s logic, the dramatic Pew report and the “rise of the nones” actually tells a duller story: people who really weren’t religious just stopped telling pollsters they were religious.

If Stark is right, the recent “rise of the nones” may not imply anywhere near the cataclysmic collapse in the American practice of Christianity as has often been claimed.


This is another area where real life proves more complicated than the conventional wisdom.

Through all my years in academia and more recently inside the Beltway, I’’ve often heard arguments thrown around that a tiny minority called the “extreme religious right” have taken over the conservative movement and made it more intensely faith-focused than the supposed “mainstream.” The political left, by contrast, was declared to be much more in line with most ordinary Americans’ worldview. True?

Here’s what the General Social Survey says about the churchgoing habits of liberal and conservative Americans (and the national average for good measure):

A chart of frequent church goers by political view.

The first fact that jumps out is that no group has upped their churchgoing relative to the 1970s. Put aside all the media chatter about the conservative movement becoming the exclusive domain of intense Christians. What we actually find is that 57 out of 100 conservatives were frequent church attendees four decades ago and 51 out of 100 are now.

The much more dramatic shift actually came from self-identified liberals. Their 12-point decline in regular religious attendance doubled the conservatives’ change. At least when we look at simple church attendance, it is the Left, not the Right, that has seen the dramatic shift in religiosity.

Another interesting note — Back in the early 1970s, conservatives were 12 percent likelier to attend services regularly than the general population average, which was in turn 10 points above the average for liberals. But now, each political wing is precisely the same distance (14 points) away from the national average.

The unusual secularity of the left is reinforced when we look to the next generation of liberals. The same GSS data showed that in 1974, when 93 percent of all Americans identified with some type of religion, so did 83 percent of young liberals (aged 18-29). But in the intervening decades, that gap has swelled to a 21-point chasm: More than three-fourths of Americans still identify with some faith, but the odds that a young liberal citizen will follow suit are now barely better than a coin flip.

Again, these are complicated issues that need more analysis than a simple chart. But I’ve always found that straightforward surveys can offer a lot more insight than many suspect.

The Real Victims of Victimhood

Many people believe that American culture is slowly transforming into a culture of universal victimhood — an ecosystem where the preferred path to get attention and settle grievances is to file constant, competing claims that you or your group has been victimized.

Think this is an extreme assertion? Maybe so, but remember a major story from the latter months of 2015. Student activists were upending campuses, outraged at perceived slights they called “microagressions.” They insisted their universities set up “safe spaces” to shield them from hurtful ideas. And the issue runs far deeper than overheated campus controversies. This is the topic of my most recent New York Times column.

The culture of victimization treats public discourse like an auction of escalating grievances, which strangles our politics. It makes resolving political and social disputes much more difficult. Why? Well, selfishness and entitlement are both antithetical to good citizenship — but those attitudes are exactly what victimhood culture tends to promote.

In the column I highlight one very telling study from a group of social psychologists at Stanford:

“In 2010, four social psychologists from Stanford University published an article titled “Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers randomly assigned 104 human subjects to two groups.

Members of one group were prompted to write a short essay about a time when they felt bored; the other to write about “a time when your life seemed unfair. Perhaps you felt wronged or slighted by someone.” After writing the essay, the participants were interviewed and asked if they wanted to help the scholars in a simple, easy task.

The results were stark. Those who wrote the essays about being wronged were 26 percent less likely to help the researchers, and were rated by the researchers as feeling 13 percent more entitled.”

Comically, the researchers even noted in the paper that the “victims” were more likely to leave trash behind. And steal the experimenter’s pen.

But it’s important to state our case against victimhood culture very clearly and carefully. To be sure, some people in our society have completely legitimate grievances. Victims of crime, deprivation, and discrimination deserve our compassion and justice.

So what is a reasonable, good-hearted person to do? How should we distinguish between the individuals we want to help and the broad attitude we must reject? In short, how do we advance real social justice without fueling victimhood culture?

Tough questions — but critically important ones. In the piece, I offer two guidelines to guide our thinking:

  • Look at free speech.

    First, look at the role of free speech in a particular debate. Victims and their advocates always rely on free speech and open dialogue to articulate unpopular truths. They demand oxygen and assert everyone’s right to speak. Victimhood culture, by contrast, generally seeks to restrict expression in order to protect the sensibilities of its advocates. Victimhood is alleged to confer the power to say who is and is not allowed to speak.

  • Look at leadership.Look at the leadership of a given protest movement. The fight for true victims is led by aspirational leaders who challenge us to cultivate higher values. They insist that everyone is capable of — and has a right to — earned success. They articulate visions of human dignity. But the organizations and people who ascend in a victimhood culture? Those are very different. Some set themselves up as saviors; others focus on a common enemy. In all cases, they treat people less as individuals and more as aggrieved masses.

Some fear that our detour into victimhood culture is permanent. I admit that it’s easy to feel pessimistic. But we are emphatically not helpless, and the situation is far from hopeless. If we work hard to separate the struggle of real victims from the wider, toxic ecosystem of victimhood, we can turn the tide. We can promote a society that is instead based on hope and aspiration.

But until we succeed, I suggest keeping an eye on your pen.

Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier

Twenty-four years ago this month, my wife and I married in Barcelona, Spain. Two weeks after our wedding, flush with international idealism, I had the bright idea of sharing a bit of American culture with my Spanish in-laws by cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner.

Grateful view from a mountaintop

Easier said than done. Turkeys are not common in Barcelona. The local butcher shop had to order the bird from a specialty farm in France, and it came only partially plucked. Our tiny oven was too small for the turkey. No one had ever heard of cranberries.

Over dinner, my new family had many queries. Some were practical, such as, “What does this beast eat to be so filled with bread?” But others were philosophical: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”

I stumbled over this last question. At the time, I believed one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seemed somehow dishonest or fake — a kind of bourgeois, saccharine insincerity that one should reject. It’s best to be emotionally authentic, right? Wrong. Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. That’s because, in a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily. This point will elicit a knowing, mirthless chuckle from readers whose Thanksgiving dinners are usually ruined by a drunk uncle who always needs to share his political views. Thanks for nothing.

Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.

Read More at The New York Times.


A Different Kind of Bubble in Higher Education and How to Pop It

It will surprise no one to hear that college professors tilt to the left. But the magnitude of the imbalance is shocking. According to a paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, there are about 14 liberal social psychologists for every conservative one. And any professor can tell you that it isn’t a stretch to say other disciplines, at least in the social sciences, have similar ratios.

Why such a large imbalance? Many factors contribute, but one important answer is active selection bias among professors. This is not a paranoid myth, but a reality: Scholars are less likely to support hiring conservative colleagues–just because of their political beliefs. According to one survey cited in the new paper, an astonishing 79 percent of social psychologists admitted they would be less likely to support hiring a conservative than a progressive academic with the same resume. As a result, there is simply a staggering lack of intellectual diversity among America’s university educators when it comes to political philosophy.

The resulting ideological monoculture is problematic not only in principle. As we have seen, it fosters an environment in which youthful protest–which always tests the boundaries of the prevailing culture–becomes downright bizarre because it transcends even the leftism of the faculty. More balance would mean less extremism all around.

More balance would also improve academic quality. Scholars tend to be less critical when reviewing work that confirms their biases and overly harsh when reading work that cuts against their thinking. One particularly interesting study from the World Bank, which looked at the intellectual biases of their own experts, illustrates this problem:

“In a recent exercise, the organization presented identical data sets to employees under two different pretexts. Some employees were told the data were measuring the effectiveness of a skin rash cream, while others were told the same data measured the effects of minimum wage laws on poverty. The politicized context of the second question led to more erroneous analyses, and the accuracy of left-leaning respondents plummeted when the data conflicted with their worldview.”

Boosting intellectual diversity wouldn’t fix every problem in the social sciences. But reducing confirmation bias and empowering minority thinkers to challenge the intellectual supermajority would go a long way. Competition breeds success in markets of all kinds. This axiom applies to the marketplace of ideas.

Getting more balance would improve more than just accuracy, however. As I write toward the end of the piece:

“Improving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character.”

Historically, many academics and intellectuals have been a force pushing American society toward diversity and justice. They pride themselves on these accomplishments, and they should. But the time has come for them to go one step further. It’s time for them to truly embrace their own values in their own profession. It’s time for real intellectual diversity.

Do You Believe?

Do you believe that America is a force for good in the world?

Before you say “yes,” please consider carefully that this is a serious commitment. It is to say that our ideas of democratic capitalism are good for us and are good for others, and thus as generous, decent people we are willing to share them. We do not deny America’s errors, but still see the motives of our nation as fundamentally just, and the net effects of our influence as making the world a better place.

I do believe these beliefs are fair and right, because I have seen the evidence all around the world.

Recently, I was visiting an Indian slum called Dharavi, in Mumbai—the area featured in the movie Slum Dog Millionaire. I walked for hours in the narrow alleyways among the pottery factories, tanneries, and plastic recycling businesses with a 34-year old man named Krishna Pujari. Krishna started out with nothing, in ways we can’t even imagine, and has pulled himself out of poverty with a small business.

Krishna is deeply proud of his success. I asked him his secret. His answer? “Entrepreneurship.” And what does that mean? Here’s his definition: “Build something, earn a living, serve others.” Build, earn, and serve.

Now where do you suppose these ideas came from? He’ll tell you himself: From America. He’s never even been here, but he knows: This is what Americans stand for. This is our ethos, spreading around the world, lifting up people like him, and countries like India.

Krishna is not alone, and is not even an isolated case. Since 1970, billions around the world have been lifted out of absolute poverty, and billions have seen democracy for the first time. Why? Two reasons.

First, they saw how we live. They saw an open society, the rule of law, property rights, and the rewards of entrepreneurship and work. They saw our freedom and our prosperity, and by copying the ideas, the inspiration and the drive that makes this country so great, they threw off the chains of poverty by the hundreds of millions.

Second, America has been a servant leader nation. We have a military, diplomatic, and cultural commitment to sharing our values and system around the world—usually peacefully, but when necessary, with force.

It was no government program or parastatal agency, but the American model of democratic capitalism and strength that gave opportunity to 2 billion of our brothers and sisters around the globe to pull themselves up—and these ideas can do the same for the next 2 billion.

But it can only happen if we retain our confidence in the greatness of our nation, believe in the fundamental goodness of our values, learn from our mistakes, and maintain a commitment to serve the rest of the world.

And we need something else as well: friends. We can’t honor our commitment to the world by ourselves. We need friends who share our values. We need outposts of democratic capitalism. We need people who believe in equality, freedom, and the fundamental potential of every human being.

Friends are hard to find in the world. Too many nations are silently glad we lead, and find it most convenient to free-ride on American strength, enjoying the benefits while publicly grousing about the morality of our cause and the principles behind our leadership. For others, American values are a threat—a threat to their power, which they maintain at the cost of the poor and oppressed.

So when we have a true friend—a collaborator nation in the optimistic, joyful experiment of building a better world for the people who need it the most—it is important to celebrate that friendship, and to show how much it means to us.

In a very real way, honoring our friend is our commitment to our own nation’s values. And that is a commitment that we can proudly share.

A winning strategy for 2016? Think positive

Most commentators don’t even seem troubled by the personal insults and relentless pessimism; they just view them as the natural state of politics. Negativity is the only way to win, right?

Wrong. There is a better way to compete, a path that is both morally superior and more politically effective in the long run. Instead of striving to be angrier or more outraged than their opponents, competitors should strive to be the happiest person on stage. Don’t believe me? Then consider two experts at winning: Andrew Luck and Ronald Reagan.

Luck is one of the most successful quarterbacks in the NFL. In his first three seasons, he led his Indianapolis Colts to two division titles and the second-biggest playoff comeback in league history. But the Colts star has become known for more than the cannon attached to his shoulder. He is famous for his “happy warrior” attitude.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Clark reported something curious: “Luck has become famous for congratulating – sincerely and enthusiastically – any player to hit him hard.”


To read the full piece, click here.

The “pursuit of happiness” explained in two minutes

The pursuit of happiness sounds complicated. But it’s really not.

You have, under your control, the portfolio to give you the most happiness possible.

Pay more attention to these four things. Forget everything else.


This short summary is only the beginning. Watch the full talk to learn more about the secret to happiness.

Abundance without attachment

One 2005 survey found that more than half of Americans were bothered by the commercialization of Christmas. And a 2013 follow-up confirmed that materialism is Americans’ least favorite part of the season.

Clearly, there’s a problem. Call it the Christmas Conundrum. We are supposed to revel in gift-giving and generosity, yet the season’s lavishness and commercialization leave many people cold.

Luckily, there’s a way out.

Read the featured essay by Arthur Brooks in the New York Times.

Learning your way to happiness

Does being educated make you happier? The short answer: It depends, but probably a little.

Being educated certainly leads to happiness when it stabilizes and improves your economic situation. For example, one study found that secondary school graduates tend to be happier than non-graduates, and studies among both Swedish and American populations have shown that people with a college degree tend to be happier than those without a high school degree.

In fact, the likelihood of American college graduates reporting that they are “very happy” has stayed the same since 1972, whereas non-graduates were less likely to be “very happy” in 2012 than when polled in 1972. This has created a gap in happiness, based on whether or not a person graduated college.

Further evidence that economic security is a relevant educational outcome comes from a study that suggests that the relationship between education and happiness depends in part on the wealth of your home country. In other words, if you live in a poor country, education is closely tied to happiness, but if you live in a rich country, education has only a weak effect on happiness. This weak effect is likely in the neighborhood of 1-3 percent, according to another study.

But does the quality of education, rather than the consequences of it, affect happiness? This is harder to answer. If “quality” is synonymous with “selectivity,” the answer appears to be no: the most selective colleges do not produce the happiest adults. Instead, it seems that forging relationships with professors and developing long-term projects — i.e., the depth of student engagement in their education — is more closely tied to future happiness. So, if quality is defined based on engagement or personal investment in your education, the answer may well be yes, a higher quality education does make you happier.

Before you run wild with the idea that graduating from college — much less from one that inspires and engages you — is a golden ticket to happiness, it is important to understand how hard it is to measure the effect of education on happiness. Happiness alone is hard to measure: is it short-term or long-term happiness, and how do you define it?

Then, there is the difficulty of measuring whether that happiness relates to the ability to read Shakespeare or understand the laws of physics. We may feel that someone who can appreciate the many layers of humor in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has some edge on the potential for happiness over someone who can’t, or that someone who understands the principles at work regarding how planes fly and ships float might feel more at ease in the world than someone who is baffled. But these are intangibles that are out of the grasp of social scientists.

It seems clear that, if you’re looking to be happier, getting at least a high school diploma is an important step, based on its economic benefit. But if the focus is exclusively on improving education for the sake of economic security, there is a real risk of limiting what education should and can be, because so much of the fundamental good of education can’t be measured by reading and math scores. Improving academic achievement and expanding the range of educational options can give students a chance to grow in ways that can’t be measured.

Why you should stop acting and start being

In a previous post, we discussed the strange sense of inertia that can keep us from making productive changes.

Authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein talk about a showdown between two halves of ourselves. The fastidious “Planner,” in their formulation, is the part of ourselves that buys running shoe s and ambitiously sets the alarm clock. Unfortunately, when daybreak comes, it’s the impulsive “Doer” who thinks Screw it! and slaps the snooze button.

We noted that external structures can make personal change easier or harder. Our friends, our schedules, and our habits can help box us into bad behaviors, and sometimes making a change requires tampering with a whole network of intertwined factors at once. And government and corporate authorities could our external environments, as Thaler and Sunstein suggest, to make productive choices easier for us to make.

Put aside whether their suggestion rings commonsensical or Orwellian in your ears. We aren’t solely products of our environment. When we really want to turn over a new leaf in some area of our lives, we have it within our control to make it happen.

Borrowing a lesson from moral philosophy

For a long time, the best ethical thinkers were consumed by asking whether specific behaviors and actions were right or wrong. They tried to craft careful rules for behavior and delved into complicated, legalistic descriptions of what actions could be justified. A good person was simply someone who did good actions, and vice versa. Behavior, not character, was primary.

But in the mid-twentieth century, a vocal group of philosophers realized this approach had gone off the rails. They preferred the way that ancient thinkers like Aristotle approached ethics, which saw character as primary and behavior as secondary. The morality of an action may vary with circumstance and available alternatives, after all—but the morality of a person can be built up over time. Prudence, justice, temperance, and courage: these are unobjectionably the traits that we aim for, and we tend to know such characteristics we see them.

This school of thought (called virtue ethics) tells us our main job is not to obsessively evaluate each action. Instead, we are called to imagine what kind of person we want society to be populated with, and what kind of person we ourselves want to be. What personal virtues do we aim to cultivate? Which vices should we erase?

We are told, in short, to stop asking “What should I do?” and start asking “Who should I be?”

How this helps you escape the inertia

What if each of us took up this what-to-who shift for ourselves? If we spend less time puzzling over what we should do and more time pondering who we should be, a lot of the bizarre behavioral inertia might vanish before our eyes.

It’s 6:00am. Your alarm is blaring. It’s cold and rainy outside, but dry and warm between your sheets. If you try to construct an cost-benefit analysis of the specific decision to head to the gym versus the specific decision to sleep in, you’re going to have a bad time.

What should I do? Who’s to say whether another hour of sleep is worth the marginal increase in your fitness? If you head out as planned, will you spend the workday delighting in your diligence or lamenting your sleep deprivation? It’s really tough to try and trade off the short- and long-term consequences. Besides, decision fatigue is totally a real thing. Trying to think through this fork in the road every single morning could take a serious toll on your sanity.

But what if you asked a different question? Instead of thinking What should I do?, you might ask Who should I be? This is a much more interesting question, and it points you towards a clearer decision.

“Do I want to be the kind of person who hits the snooze button, or the kind of person who grits my teeth and goes to the gym?”

This one’s practically a no-brainer. On a simple level, of course you want to look and feel like a person who goes to the gym regularly. That’s why you signed up in the first place. But more broadly, you also don’t want to be the kind of person who lets weather dislodge their priorities. Who doesn’t yield in the face of minor obstacles. Grit and resilience are virtues you want; indeterminacy and sloth are vices you don’t.

That settles it. Before you know it, you’re dressed and heading to the gym.

Shifting your thinking in this way can be a big help. Step back and view the full sweep of your biographical arc: You want to be the kind of person who brushes his or her teeth, who prays or meditates often, who calls their relatives on the phone, who is generous and patient and kind. Plenty of times, you won’t feel like acting that way in a given moment. But that’s okay. Because you’ve stopped asking “What do I feel like doing right now,” and started asking “Who do I aspire to be?”

Stop merely acting and start being

This shift in perspective can help us achieve daily goals. But more importantly, it helps us grow in virtue and intentionality.

Too often, we make ad-hoc decisions as circumstances present themselves. It’s easy to fall into the ethical equivalent of always grabbing the cookies because they look better than the vegetables, neglecting the long-term consequences for our moral health. But a relentless focus on the virtues we intend to acquire helps empower the prudent, long-term thinkers within us and quiets down those unproductive, impulsive voices.

Don’t let your character be the accidental byproduct of a thousand impulsive decisions. Carve out time to think deliberately about the character you hope to cultivate. Let those principles flow down into daily decisions. This practice will help you stick to that next nifty “life hack.” It might just make you happier and more moral to boot.

Making good choices can feel weirdly difficult

Remember that time you heard a great piece of advice? Maybe a favorite blog picked up on a fresh, new medical or psychological study. Perhaps it was words of ancient wisdom that caught your attention. Either way, you resolved right then and there to put the advice into practice. You resolved to reform your ways and turn over a new leaf.

Remember how you completely failed to keep that commitment?

Yeah, we’ve all been there. A friend e-mails a neat article on time management; researchers declare that sitting all day is worse for you than chain-smoking while pounding vodka-Red-Bulls; an inspiring NPR story extols the virtues of mindfulness meditation; a pastor delivers a killer sermon or homily; a new job or school year brings the opportunity to stay organized and on top of our game. Whatever prompts it, these crystal-clear moments of resolve —  this is a great change that I am totally going to implement, starting now — are not infrequent. Much rarer than the moments we make these game-changing resolutions are the occasions when we actually uphold them.

Our external lifestyles make change tough

Part of the reason for our lapses is understandable: the same patterns and structures and lifestyle features that got us into the ruts we sought to escape persist even after we make up our minds to be different. Whatever new versions of ourselves we’re envisioning on the other side of these personal inflection points, everything about our daily lives is still built up around not being that kind of person hitherto. Our thinking may suddenly change, in short, but that doesn’t mean anything else has.

Merely desiring to carve out time to meditate, for example, doesn’t erase the other habits that have kept you from meditation to date. That penchant for late-night TV, that tempestuous love affair with the “snooze” button, that reflexive refreshing of your Twitter timeline that seems to fill every spare moment — these patterns of action take more than a thirty-second epiphany to unravel.

Some psychologists and lifestyle gurus frequently advise us to make our changes as small and incremental as possible. But thanks to this phenomenon, I think their arguments are frequently overstated. Often, the changes we seek can’t be made by chipping away at one isolated behavior or habit. We have to tackle a whole network of related behaviors at once. If we really want to lift weights three times a week and make it a productive experience, that requires changing bedtimes and eating habits to match the new routine.

In some circumstances, making one tiny tweak at a time is overrated.

But sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies

It isn’t always external features of our lives that box us into suboptimal behavior. Sometimes the inertia doesn’t seem to come from outside us. Sometimes it comes from within.

Even when we have successfully set aside an hour, even when our running shoes fit and our favorite shorts are clean and dry, even when the weather is cooperating, there is this profoundly shortsighted part of ourselves that is totally invested in the present comforts of our couch. Sometimes our responsible, forward-looking self overrules this internal slacker; other times, the carefree impulse wins the day. In their provocative book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write of “fierce battles between the Planner and the Doer”:

Since people are at least partly aware of their weaknesses, they take steps to engage outside help.
We make lists to help us remember what to buy at the grocery store. We buy an alarm clock to help us get up in the morning. We ask friends to stop us from having dessert or to fortify our efforts to quit smoking. In these case, our Planners are taking steps to control the actions of our Doers, often by trying to change the incentives Doers face (Nudge, p. 44).

This is a fascinating way to frame the problem. Thaler and Sunstein, scholars who share a passion for behavioral economics and a burgeoning field called “choice architecture,” devote their book to exploring practical and external solutions. They call for more intentional design of the world around us, from supermarket shelves to government forms. They advocate for an approach they call “libertarian paternalism”: preserve individuals’ freedom to make bad or unhealthy choices, but design the environment wherever possible such that the virtuous road is the path of least resistance.

It’s not surprising that Sunstein, a famous friend of President Obama and a brilliant center-left commentator, would look to external techniques and policy solutions — things that big institutions, be they corporate or government, can do to make it easier for us to subjugate counterproductive short-term impulses to our long-term best interests. But we need not wait around for powerful people to take Sunstein’s advice. We have it within our own power to hold ourselves accountable.

How? What’s the secret? That question will have to wait for next week.

What we really measure when we measure happiness

What does it mean to lead a good life? This question is as old as human thought itself. There is little reason — to put it mildly — to expect that we’ll collectively settle on one final, definitive answer any time soon. But in addition to the age-old demand for literature and philosophy that tackle this question, there’s an increasing appetite for social science that aims to address it empirically.

This hunger for objective research on such an abstract topic is par for the course in our empirical age. Fads like Big Data and “explanatory journalism” testify to our impatience with imprecision of any kind. We wield facts and figures like flashlights, hoping they can dispel the shadows of subjectivity and clear away the mysteries that make us uneasy. Public intellectuals line up to insist that schools should emphasize STEM at the expense of those fluffy humanities. We crave “analytics” for even our innermost experiences; why wrestle with a complex question like “How are you doing?” when your pedometer, your sleep tracker, and your mood analysis website can answer on your behalf?

Human happiness is a major frontier for this craving to quantify ourselves and our world. Demand has exploded for scholarly research on what factors make for a satisfying life. Long ago, people put this question to their parents and their pastors; today, we run a regression.

Despite my skeptical tone, this trend has huge benefits. As AEI’s own Arthur Brooks frequently points out, new research and survey results often confirm ancient precepts and time-tested teachings. The latest data can help us discern which pillars of conventional wisdom are worthwhile and which miss the mark. And insofar as making people happy is a reasonable and mostly uncontroversial social goal, this wave of new research has a role to play in informing public policy. This is precisely the conversation to which this blog, and AEI’s new Program on Human Flourishing, contribute.

But we must bear in mind the old business axiom: You get what you measure. So what do we measure when we measure happiness? How do these studies and surveys and reports operationalize such an ancient and ephemeral concept?

Two of the most popular measurements are notable for how much they differ.

First, think about what happens in your mind when a colleague queries, “How’s it going?” You instinctively recognize they’re not asking a broad question about your life, but a short-term question about your mood. If you were to be honest — rather that reflexively firing back “Good, how are you?!” — you would take stock of your mood and report back. Well, this is basically the same approach that social scientists often take. To put it simply, the PANAS, or Positive and Negative Affect Scale, measures your happy feelings and your sad feelings along two distinct scales. You could be a hyper person who’s above average on both; you could be a more placid soul who is below average on both; or you could be an unusually cheerful or unusually bummed person if one metric dwarfs the other. This tool measures your emotional experience. It’s a sophisticated thermometer for your moods.

Now, instead of idle chat around the water cooler, imagine that you’re having a long talk with a close friend or relative. “Forget all the small stuff,” he or she says. “Zoom out for me. All things considered, how happy are you with your life?” This is a very different question. It will provoke very different thoughts and potentially elicit a very different answer. And this is another question that social scientists love to ask. When we encounter scholarly references to “subjective well-being” (SWB), a common stand-in for happiness, this is usually the sort of question that got the researchers their data.

One popular gauge for this more reflective measure of life satisfaction is the “Cantril ladder,” named for the leading researcher who invented it. Here’s how Gallup, which frequently measures well-being this way, frames the question:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top.

The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.

On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

This isn’t asking people to check their moods. It’s requesting that we step back, consult whatever personal, religious, or social standards we have in mind, and deliver a holistic verdict on how our life is going.

Often, these two measures of “happiness” — our simple emotional state and our broader reflection on life — will track together. If an unemployed father gets a new job, he is almost certain to trend upwards on both the PANAS (he has fewer miserable moments and more contended moments each day) and the Cantril ladder (he is, broadly speaking, more satisfied with life).

But the two do not always align. Some personal choices and policy decisions may represent a fork in the road, where our paths to simple contentment and to deeper meaning head off in very different directions. Which road should we take? Which measure of happiness ought we prioritize?

This crucial question is not so easily answered. It merits a great deal of reflection. But now, as you’re working out what you believe, you’ll consume happiness research much more critically. Because the next time a pretty chart or an eye-popping headline proclaims that something has been proven to make people happy, you’ll keep reading, and see whether they’re talking about a positive emotional balance or a holistic sense of satisfaction. Which variable they measure makes a tremendous difference.

How social science can make you a significantly happier commuter

It’s early Wednesday morning. You’ve already hit the snooze button as many times as you can afford, so you have no choice but to throw off the covers and get moving. You shower, you dress, you stumble down your front steps and begin the daily trek. And after a quick drive or a few minutes’ walk, still trying to shake off the drowsy fog, you roll up to your bus stop or train station and await your ride to work.

At this point, a spontaneous social connection is probably about the last thing you’re looking for. Sidling up to a stranger on public transportation and initiating conversation is kind of a bizarre move even at the best of times — and based on the way you feel and the way your fellow passengers on the platform look, it’s pretty safe to assume that neither you nor they would call 7:00am in the middle of a workweek “the best of times.”

Standard operating procedure is to literally keep our heads down. Maybe our eyes are glued to a smartphone we’re pointlessly refreshing; maybe they’re sleepily scanning that novel we keep meaning to read; maybe they’re shut tight for a few final minutes of fitful half-sleep. But there’s one thing it seems safe to predict that nobody’s eyes are doing: looking around for a stranger’s gaze to meet and hold.

But what if yours were? Imagine that some suspiciously chipper person, armed with a clipboard, pulled you aside on the train platform or at the bus stop just before you boarded. “We’re doing a research project,” she explained. “You can have this Starbucks gift card” — let’s be honest, you’re already sold — “if you promise to strike up a conversation with a stranger and then tell us how it goes.”  Say that you and your caffeine-craving brain leap at her offer.

How would your morning change?

This is exactly the stunt that two social scientists at the University of Chicago pulled with a bunch of commuters several years ago. So what did Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder find? Their study showed that people who spent their commute chatting with strangers emerged happier than the participants they told to simply “enjoy their solitude”:

Commuters asked to interact with other passengers reported having the most pleasant commute. Commuters asked to enjoy their solitude reported the least pleasant commute. The pleasure of conversation was not just restricted to friendly people; we found the same results among introverts and extroverts. All three groups rated their commutes as equally productive.

Do their results really surprise you? While it may seem like a whiny “first-world complaint,” commutes really can be a bleak and isolating part of our day. In a New York Times essay last spring, happiness researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton cited a 2004 study showing that “commuting is associated with fewer positive emotions than any other common daily activity.”

I can relate, and I bet you can too. My commute is not long or painful at all, but earlier this week, a happy coincidence meant I got to share it with a friend instead of making the trip alone. I could not believe how much more pleasant our simple back-and-forth made the routine experience. It made me realize how lame the experience ordinarily is.

But the happiness spike from socializing with strangers is not unique to commuting. Dunn’s and Norton’s essay highlighted a wealth of other research focused on this phenomenon. They even conducted their own version of the Chicago study, where they told some coffee shop customers to get in and out as quickly as possible and instructed others to initiate interaction:

We asked some customers to “have a genuine interaction with the cashier,” smiling and having a brief conversation. Others were told to be as efficient as possible: Get in, get out, go on with the day. Those who lingered left Starbucks feeling more cheerful. Efficiency, it seems, is overrated.

Men and women are social animals. A hunger for community and a thirst for interpersonal interaction is wired into our beings.

Given this, why don’t we reach out more? If breaking through our loner inertia and striking up a simple conversation would significantly improve our day, why does it seem like such an unfathomable task in the moment?

These questions deserve a closer look — and a future post. But for now, the next time you’re stuck on the subway and cursing your luck, try ungluing yourself from your iPhone and stepping into an interaction with the guy sitting next to you. You’ll probably be doing both of you a favor.

Unemployment benefits barely soften the blow of joblessness


Last spring, Washington was locked in partisan combat over unemployment insurance. You may remember this showdown as that time when Congress came to a screeching halt over intractable differences and both parties said the sky would fall if the other guys got their way. Since this sort of episode is such a rare occurrence for the hyper-productive compromise fiends who serve in our legislature, I’m sure you remember it clearly.

What was the germ of the dispute?

What we fight about when we fight about unemployment insurance

On one side, many commentators from the left to the center-right saw extending the emergency benefits as a no-brainer. The labor market was still enfeebled, they argued, so keeping the checks flowing was the only compassionate thing to do. Besides, they contended, the fact that few job openings were available would limit the economic inefficiency that comes with subsidizing joblessness. It makes a lot more sense to help an out-of-work person pay the bills if she has zero job openings at her fingertips than if she had dozens to choose from, and these voices insisted that our turbulent economic times look more like the former situation than the latter. And the cost of benefits was a small price to pay to keep unemployed Americans actively looking for work — one of the requirements for receiving the payments.

Some conservative skeptics weren’t buying it. They saw the emergency extension as a short-term stopgap whose time to expire had come. They argued that the insurance payments effectively reward joblessness, and that propping up unemployed people with taxpayer dollars reduces the urgency with which they’ll seek work, thus perpetuating the very economic sluggishness they are meant to ameliorate.

So far, this looks like a standard policy fight with a massive impact on people’s lives. Here in D.C., the debate was hyped as something close to a life-or-death matter for millions of Americans. But a little bit of extra research can add some valuable context.

The conventional debate neglects a key question

Cristobal Young, a Stanford sociologist, has studied the non-pecuniary effects — that is, effects that aren’t purely financial — that unemployment insurance has on the lives of recipients. Specifically, Young tracked the self-reported happiness (“subjective well-being”) of different groups of people caught up in different economic circumstances. What he found is seriously surprising.

In this graph, Young has calculated the happiness of impacts of losing your job and receiving no unemployment insurance (on the left) and losing your job but receiving the benefit (on the right):

Graph: Young (2012)

Graph: Young (2012)

The similarity is remarkable. To hear progressive commentators tell it, job loss in the absence of unemployment insurance is like stepping straight into Hell, and the benefits do a tremendous amount to lift up hard-luck Americans. But here, we see a different story: Unemployment benefits merely take a little bit of the edge off the happiness downdraft from being laid off. To be sure, the financial help cuts back on some stress at the margins. But just as clearly, involuntary idleness brings a massive psychological cost that mere money can hardly touch.

Young agrees with that analysis:

Job loss into unemployment…brings on deep distress that is greater in magnitude than the effect of changes in family structure, home-ownership or parental status. The distress of job loss is also hard to ameliorate: family income does not help, unemployment insurance appears to do little and even reemployment does not provide a full recovery.

One more fascinating brick for the tower of evidence that feeling productive and earning one’s own way are critical components of human happiness. Losing our shot at earned success deals a blow to our souls.

These results should challenge both the left and the right

Young’s findings have implications that should challenge liberals and conservatives alike. On one hand, his results suggest that laid-off Americans who are cashing unemployment checks are still miserable and would vastly prefer to be working. This cuts against the Republican narrative that these people are willful loafers who have it too easy.

But Young’s work should also trouble progressives who prioritize welfare programs above broader pro-growth policy. It could not be clearer that improving Americans’ lives ultimately comes down to fostering a functioning, growing economy, not tinkering with the levers of social policy. The old saw that “the best social program is a job” isn’t just a right-wing cliche. It’s a truth about human well-being — and one that our leaders would do well to remember.