Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Gibbs Free Happiness

Money can't buy happiness. Or can it?

Richard Easterlin found in 1974 (the so-called Easterlin Paradox) that once basic needs are met (around US$70,000 today in the developed world), happiness does not increase with income.

A new study by University of Michigan economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson demonstrates that this hypothesis is not supported by data. It seems we are unsatiably-greedy beings after all.

Perhaps these two can be reconciled (in what I will glibly call Gibbs Free Happiness) using a thermodynamic analog, namely Gibbs Free Energy:
G(p,T) = H − T S = U + WT S
  • U is the internal energy
  • W is work exerted on the environment
  • T is the temperature
  • S is the entropy
  • H is the enthalpy
If you did not study physics, look these up later. For now, I will supply my own definitions:

Total happiness is like enthalpy H, the total amount of happiness accumulated up to now. This is what I infer that the study measured. This is itself composed of:
  • Invested happiness is like internal energy. This is the non-liquid happiness for being in a non-shareable state that consumed finite resources or opportunites and is not easy to get in or out of: having gone to college, having a career in one's field of interest, owning a home, having children.
  • Altruism is like work W, easily spent in small amounts or given away (in the form of helping others out financially, doing favors for, etc.) and easily received, reversibly without friction loss.
Opportunity, i.e. the number of distinct dimensions with accessible ways of spending your happiness (more precisely, the logarithm of the total number of distinct combinations of ways of investing all your happiness) is the analog of entropy S. Opportunity, naturally, goes up with income.

Risk tolerance, the conversion factor from opportunity to happiness, is the analog of temperature T. Our sensitivity to risk in undertaking self-satisfaction depends on our environment. When in equilibrium with a world of abundant happiness, T is high and one opportunity is as good as another: small-risk/small-reward vs. big-risk/big-reward have the same long-term payoff, and we can afford to float risk, to be wrong in the short term. Conversely, in a world of few opportunities, low hanging fruit that are easily achieved are more valuable than reach for the sky ventures that have a low payoff, because with few chances to convert money to happiness, we just can't afford to be wrong.

So what? It turns out that in physics, lots of things tend to saturate through this very mechanism. Electrons left over after atoms take their fill conduct freely as electricity. So is it Gibbs Free Happiness that saturates around $70K?

My hypothesis is that it does, that this study is consistent with Easterlin's original observations, that the "free happiness" -- that excess happiness that can be freely given away without noticeable adverse impact to oneself in a zero-sum world -- wanders away so easily precisely because we have little capacity to make us of it ourselves.

In other words, if you can't use excess happiness, just gibbs it away! Others won't be sorry.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Will the real Maggie Thatcher please sit down!

It's official: the Iron Lady has joined Ronald Reagan, Jane Roe, and Jesus in the pantheon of human projector screens.

How are we to reconcile George Will's encomium of Baroness Thatcher as the one who with Reagan “helped bury socialism as a doctrine of governance” with Lawrence O'Donnell citing “her unyielding support for socialism” including her staunch support of socialized health care, regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming, and proud defense of Darwinism and the scientific method?

Does it even matter that the hagiographically enhanced Ronnie and Maggie, if running for office in the US today, would be laughed out of CPAC, kicked off Fox News, denounced by Sarah Palin, and heckled by Tea Partiers? For that matter, did it matter that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., so loved in death, might have been denounced as unpatriotic if he had lived long enough to dare oppose our post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as he once opposed the war in Vietnam?

Not in the least. The courts did us a great favor in giving Norma McCorvey a pseudonym, so that when she later found Jesus and went from out lesbian to anti-choice evangelical, she did not get to take Jane Roe with her. Jane Roe the defender of reproductive freedom belongs to me and every other pro-choice American, just as Thatcherism and Reaganomics have a right to a life independent of their eponymous hosts. Ms. McCorvey no more owns Jane Roe than Dame Maggie owned Thatcherism.

Calculus doesn't need pebbles, algebra doesn't need integers, and great -isms cannot become truly great while still shackled to their flawed -ists. When I hear the names Thatcher, Reagan, Darwin, and McCarthy, I am quite unbothered that the real Maggie Thatcher thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, that the Ronald Reagan who opposed discrimination against gays while governor could not later as President utter the word AIDS, that Darwin apparently had a soft spot for colonialism and eugenics, that Joseph McCarthy even in ignominy was supported and liked by the Kennedys and Catholics.

Through the miracle of historical revisionism, I get to reinvent these heroes and villains to support my cause as I see fit, and I don't intend to let the real-life versions get in my way.