Oregon's Sad Focus on 'Happiness'

john-kitzhaber.jpg

Oregon is a beautiful place, and, for many of the state's well-heeled residents, including many refugees from equally beautiful but overpriced California, economic growth not only is unimportant but is even a negative. Rather than create opportunity, the real issue, according to Gov. John Kitzhaber, is making sure the state ranks high on “the happiness index.” Forget sweating the hard stuff, and cozy up with a hot soy latte.

There's a problem with this. Oregon's unemployment rate remains above the national average and underemployment – the measure of people working part-time or well below their skill level – stands at nearly 17 percent, behind only Nevada and California. Since 2007, the state has lost over 3.4 percent of its jobs, a performance much worse than the national average and even California.

“You have to wonder about the rhetoric of happiness,” suggests economist Bill Watkins, who predicts the state won't be back to 2007 employment levels till next year. “You need jobs for people to be happy, you would think.”

This dearth of opportunity extends even into Portland, the state's dominant city. One recent study showed that earnings for educated male in the city are among the worst in the country. Portland, the land of Ph.D.'s driving cabs and working in coffee shops, notes geographer Jim Russell, “attracts talent for the sake of attracting talent” but does little with them once they arrive. No surprise then that the place has become widely described the “slacker capital of the world.”

Indeed, notes economist Bill Watkins, Oregon over the past five years has lagged in job growth behind not only the nation, but, in particular, its demographic twin, Washington state. Seattle has emerged as the most potent competitor to Silicon Valley, while Oregon's tech sector is largely propped up by Intel's plant in suburban Hillsboro, itself a byproduct of California's regulatory over-reach. There has been no widespread stirring of tech, or for that matter, any strong industry in Oregon.

“The good news is all Intel,” said Watkins, who has studied the state's economy for a decade. “The place is run by the complacent and the comfortable. It's a place of consumption, not production. It's a great place, though, to relax.”

'small is beautiful'

Oregon's parallel-universe approach to economics persisted even during the worst of the 2007-09 recession, with the state tightening its regulatory vise while raising income taxes to the highest levels outside California and Hawaii. It seems hard to imagine why a tech entrepreneur from California or Taiwan would choose a hyper-regulated, high-tax home in Oregon when they can establish themselves in Washington state, which has no income tax but many of the same physical amenities, and access to Seattle's world-class airport.

Perhaps I am missing the point. Growth these days is for Neanderthals and conservatives. In the past, social democrats like the great auto union leader Walter Reuther, after World War II favored economic growth as a way to create “a whole new middle class.” Many of today's progressives actually seem to want a quainter economy, dominated by homey small farms, trendy farm-to-table restaurants and artisan cheese stores.

Although this approach is now cloaked in progressivism, it also mirrors the biases of traditional Tories, who were fierce opponents to suburban development and utterly dedicated to the preservation of the countryside. Old conservatives in Britain generally favor strict controls on suburban and new town development, which, notes film-maker Martin Durkin, have made British housing prices among the highest and least-affordable in the world. Keep the peasants, that thinking may go, in the apartment blocks, so the gentry can better enjoy the pleasures of the countryside.

In his influential “Small is Beautiful” (1973), the British author E.F. Schumacher opposed economic growth and favored returning to “the good qualities of an earlier civilization.” This mantra has been increasingly adopted by what is considered the left side of the political spectrum, largely due to the rise of environmentalism. Indeed, there's a growing movement, and not just in the United States and Britain, to embrace what some call“eco-economics,” which essentially favors steady state, “sustainable” slow growth that focuses on the metric of “happiness.”

Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom of less than a million people and the site of a recent Kitzhaber pilgrimage, has emerged as the “happiness” poster child. And what a fine role model this country makes for Oregon and the rest of us. One Asian development expertrecently described the country as “still mired by extreme poverty, chronic unemployment and economic stupor that paints a glaring irony of the ‘happiness' the government wants to portray.”

In this other “happiest place on Earth” one in four people lives in poverty, nearly 40 percent of the population is illiterate, and the infant mortality rate is five times higher than in the United States. Bhutan also has a nasty civil-rights record from expelling members of its Nepalese minority from the country.

Bhutan, of course, is a pastoral country, but progressive urbanists also increasingly apply their “happiness” ideal to cities. Canadian academic Charles Montgomery, for example, celebrates what he sees as high levels of happiness in the city slums of developing countries. Montgomery points to impoverished Bogota, Colombia, for example, as “a happy city” that shows the way to urban development. If we can't do a Bhutanese village, we can all aspire to life in a favela.

These ideas have gained currency among some climate-change campaigners, such as the Guardian's George Monbiot, who acknowledges that his goal is nothing less than “a battle to redefine humanity” and replace the notion of growth with what is commonly referred to now as “degrowth” – a planned, ratcheting down of mass material prosperity.

Not yet widely accepted in America, at least outside Oregon, Northern California, New York City's upper West Side and, perhaps, Vermont, this approach is all the rage in slow-growing Europe. It already has its fans on college campuses and in the media.

‘Happiness' Game winners, losers

In every case of advocacy, however well-intentioned, there are clearly winners and losers. The “politics of happiness,” as one British author puts it, have proven a boon both for the public sector and those parts of the private sector that profit from work with government. Other beneficiaries include tech oligarchs, and other connected investors, who profit from renewables with the guarantee of public subsidies, and what can be called the Trustifarians, who promote anti-growth policies through their foundations and, as a bonus, get to feel very good about themselves.

Other winners include the media clerisy, notably in Hollywood, who propagandize against economic growth while living in unimaginable luxury, as well as academics, notably politically compliant scientists, who can win grants to promote this ideology.

So, who loses in the “politics of happiness”? Certainly, large parts of the working class – farm workers, lumberjacks, factory operatives, and their families – who don't have much of a role in an economy divided between service providers and the wealthy. Also left out of the equation are young families, who, perhaps forsaking the “slacker” life, now find their aspirations for a house and decent job blocked by the generally older, and better off, advocates for “happiness.”

Probably worst off are the poor, which in predominantly white (86 percent) Oregon are more likely not to be minorities. This is particularly true in the countryside, where economic conditions, according to one top state official, are “dire” and may be close to irreversibleUnemployment and underemployment in many rural Oregon counties reaches well into the double digits. People in the interior regions of the state, much like their counterparts in California, complain that Portland's green obsessions over such things as energy and land-use policies makes economic development all but impossible.

In the coming years, this conflict over economics, and the perceived politics of “happiness,” is likely to grow. Unable to prove that their policies have promoted growth, today's progressives have found a way to deal with the economy – ignore it.

This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

John Kitzhaber photo by S.MiRK



















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statewide or just Portland?

@pdxken

Um, haven't you ever heard about the LCDC, whose jurisdiction is statewide?

The problem you speak of is not simply limited to the Portland area. It is statewide in scope, and the PDX mentality is most definitely held in Salem, Eugene, and Corvallis. Let's not forget that the Willamette Valley accounts for well over half of Oregon's population.

My family lives in PDX, having relocated there years ago. I never joined them because I know I could never find work there. It seems to me that the current Oregon mentality is well over 40 years old and is intensifying with the kind of people that have moved (and continue to move) there. What that means is that Gov. Kitzhaber may be a laughing stock elsewhere, but his ideas are enthusiastically embraced by his constituents. If you don't believe me, wait until he wins in November--the eighth straight Dem gubernatorial win in Oregon.

I would suggest to anyone interested in tracing the roots of this thinking to read Ernest Callenbach's revealing book "Ecotopia", which explains it all.

Until then, let Oregonians be "happy" not to work and to smoke weed in the woods--as long as they don't ask the rest of us to bail them out.

Special Interests and Urban Policy

Portland seems to be a contested city on these diverging urban policies but I think its receiving too much attention for the little success, novelty, or lack of it that actually exists. Its UGB rose housing prices, in lieu of subsidized suburban development, but the city did not collapse people just gravitated where affordable housing existed and would of stayed if that supply was available. It's mass transit is good but its lower that Seattle's or Pittsburgh perhaps because there still exist typical suburbs around the city. Its cycling activity is novel in the U.S. but hardly that great only at 18%.

Let them pursue quality of life and better their chances of attracting companies interested in offering their employees urban amenities and accessing the underemployed there. It may not be a complete economic development plan but it may be better than that the fabled lure of low taxes, on those premises companies should just pursue low land costs and cheap labor elsewhere. Sure higher wages may mean more happiness but middle wages have been stagnant for a while might as well try to improve quality of life on the same cost of living than to hope we can constantly pursue a supply of high paying jobs in more globalized economy.

Let them pursue this so called de-growth. There already is a lower material consumption in cities and in higher incomes. In cities there is a higher consumption in services in cities and activities than material goods. Sure as incomes rise they may spend more on opulent material goods but mostly the quality increases (and the labor put into them also) not too mention the services and experiences they also purchase. Sure we circulate more currency by increasing consumption on material goods but it seems we also increase the cost of living.

odd comparison

I agreed with a vast majority of the article and the comments already posted by the time I read it lead me to believe that the facts portrayed are held similarly with residents. However, I would have liked to have seen a better international comparison. Denmark regularly tops the charts on Happiness and their demographic data I'm sure will compare better with the as stated 86% white Oregon.

Oregonian Happiness

Neither freedom nor happiness are free, Oregonians have to wake up and smell the hard-earned coffee.

I am a native of Oregon and

I am a native of Oregon and have lived in Portland for over ten years. This quote had me nodding my head:

“The place is run by the complacent and the comfortable. It's a place of consumption, not production. It's a great place, though, to relax.”

Part of Oregon's problem is that it is a place where those who have made themselves comfortable (or moved in with money from a more expensive market) want to sort of roll up the welcome mat and discourage growth or change - both physical growth and economic growth.

Despite its progressive reputation, Oregon is actually pretty conservative in the fact that it does not like change and does not like growth. Those in charge of the rather hefty public sector here in Portland do not seem to understand the importance of the private sector. It is a place where our much vaunted "planning" plans for where and how people will live, and how they will get around, with almost no thought to what they will be doing to feed themselves, or where exactly they will be taking the great transit to every day. There is often an explicit anti-business tone to local politics and discussion.

The Portland Metro area dominates the state's politics, with other similarly-inclined Willamette Valley cities in support. The rural areas are suffering mostly from the timber wars of the 80's in which environmental groups, national yes, but with plenty of support from groups in the valley, greatly reduced the timber harvest. These areas have never recovered.

Timber is the prime example of Portland-area urbanists not understanding Oregon history and what drove our state for 150 years, and was really the main reason for settlement and growth in the first place. They think that a bunch of creatives selling coffee and beer to each other is a satisfactory replacement for the economic impact of this huge natural resource, and they are wrong.

Don't blame rural Oregon's economic woes on Portland

I am a 10-year resident of Portland, and prior to moving here, lived in San Francisco, Madison, Chicago and New York City so I have a pretty good range of things to compare it to.

While there are some grains of truth in this article, there is a lot wrong with it as well. I don't have the energy to address it point by point but I can't let the glib accusation that rural Oregon's economic problems are caused by Portland's "obsessions" with energy and land-use policies.

First, of all, please explain to me how Portland has any say over land use in other areas of the state. As far as I can tell, we don't. The article you linked to about the dire economic conditions in rural OR attributed it primarily to young people leaving for better opportunities in Portland. If you think that businesses wouldn't want to locate in the Portland Metro area, then why on earth would they want to locate in rural Oregon? I'm not saying that to knock it, but unless you know the state, I don't think you can appreciate how unbelievably remote and empty much of it is. Harney County, for example, has a population of 7,212 people, and a land area of 10,133 square miles, for a population density of .7 people per square mile. By contrast, the entire state of Rhode Island has an area of just over 1000 square miles, and a population of a little over 1 million people. So, Harney County is literally 10 times the size of Rhode Island, and has about as many people as a neighborhood in Providence, if that.

Can you imagine there might be some challenges to promoting economic development in a place like that beyond the big bad liberals in Portland?

Much of rural Oregon has suffered due to declines in the timber industry, and some of that probably is a consequence of government policies, but that has much more to do with the federal government than the state government.

Instead of demonizing Portlanders, Mr. Kotkin, how about some constructive suggestions for how to help economically distressed rural Oregonians? If you think we should not have any limits on logging, fine, but then what will people do when all the trees are gone?

Portland's dominance of Oregon land use

PDXken: All land use in Oregon-all land use- is controlled by the state. The state government is controlled from the major population centers at the north end of the I-5 corridor, aka Portland. The progressive primitivists who control Portland see no reason why the icky ranchers, loggers, and mill workers should be allowed to blight the views the urban creatives get to see on their weekend getaways. Therefore, anybody who wants to build a house in Oregon needs to do so within the areas designated by said urban creatives. So that's your explanation of how Portland has a say over development in the rest of the state. Now here's a question for you: who says we shouldn't have any limits on logging? There was never a time when there were no limits on logging. The trees are not all gone. In fact, in Curry county, where I live, I look at pictures from the timber industry's heyday and see that we now have more trees than we did then, because you know what? Trees grow. That's right,trees are plants, which grow right out of the ground, and as long as you keep replanting after you cut them down, they will never be all gone.

This is absolutely unjust, you are right

There is a lesson for Oregon to learn, from the UK.

The UK similarly has all cities with mandated growth containment planning.

Growth containment advocates all over the world, with their cargo-cult stupidity, always point to London as the example of what a powerhouse a growth-contained, high density urban economy can be. But in fact the outcomes are economic and social stagnation for MOST cities; those that are not as lucky as London with its bureaucracies and global finance and media.

The other cities in Oregon really should rebel before it is too late. For a while the city of Bend was suing the State government over its State-mandated UGB but it seems to have died. I think it is important to get this established as a legal principle, that local economies should NOT be allowed to be killed off by mandates imposed from a higher level of government. If nothing else, it is anti-competitive; Portland and London might do OK and actually take growth away from the dying cities that do not have the same primary income sources.

companies and rural areas

I think his criticism that Portland's views impede opportunities in the rest of the state is valid if you consider that Portland's views also dominate Salem's policies.

It is certainly true that eastern Oregon resembles Nevada more than the popular bucolic image of Oregon, but so what? Plenty of foreign manufacturers have sited plants in rural southern states. I'll bet lots of those German or Japanese managers might have preferred to actually live in Oregon, but would Portland (via Salem) tolerate such a plant in Umatilla, Burns or Pendleton?

This story goes beyond Oregon. As a resident of northern California it seems to me that the white collar well paid urban professionals who control the Democratic party (the 2-4 pecenters as opposed to their 1% bosses) are waging economic war on their working classes, especially those in their hinterlands. So, they wind up going to Texas or unhappily live in their declining communities.

basically immature

Hi, this is so sad. A very beautiful place in the USA. People who care this much about the environment, who curb construction, etc., should recognize that having dependent people in society is going to cost and exhaust.

This is exactly what happened to the Spanish and Portuguese when their leaders to them to relax and enjoy life in the 70s and 80s. Now they have serious unemployment and not enough people married and had kids to keep up with population growth to pay for their seniors.

:(

Happiness is a good thing--if it addresses real issues

This is an area of research in which I am quite interested. Indeed, the idea of Gross Domestic Happiness did come from Bhutan which is interesting in itself as it reflects Bhutan's Buddhist heritage more than it does other "measures" of happiness in Bhutan itself. Among the domains of happiness as used by the Happiness Initiative these days are positive affect, mental health, health, time balance, community vitality, social support, access to education, arts and culture, environment, governance, material well-being and work. I welcome the fact that Oregon and others are interested in looking at these happiness factors, but I also agree that part of the solution in boosting happiness most involves increasing the wealth of people within those communities and their ability to control the applications of that wealth. True, wealth isn't all there is to happiness, but it is a significant part. For that, the USA as well as many other societies, have a way to go. Draconian state restrictions do not work well over time as they end up empowering those in power more than the citizens at large. State bureaucrats are seldom wiser in making decisions than are Washington bureaucrats, indeed, sometimes they are worse! Part of any effort at promoting happiness, including material well-being, needs to involve decentralizing decision-making so that people in communities and neighborhoods have a say over how their communities grow. I have thought for some time, that if labor unions ever wanted to become relevant again then advocate for worker-owned firms, community based cooperative enterprises working with other local small businesses to grow local economies in an economically healthy and an environmentally sustainable way that can effectively compete in a global marketplace and which uses local development corporations (develop sources of capital for investment) to expand growth and stabilize communities. In short, grow your economy from the bottom up, not just the top down thinking that the latest tax dollar-grabbing multinational really has your local happiness in mind. Sure, large corporations are welcome to play, but local say needs to be in the mix. If such a strategy were part of an overall package in which each citizen could "own" a capital account, perhaps tied in some manner to social security with reasonable protections, then you democratize wealth giving real economic power to the broad base of people within communities. Now that should go a long way to making many folks very happy.