The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being

By Derek Bok | Go to book overview

5
WHAT TO DO ABOUT INEQUALITY

To liberals, inequality of income has long cast a dark shadow over America—” a stark challenge to American national life,” in the words of James K. Galbraith.1 These words seem truer than ever today. Income differences in the United States are unusually large and have widened steadily in the past few decades. From 1973 to 2000, the most affluent 20 percent of Americans increased their income by 61.6 percent, six times faster than the poorest 20 percent (10.3 percent). By the end of the century, the richest 1 percent claimed a share of the national income not equaled since the 1920s.


Redistributing Income

The recent growth of inequality has provoked renewed interest in redistributing income by one means or another. Since the poorest people are the least happy and since added income is thought to yield diminishing increments of happiness the further one moves up the economic ladder, it is natural to suppose that if the govern- ment could somehow take money from the rich and give it to the poor, the net effect would be to increase well-being.

Available statistics on happiness lend some support to the liberal position. Granted, the General Social Survey reveals that an im- pressive 80 percent of Americans in the bottom quarter of the in- come scale were either “very happy” or “pretty happy” with their lives over the period from 1975 to 1992.2 Still, almost 20 percent of this group were “not too happy,” compared with only 6 percent of those in the most affluent quartile. Conversely, while almost 41

-79-

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The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1: What Investigators Have Discovered 9
  • 2: The Reliability of Research on Happiness 32
  • 3: Should Policy-Makers Use Happiness Research? 45
  • 4: The Question of Growth 63
  • 5: What to Do about Inequality 79
  • 6: The Threat of Financial Hardship 99
  • 7: Relieving Suffering 124
  • 8: Marriages and Families 139
  • 9: Education 156
  • 10: The Quality of Government 179
  • 11: The Significance of Happiness Research 204
  • Notes 213
  • Index 247
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