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Don't Worry, Says the American Enterprise Institute -- Be Happy!

07/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm not surprised that the new head of the American Enterprise Institute is an expert on happiness. They must need a dose.

It is the home, after all, of the discredited John Bolton, the discredited Paul Wolfowitz, the discredited Richard Perle, the fiction writer Lynne Cheney, the fiction perpetrator Dick Cheney, and lots of other people whose ideas have left us poorer and humbler, surveilled and bankrupt, unpopular and... unhappy.

Arthur Brooks writes about happiness a lot. It was in response to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that I wrote this letter to the editor, which, to their credit, they printed. Brooks maintained that billionaires were happy not because they were rich, but because they were able to create value, their motivating factor. In response, I said:

I couldn't agree more with Arthur Brooks ("What's Wrong With Billionaires?" March 19) that money, by itself, doesn't bring happiness. Indeed, it is success that brings happiness, and money is simply an indicator of success. We have been too hard on our misunderstood billionaires, who are actually driven by a burning desire to successfully create value, not to accumulate more money. His exhibit A: the fact that most of the billionaires on the Forbes magazine top 949 earned their own fortunes.

This is one of the primary reasons that I support a healthy estate tax. I do not want to begrudge any American the opportunity to create his or her own wealth. If that were to happen -- if most billionaires were to simply be handed their wealth -- they would not have the opportunity to create value and to, therefore, attain happiness.

And the added bonus of keeping a healthy estate tax is that we allow today's billionaires to do precisely what Mr. Brooks maintains they have the willingness to do -- give it away. In this case, they can fund the public systems, such as schools and police and public colleges, that will enable future generations of Americans to attain the kind of success that "spills opportunity and economic abundance onto all of us, directly or indirectly." And that, of course, makes them happy.

Brooks' writing seems -- how do I phrase this tactfully -- inane in the context of the pressing issues facing our nation. His analysis is so simplistic in the pursuit of the approval of support of his ideological agenda that it inspires no response but... huh? For example, one finding of his new book, Gross National Happiness, is that "Work, not leisure, makes us happy. Ninety percent of Americans like their jobs, and 70 percent of Americans say that they would continue to work in them even if they were financially independent." The only catch? People don't like their jobs when they sense that they can't move up. Precisely! So the next question would be.... how do we create jobs in our present economy that will enable people to take care of themselves and their families while also allowing for people to contribute as best as they can to their workplace, to their communities, to their society? Brooks is not interested in this. Instead, he is compelled to offer up little tidbits that he thinks challenge orthodoxy, and therefore will be of interest on the op-ed page, a motivation that I typically observe in the intellectually understimulated. For example, "Despite the stereotype of grim conservatives and happy-go-lucky liberals, the truth is that people on the political right are nearly twice as happy as those on the left." Let's see... what are the policy implications of such a statement? Juicy! Or, "Marriage makes people very happy, but children have the opposite effect: The happiness of couples, and the quality of their marriage, falls after the birth of the first child." Let's see. Could that have something to do with the economic realities that present themselves after childbirth, beginning with America being in the company of only Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland in a survey of 173 countries for offering no guaranteed paid leave to new mothers? No comment.

Or this: "The data say that the people in the approximately 40 million American households with guns are generally happier than those people in households that don't have guns." (Well, to be rigorous about it, 36% of gun owners were "very happy" compared to 30% of people without guns being "very happy," so nobody is exactly running through the streets in any case, but this is a small point to make in a substance that suffers from lack of analysis. For example, Brooks asks rhetorically, "Why are gun owners so happy? One plausible reason is a sense of self-reliance, in terms of self-defense or even in terms of the ability to hunt their own dinner." As one head of a think tank to another, let me welcome you to something called causation. If you want to make an assertion that gun owners are happier because they can defend themselves, ask if gun owners are happier BECAUSE they own a gun! But anyways.)

We couldn't agree more with Brooks when he says that "The big challenge for the new person coming in is figuring out why A.E.I. is so successful." Indeed... why? It can't really be their success in making America a stronger or safer country thanks to their access to the Bush administration.

But hey, if Brooks and his Fellows are happy working so hard, what else matters!