Oregon's Sad Focus on 'Happiness'


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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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.