Sunday, February 01, 2009

Happiness, charity, religiosity, and liberals vs. conservatives

In a recent paper, Jamie Napier and John Jost argue that the reason conservatives are happier than liberals is that they are, for ideological reasons, not pained by observing high levels of income inequality. They draw this conclusion on the basis of responses to a survey item about attitudes about meritocracy that ranges from a scale of "hard work generally doesn't bring success--it's more a matter of luck" to "hard work pays," which Will Wilkinson shows cannot do the job of supporting their explanation:
I strongly agree that success, understood as a significant upward move on a valued status dimension, is largely a matter of luck. But I also strongly agree that hard work (in a society with decent institutions) usually brings a better life. It’s possible to work hard and achieve a better life without ever winning anything you’d count as success. So I haven’t a clue how I’d answer this question. Do I believe in meritocracy or not?
He observes that there's also a much better explanation for the answers to that question than assuming a blindness or lack of care about inequality:
If one wants to see a meritocratic bent as a common cause of conservative leanings and higher happiness, here’s a less tendentious explanation. (1) Those with a greater sense of the efficacy of their behavior — with a greater sense of being in control — will tend to (a) think hard work brings a better life, (b) be happier, (c) see policies that seem to penalize hard work as unjust. (2) People likely to see high taxes as an unjust penalty on hard work tend to identify as “conservative.”
And a further problem about attributing a blindness to inequality to conservatives is that conservatives give more to charity than liberals, as Wilkinson's commenter John Thacker points out (and I've previously observed at this blog). Thacker attributes the difference to religiosity; again, I've previously pointed out that he is apparently correct on this point (also see this post and the previous reference on conservatives vs. liberals), that the religious give far more to charity than the secular, even if you don't count donations to churches. (But apparently Christians are well-known in the service industry as lousy tippers.)

The same Napier and Jost paper is discussed at Marginal Revolution, where commenter DocMerlin points out that:

A rather simple answer follows with (A) and (B) being true statements that result in the same statistics without the rediculious "conservatives are happy with evil" result that the study got.
A) Women are much more likely to self report depression and unhappiness than men are.
B) Men are more conservative than women.

A) Divorced/unmarried women are on average more liberal than married women
B) Married people are happier.

A) Conservatives are more likely to attend church regularly
B) People who attend church regularly are found to be happier and healthier than those who don't (on average).

A) Liberals feel guilty for their own success.
B) Conservatives don't feel guilty for their own success.

Another possible explanation is that liberals and the secular value truth over happiness, but it seems to me that the Napier and Jost paper is an example of trying to explain away an unpalatable truth. It's better to dig deeper to understand the causes of these differences before offering public policy prescriptions (or even arguments for what is individually better to do). Wilkinson, who has done extensive review of the literature on happiness and proposed public policy prescriptions, seems to me to have the better psychological explanation for the happiness difference in terms of sense of control over outcomes. That explanation also comports well with a charitability difference--if you don't feel that your contribution could make much difference, you're probably less likely to make a contribution.


RBH said...

Looks to me like a rehashing of the locus of control stuff.

Ktisophilos said...

You want stinginess? How about the President with whom leftists and atheists had a "slobbering love affair", who gave only 1% of his ample income to charity for many years? For leftists, charity means spreading other people's wealth around.

Jim Lippard said...

Bernard Goldberg is a guy who strains at gnats and swallows camels.

I wouldn't say that atheists have had a "slobbering love affair" with Obama--he's far better than Bush on church/state issues and acknowledging that nonbelievers exist and deserve a say in government, but he's still expanding the Office of Faith-Based Programs. P.Z. Myers has given Obama sharp criticism as Pharyngula for his wishy-washiness on religion; I put up a fairly pessimistic list of "hopes and expectations" for the Obama administration on Facebook.

I previously compared Obama and Biden's charitable giving to McCain's at this blog. The Obamas were quite generous in 2007, giving more than 5% of their gross income to charity, but only gave 1% in 2000. The Bidens were the real offenders on charitable giving, giving away only 0.3% in their peak year--$995 from $319,853 of income, and a total of $3,690 over 10 years. That's pathetic.

Ktisophilos said...

A very fair previous comment about those other tax records.

I disagree about Goldberg. Even in Australia, we didn't miss Chris Matthews: "I Felt This Thrill Going Up My Leg" As Obama Spoke. That was hardly the only example of media figures in the tank for Obama, thus failing in their duties to provide proper questioning and criticism. Even Saturday Night Live parodied this obvious bias.

Jim Lippard said...

I didn't dispute that there's been a left-wing love-fest, only the atheist part.

My comment about Goldberg is based on my view of him as a whole, not based on this new book, which I haven't read. I saw him interviewed on the Daily Show, and have read parts of his previous book, _100 People Who Are Screwing Up America_. That's a book that has some very weak cases included and very significant cases excluded, and that was the primary reason I made my comment. That book was clearly written by somebody with significant ideological blindness, which is ironic considering he earlier wrote a book titled _Bias_.

Looks like he makes similar omissions in his new book.

Ktisophilos said...

Yet even the Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, herself an Obama voter, recognized An Obama Tilt in Campaign Coverage and Obama's [3-1] Edge in the Coverage Race, and that "some of the conservatives' complaints about a liberal tilt are valid" and steps need to be taken in Remedying the Bias Perception, e.g. with more intellectual diversity among journalists.

Jim Lippard said...

Interesting thing I just learned--the Knoxville, TN church shooter, Jim Adkisson, wanted to kill all of the people in Bernard Goldberg's _100 People Who Are Screwing Up America_, but decided instead to take out a few Unitarians.

Ktisophilos said...

The fault of course is Adkisson's, not Goldberg's. Note that Goldberg listed some conservatives like Judge Roy Moore.

Ktisophilos said...

This older column is quite good: Compassionate conservatism is old stuff by African-American author and economist Dr Thomas Sowell (1999).