Thomas Hobbes Would Be Spinning in his Grave

A few years ago I watched a bunch of Speed Racer cartoons with Phil in a movie theater in the early 90s. These were low-budget Japanese cartoons from the 60s that we loved as kids. From my adult perspective, the best parts were during the characters’ long drives, where you could see Japanese industrial scenes in the background.

Similarly, sometimes the most interesting aspect of a book or article is not its overt content but rather its unexamined assumptions.


I was reminded of this today when reading the Times this morning. In an interesting column reviewing recent research on happiness (marred only by his decision not to interview any psychology researchers; after all, they’re the academic experts on the topic), Adam Davidson writes:

So much debate about government policy is based on economic statistics that come out of the market. But the goal of government is not just to maximize revenue.

This perked me up. Not just to maximize revenue? This has to be a sign of the times, the idea that anyone would think that “maximizing revenue” is the main goal of government, to the extent that it would be considered necessary to say it’s not the only goal. My point here is not to make some sort of political statement—-it’s not about left or right, nor is it a criticism of Davidson. It’s more of a comment on the unexamined assumptions of our political discourse that someone would say this at all, especially in such a matter-of-fact tone, as if it’s some sort of standard belief that maximizing revenue is the goal of government. Weird stuff.

P.S. I’m also not so happy about this line:

There is no evidence, [economist Justin] Wolfers says, that an artist would be happier if she became a hedge-fund trader.

I think this is misleading because it implies an ability to switch between low and high-paying jobs. It’s not clear to me how relevant Justin’s comparison is, given that “becoming a hedge-fund trader” is not an option for most people. Lots of people can’t find jobs at all, and only a very small fraction of people can find jobs that are so well-paying. So Justin is, in effect, talking about a very rarefied group, for which the relation between income and happiness might be much different from that of the general population.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.