Economist argues for happiness over GDP

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Photo by Victor Kang.

World-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs thinks that happiness, rather than GDP growth, should be a top priority for the United States.

During a Tuesday Master’s Tea in Berkeley College, Sachs argued that the sole aim of public policy should not be GDP growth, though this is a topic on everyone’s minds — instead, he said, public policy should focus on increasing happiness, a topic particularly relevant to modern America. While the U.S. has the largest economy in the world, the World Happiness Report, a study coedited by Sachs, found that America placed only 17th in overall happiness. As an expert on economic development, Sachs said, it seems to him like Americans do not take care of themselves very well.

“I’m worried about a political system that’s broken deeply, but I’m also worried about the human system. Americans don’t feel so great, and it’s not just because we don’t feel so great about the government. Even if your personal circumstances are okay, you don’t feel good or secure,” Sachs said.

As a modern economist, Sachs said he is not after economic growth and trade. Instead, he is seeking “the good life” as described by philosophers like Aristotle and Buddha. For Sachs, living a good life does not mean living in a society where freedom is given to maximize personal utility, as a libertarian might argue — rather, he said, it means finding a golden mean, living by virtue and being able to flourish.

“We are chasing wrong things and living in a framework that says the ultimate good is the liberty to pursue one’s tastes. Aristotle would have been shocked by that,” he said.

Aristotle’s argument of “the good life” used to be commonly accepted by most scholars, Sachs said, but at a certain point individuals became focused on greed and self-interest, and thinkers like Ayn Rand have put so much emphasis on personal freedom that they have ended up sacrificing personal happiness.

Sachs warned against focusing excessively on personal happiness, as he believes that it has led to the rise of “sociopaths on Wall Street” who “nearly broke the world economy.”

Furthermore, Sachs said, America has an entire industry — the advertising industry — designed to make consumers out of citizens, and though it might promote economic growth, it does nothing to promote personal happiness.

Sachs urged audience members to focus on bigger issues, beyond the simple freedom of making and spending money. Citing issues such as climate change, Sachs said he believes there are more important problems in the world that need to be addressed.

According to Sachs, America needs to get back to some kind of ethics in which wrecking the environment for consumer goods is not acceptable.

But he also underscored the importance of not entirely neglecting personal freedoms.

“I’m a moderate, like Aristotle — some state, some individual,” Sachs explained. “Keep to the middle.”

Approximately 20 people attended the event. Several undergraduates described the talk as “fantastic,” fresh and engaging, especially since it fell slightly outside of a traditional view on economics.

Sachs is the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

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