The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.
Figure 7.1 shows the U.S. score on the Cantril ladder over the last ten years. If we compare the two-year average for 2015/6 with the two-year average for 2006/7, we can see that the Cantril score declined by 0.51. While the US ranked third among the 23 OECD countries surveyed in 2007, it had fallen to 19th of the 34 OECD countries surveyed in 2016.
Figure 7.1. US Happiness Score, 2006-2016 well-being using six underlying variables: log income per capita (lgdp), healthy life expectancy (hle), social support (ssup), freedom to make life choices (freedom), generosity of donations (donation), and perceived corruption of govern- ment and business (corruption). Of these sources, two involve personal material conditions (lgdp, hle); one focuses on individual values (donation); and two involve social capital (ssup, corruption). The last, freedom, should be interpreted as a combination of individual factors (wealth, skills) and social factors (democracy, civil rights, and social rights).
As noted, the observed decline in the Cantril ladder between 2006/7 and 2015/6 is 0.51. In Table 7.1, we decompose this decline according to the six factors. While two of the explanatory variables moved in the direction of greater U.S. happiness (lgdp, hle), the four social vari- ables (ssup, freedom, donation, corruption) all deteriorated—US showed less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business. Applying the coef cients from the regression model in Table 2.1 in Chapter 2, the six factors account for a net decline of 0.27 (with an unexplained residual of another 0.24 points of decline).
America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.