Measuring National Happiness

What’s being called the “World Happiness Report” came out today.  Produced by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the report purports to evaluate the happiness level in individual countries by looking at things like income, healthy life expectancy, “social support,” freedom, trust, and generosity, with a focus on the general well-being of immigrants.

bigraykgtFor Americans, the report is a good news/bad news kind of thing.  The good news? America comes in at number 19, far ahead of the unhappiest country on earth, which is war-torn South Sudan.  The bad news?  America’s happiness rating is falling, and the number 19 position is our lowest rating yet.  Finland tops of the list and a number of other Nordic countries, like Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, all are found in the top ten.

How do you possibly determine the “happiness” of an entire country?  According to the article linked above, the Nordic countries do well because they offer “healthy amounts of both personal freedom and social security that outweigh residents having to pay ‘some of the highest taxes in the world.'”  An individual quoted in the article explained:  “‘Briefly put, (Nordic countries) are good at converting wealth into well-being,” and the findings show that “the conditions that we live under matter greatly to our quality of life, that happiness is not only a matter of choice.”

The U.S. apparently is suffering in the rankings because, even though many incomes in America have increased, there is a perception of declining general health, increasing addiction (to a host of things, including cellphones, video gaming, and eating unhealthy foods), “declining social trust,” and “declining confidence in government.”

Is America, as a whole, unhappier now that it has been in the past?  Trying to measure an abstract concept like happiness on a country-wide basis seems like an impossible task to me, because the subjective values of the people doing the evaluations can’t help but affect the evaluation.  But I do believe this:  many Americans seem to be tapping a reservoir of anger, and seem a lot less willing to give people with opposing viewpoints the benefit of the doubt.  The kind of brooding, harsh anger that we see so often these days is not exactly a recipe for happiness.

The Education of Barack Obama

Last week President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which he has done five times before.  He spoke of a “network of death” and the “cancer of violent extremism” in the Middle East and said that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force” while promising to lead a coalition to find a military solution to the challenge of ISIS.  The President also had sharp words for Russia, describing it as a “bully” and rejecting its “vision of the world in which might makes right.”

Observers have noted that the UN speech represents a dramatic change in the President’s tone and focus.  A National Journal article compares the six UN speeches and shows a President who has been transformed from a believer in “hope” and “change” and a world in which everyone shares a common interest in peace to a man who realizes that there are bad people in the world, that they want to do evil things, and that the only way they can be thwarted is by deeds, not words.  Optimism — about relations with Russia, about common values and shared dreams, about an inexorable arc of progress toward a rosy future — has been replaced by a recognition that the world right now may be teetering on the brink.

Only two years ago, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s realpolitick view of the world and America’s role — I thought an unseemly low point for the President in this regard came during a debate discussion about Russia in which he sarcastically stated that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back — but now the President has come around to largely adopt Romney’s position, and to use language that is reminiscent of President George W. Bush.  He probably won’t acknowledge that fact, but at least he now recognizes the threats we face and is resolved to do something about them.

Conservatives may criticize the President for being late to the game and for failing to more quickly recognize and respond to the threats posed by ISIS, Russia, and other bad actors on the world stage.  That’s fair, I suppose, but I think most of us learn from experience and modify our views of the world as we go through life.  President Obama also is learning the lessons taught by the School of Hard Knocks.  As we all know, such lessons can painful, but we can hope in this instance that they are lessons that are well-learned.

Detroit, Water, And Human Rights

As it struggles to right itself after years of collapse, Detroit continues to push the boundaries of municipal law and social order.  The latest chapter of this sad tale has to do with something that most Americans take for granted — water.

Detroit has residents who haven’t paid their water bills.  So do many other cities.  But as with so many things, Detroit’s water problem is outsized to the point of absurdity.  About 150,000 Detroit residents are behind on their water bills.  That’s a huge portion — more than 20 percent — of Detroit’s population, which is down to about 700,000 people.  The non-payment problem is so severe that Detroit has begun to shut off water to those who don’t pay their bills.  The shut-offs started, then the Mayor imposed a moratorium to give people a chance to enter into payment plans, and now the shut-offs are on again.

IMG_2970It’s hard to imagine what living in a city would be like if you didn’t have running water — but it’s not hard to forecast that it would quickly become disgusting and unhealthy.  Water is needed for hydration, cooking, clothes-washing, personal hygiene, and waste disposal; no water means clogged toilets, dirty people, and filthy, dangerous living conditions.  It’s why a United Nations group criticized the shutoff, opining that “[d]isconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”

It’s hard to feel sympathy for either party to this dispute.  It’s a sign of the ridiculous extent of Detroit’s mismanagement that more than 100,000 people were allowed to fall into arrears and that the city was reduced to taking the draconian step of shutting off water to thousands at one time.  Where were the administrators and bill collectors while the roster of deadbeats grew?  Some residents also say their bills are just wrong and that the water is too expensive, and given Detroit’s awful record I’m guessing the city wasn’t exactly providing the most efficient, cost-effective water service in the nation.

And yet, storing, treating, and delivering water costs money, and bankrupt Detroit doesn’t have any.  It’s easy for UN groups to pronounce that free water is a basic human right, but who is going to pay for what is necessary to deliver it?  Other Detroit residents?  The State of Michigan?  The federal government?  Or perhaps the UN would like to foot the bill?

I’m guessing that a good chunk of those 150,000 Detroit residents who owe on their water bills didn’t treat it like a basic necessity when bill-paying time came.  I’m guessing that many of them realized that the city wasn’t trying to collect on water bills, and therefore those bills weren’t prioritized and weren’t paid.  The money that was available got spent on other things, and the amounts owed accumulated to the point it became unmanageable — and when Detroit finally came knocking for payment, there wasn’t the money available, and the only option was to react with outrage.  If that is the true story for many of those 150,000 Detroit residents, who is at fault for their predicament?

We’re going to be learning lessons from the sad story of Detroit for many years to come.

Documenting The Axis Of Evil

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as parts of an axis of evil in the world. He was criticized by some for not engaging in constructive dialogue with those entities, but now a detailed United Nations report shows just how extraordinarily evil the North Korean regime really is.

The 400-page report was released by a specially appointed UN Commission. It compares the crimes being committed in North Korea to those that occurred in Nazi Germany, and for once the conclusion is apt rather than reckless hyperbole. Through interviews with refugees and victims, the report documents the starvation, torture, discrimination, and repression that are key elements of the North Korean regime. It describes how North Korea operates a system of unspeakably cruel labor camps and prisons, where inmates are starved, murdered, raped, and subjected to forced abortions; escapees described prisoners being forced to drown their own children and dig their own graves before being murdered by guards with hammers.

The atrocities in the labor camps have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, and hundreds of thousands more have died through starvation as a result of governmental policies that use the supply of food to keep the population under control. The report finds that North Korea also practices discrimination against women and others in a rigid, state-assigned class system, prevents the free exercise of thought, conscience, and religion, and operates a police state in which security forces use violence and cruel punishments to create a climate of fear.

The UN report reminds us of the Holocaust and calls for prompt international action to end the atrocities of an evil government, but that is not likely to happen. North Korea denies all of the allegations of the report. More importantly China, North Korea’s ally and protector, indicates that it will not support any intervention. As awful as the North Korean regime is, and as terrible as the suffering of its people may be, the international community has few options short of invasion — and there does not seem to be much appetite for such a step.

So, we are left with a report that probably will not change the reality in North Korea — but that report nevertheless serves a useful purpose. There truly is evil in the world, and it is important for us to be periodically reminded of that unfortunate fact.

Why Always Us?

Or, perhaps, the question should be:  why always U.S.?

President Obama apparently is weighing some kind of military strike against Syria in response to its government apparent use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.  As described in the New York Times, the use of military force would be limited, designed to cripple the Assad dictatorship’s ability to use chemical weapons but not effecting “regime change.”

It seems like an effort to thread the eye of a needle with an awfully blunt instrument — but the issue I’m raising is more fundamental.  I’m as appalled as any civilized person about the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, but . . . can’t someone else do something about it?  Syria isn’t our neighbor.  We don’t share any kind of common cultural or linguistic heritage with Syria.  Syria doesn’t have any great economic or geopolitical significance so far as I can determine.  As a result, when it comes to Syria, our interests appear to be no greater than those of those of any other country, and much less than some.

So, when the Syrian government commits an atrocity, why do heads swivel in our direction — as they always seem to do?  And, why are American Presidents eager to spend our treasure and risk the lives of our soldiers when that happens?  Is it because they like being viewed as world leaders?  Forgive me, but I would rather have a President whose focus is exclusively on our interests, assessed with a cold and calculating eye.  In this case, what exactly would a Syrian adventure of the kind described by the New York Times accomplish for the United States?  Even if successful, it would still leave the Assad government capable of slaughtering its people — only with conventional weapons, rather than chemical ones.  And, of course, any involvement risks the possibility that some wild-eyed fanatics in the Arab world will swear out a jihad against the Great Satan because it, again, has intervened in the world’s most volatile region.

There is no reason why the United States should be involved in punishing Syria for its gross moral transgressions.  The Arab League, or Turkey, or the United Nations, or some other country that shares a border or a language or some other cultural element with Syria should assume the lead.  Our resources are not infinite, and it’s time we stopped acting like they were.

The Horror Of Chemical Weapons

There is something particularly horrific about chemical weapons — which is why the reports of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens are especially appalling.

It seems odd to argue that one way of inflicting death is “better” or more civilized than another, and a massacre of unarmed people is a massacre whether it is accomplished by gunfire or some other means.  And yet . . . the use of chemical weapons seems to be uniquely wanton, indefensible and barbaric.  The indiscriminate way in which poison gas reaches its victims, and the ugly and painful circumstances of the resulting death, with victims convulsing and foaming at the mouth, all reflect a murderous mindset of a government that no longer feels bound by the conventions of modern society and will lash out and kill without cause or purpose.

Any government that would use chemical weapons on its own citizens, killing innocent women and children in the process, has lost any pretense of legitimacy.  I’ve written before of how the United Nations has become a hollow force in the modern world, incapable of preventing mass killings or effectively shielding those unfortunates who trust in its promises of protection.  The Syrian situation may be the acid test, however.  If the UN cannot lead effective international action against a criminal government that has used chemical weapons against its own people, why should it exist at all?

The Ethics Of Killer Robots

The United Nations Human Rights Council is considering the topic of killer robots — preprogrammed killing machines that operate autonomously on the battlefield.

Although no such devices have been deployed to date, they reportedly are in development.  The UN Council is expected to call for a moratorium on their development so that the ethics of their use can be debated.  (Good luck with that one!  If dictators or “rebels” fighting for control of a country could get their hands on such a weapon, does anyone think for a moment that a moratorium imposed by some powerless UN Council in Geneva would stop them?  But, I digress.)  The argument is that killer robots raise “serious moral questions about how we wage war” and blur the line in the “traditional approach” of a “warrior” and a “weapon.”

This kind of abstract, clinical analysis of where war-making technology has taken us makes me scratch my head.  Romantic notions of a “warrior” and a “weapon” locked in some kind of single-combat situation don’t seem to have a lot to do with modern warfare.  Technological advances not only have made fighting more lethal — David and his slingshot wouldn’t stand much of a chance against a guy with a flamethrower — but also have increasingly divorced the immediacy of death and its consequences from the decision-maker.  Whether it is missiles, or drones, or roadside bombs that kill indiscriminately, we’ve already moved far from the warrior/weapon model.

Killer robots are just the inevitable next step.  All we can hope for is that their developers and deployers have seen enough science fiction to worry about Skynet and giving birth to the Matrix, and know that they better be sure that the soulless robot killers they unleash aren’t capable of turning on their creators.