Throwdown in Midtown

We won! From my vantage on the stage, I’d say the crowd swung from 30/70 against Tyler and me at the beginning to about 55/45 in our favor at the end. Sachs basically spent the entire time complaining that the United States does not have the politics of the readership The Nation, which I think must have struck a good deal of the audience — many of whom came to see him — as evasively off topic. I simply agreed that we have a bad president, are involved in a pointless war, and that we most certainly have not implemented Jeffrey Sachs’ policy preferences. And I repeatedly emphasized that the proposition was about how Americans are doing in the pursuit of happiness, about which there is a great deal of evidence, and was not a referendum on the Bush years. Stevenson I think was hampered by the fact that the happiness data simply doesn’t show that Americans are unhappy. She pushed hard on negative externalities from positional arms races, but I think that’s a bit hard for an audience to grasp when stated, but not really explained. Plus, its a theory-driven, not a data-driven argument, and plain evidence is simply more persuasive. And if you ever have to be in a debate, get Tyler as your partner. That helps a lot.

I have to say I was completely stunned by the scale of the event. I had no idea that the venue would be a grand old bank with a soaring domed ceiling, that there would be a red carpet and red velvet ropes, that there would be 400 people there with a giant screen and 30 foot red Economist banners behind us on the stage. It was probably the most exciting intellectual event I have taken part in, and I’ve never been so nervous. So I can’t tell you how much of a relief it was to have (I think) nailed my closing statement, or how much of a thrill it was to see all those red fans go up in the final vote.

Pre-debate highlight: Sachs said he read my happiness paper and that it was “excellent” and that he “learned a lot”.

Oh… and the debate continues in my mind. At one point in the main event Stevenson cut me off to express incredulity that welfare benefits didn’t improve the average happiness of the unemployed. I certainly wasn’t making it up. I don’t know what explains the finding, but there are a number of reasons why this isn’t at all implausible. First, as she was arguing, the effect of income on happiness is often weak. Second, surveys show that unemployment is very depressing. It often involves a painful loss of status. And social networks are often work-related, so the unemployed often lose friends and end up feeling isolated. Welfare transfers may do little to boost happiness under those sad conditions. Third, there is a stigma to “the dole,” so the effects of income from welfare transfers may be different from market income. Fourth, generous welfare benefits reduce the incentive to quickly reenter the labor market, which may extend the average depressing period of unemployment. Anyway, I felt like she was trying to have this worse than both ways: denying the normal economist’s assumption that income translates straightforwardly into utility when it is market income, but then acting like its simply crazy that income wouldn’t translate straightforwardly into utility when it’s a government transfer.

Here’s Tyler’s account, and accounts from a number of his commenters who attended.

W00t!

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