Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Economics of Happiness Review (seminar assignment)

The Economics of Happiness is a documentary film by Helena-Norberg Hodge, Steven Gorelick, and John Page that critiques globalization and the continued development of a global culture.  The film makes the case that globalization has led to an expansion of power and influence of big business and has, ultimately, decreased world welfare. It then goes on to propose that the solution to the challenges associated with globalization can be solved with a return to more localized economies, regulation of large corporations, and strategic policy changes that allow local businesses to prosper.

The film starts with Helena-Norberg Hodge in Ladakh, or "little Tibet,"a small region in northern India where she has been conducting research for decades. Hodge asserts that prior to introduction to western culture in the 1970's, Ladakh was a near-ideal society. Apparently, Ladakh had a fully localized economy where there was no unemployment, everyone was healthy, provided for, and undeniably happy. However, upon the imposition of western culture in the region, Hodge began to notice trends that led to an extreme loss of well-being. The Ladakh case therefore leads into the dramatic criticism of globalization and the description of eight over-simplified "inconvenient truths:"

1.  makes us unhappy
2.  breeds insecurity
3.  wastes natural resources
4.  accelerates climate change
5.  destroys livelihoods
6.  increases conflicts
7.  is built on handouts to big business
8.  in built on false accounting

To legitimize the anti-globalization argument, the filmmakers interview a variety of talking heads from around the globe who see the negative impacts of globalization everyday. This is really where my first problem with the film is established. Upon researching the backgrounds of the filmmakers and interviewees, it came to my attention that none of them have a serious academic background in economics.  Given the fact that the film is called The Economics of Happiness one would think that they might actually interview a legitimate economist. Indeed, even Hodge, who is presented as an "economic analyst" in the beginning of the film, has her academic background in linguistics.  Moreover, many of the films anecdotal arguments would more appropriately be characterized as anthropological/sociological. The filmmakers rarely touch on any actual economics, and even when they do it is over-simplified and used only when convenient.

The next major problem I had with the film is how they present globalization as being defended by inaccurate measures of prosperity, and they even go so far as to attack GDP as a backwards method for measuring well-being that only takes into account monetary welfare. Their proposed solution is a more comprehensive index for well-being that factors in physical, mental, and emotional well-being in addition to monetary wealth.  Other than that description of the basic components, however, they give no indication of how such an index could accurately be calculated on a macro-scale. In fact, there is a regrettable lack of real numbers and data throughout the entire film, and most of the arguments are conclusory and provide the viewer with little or no evidence with which to form their own opinions.

In conclusion, I feel that The Economics of Happiness will leave many people yearning for more information about the real facts of the situation.  I strongly believe that this film touches on some extremely pertinent issues for out time, but it is presented in such a one-sided fashion that it leaves far too much room for cynics (such as myself) to find illegitimacy in their arguments.  By playing to the ignorance of many concerning economic issues (ignorance not to be confused with stupidity here) the film leaves the reasonable viewer with a taste that is a little more political and a little less altruistic.

Please comment about your thoughts on the film in order to receive your seminar credit...


  1. I would say that this is a great assessment of how this "documentary" played out. Globalization does have a significant impact on the lives of people, but I would not just throw out everything that real economists say or research. Also, the fact that there were no real economists in the film and on the discussion panel (after the showing of the movie) really bothered me. If you are going to make a major claim like throwing out GDP as a major economic indicator you need someone there with background in the issue to support your claim.

    The only thing I would disagree with this assessment would be that I highly doubt many of the viewers went and researched the issues presented in this film. Most of the audience who were watching the film were either shaking their heads or showing some sort of sign of agreement in what the film was saying even though there were no tangible pieces of evidence to support it.

    Although I sat through the film and part of the discussion panel, I would not recommend this film to anyone. The narrator makes some good assumptions and talking points, but much of the film is either incorrect, biased, or just impractical from an economics standpoint.

  2. I would also have to agree that this was indeed a great representation of how the documentary was perceived by the majority of the audience. Being an economics major, I felt like I had a much less biased opinion than most people who attended the film. I was also irritated that there weren't more actual economists interviewed. It would have been nice to see an more realistic and balanced point of view and analysis.

    By realistic, I primarily mean that the film primarily played globalization out to be a very negative thing. They never bothered to dive into the benefits of globalization and all the daily courtesies we are provided as a result of globalization. The film made some points about shifting into smaller, more localized economies. But the notion of abandoning globalization as a whole is just way, way to extreme in my opinion.

    Overall, I wouldn't have recommended this film to many people. It presented a very one sided argument towards the effects of globalization. I would have been very interested in seeing the majority of the crowd react to more knowledgeable economists presenting a alternative view to the film (especially with solid factual evidence to support them).

  3. I think the film points out many interesting facts about global economy, and the system in which it works. It also has some valid points about how this whole system affects us negatively in various ways. But I feel it is "too environmentalist" and because of that tends to generalize some of the negative effects of globalization and neglects many of its benefits, just to support its position (which is valid). However, it is worth watching it as it will open your mind to some of the effects of globalization and the whole economic system.

    You got it right by noting the lack of economists in the analysis. It presented, as you say, a very one sided view of the problem.

    There is much more to the economics of happiness than what is showed here, and it is also more exciting and realistic.